Man with cerebral palsy helps teach special-ed course
The Denver Post
Vail, CO Colorado
COLORADO SPRINGS – Wilson Buswell has cerebral palsy, can’t talk and answers only yes-or-no questions: a blink for yes, a stare for no.
But Buswell has become a powerful communicator to a handful of students studying to become effective special-education teachers.
Buswell, 30, is co-instructing a course at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs on how to teach students who have significant support needs. His presence in the classroom every week provides a valuable real-life lesson in how people with disabilities can be included – and even teach a thing or two.
“Just because someone can’t speak doesn’t mean they can’t learn,” said Mallory Barber, a first-grade teacher at Explorer Elementary School in Colorado Springs who is working toward her master’s degree in education.
Though federal law requires students with disabilities be placed in the least restrictive classroom environment, a movement has been growing to fully include students.
That is the mission of Buswell’s co-instructor, associate professor Christi Kasa- Hendrickson, who believes inclusive education is a social-justice issue.
“There is such value in diversity and such value for people with disabilities in class,” said Kasa-Hendrickson, who travels the country helping schools develop systems to fully include children with disabilities alongside their nondisabled peers.
It was natural, then, for Kasa-Hendrickson’s college course to be a model for inclusion.
“I’d always thought that if I am going to teach a class about a group of people that I should have a member of that group teaching it with me,” she said. “It’s really about having representation of a minority group that doesn’t get heard or seen very much.”
Buswell, a high school graduate with 26 college credits, doesn’t lecture. He presents PowerPoint lessons that detail his life experiences and asks students in the class to mull how they would include him.
“I’m in charge of teaching all of the strategies and research part,” Kasa-Hendrickson said. “Wilson does a lot of the personal perspective – what has his life been like, what is communication like for him, how does he deal with folks in the community and what is cerebral palsy like.”
Buswell’s parents are well-known in Colorado for their disability-rights advocacy and for their fight for their son to be fully included in Colorado Springs District 11. His mother, Barbara Buswell, is executive director of Peak Parent Center, Colorado’s federally designated parent training and information site for families of children with disabilities.
On a recent Wednesday, Buswell sat in his wheelchair facing the class with his sister, Bronwen Buswell, 27, at his side. She would occasionally speak for him, feed him, stretch out his contorted arms and wipe away saliva.
Buswell had created a PowerPoint presentation by painstakingly typing out words with help from his sister to explain different activities in which he participates – volunteering, going on hikes with his family, opening presents at Christmas and attending rock concerts.
With help, Buswell tapped an electronic device to change the PowerPoint slides on the screen.
“You have to participate in everything or you won’t participate in anything,” Buswell says in one of his slides.
He then asked the graduate students to think of three classroom activities in which he could be included.
Students suggested a discussion about a book or film with “yes” or “no” answers or letting Buswell help make decisions in creating a music video or planning a concert.
“Presume competency,” Kasa- Hendrickson said, reminding students of a key tenet for creating an inclusive classroom.
Teachers also should work to establish a community within the classroom, create adaptations to help that student learn and tackle any challenge with optimism and creativity.
“We just don’t have a lot of effective results from segregating classrooms,” said Kasa-Hendrickson, citing a soon-to-be-released federal study that shows the biggest indicator of growth in reading and math for students with disabilities was time in general-education classrooms.
“To me, all kids should be educated together,” she said. “I see it as a slow social movement.”
The first challenge is getting teachers to drop their fears of students with severe disabilities, she said. That can be difficult – and that’s why she introduces them to Buswell.
“Students are really unsure about being around a person with significant disabilities,” she said. “They don’t know how to act; they’re nervous.”
One time, a student of hers burst into tears and ran from the classroom when she first saw Buswell. Kasa-Hendrickson coaxed her back in and asked her to observe Buswell’s interactions.
Kasa-Hendrickson seeks his input by asking Buswell “yes” or “no” questions. Students also have noticed Buswell’s sense of humor when he laughs at Kasa-Hendrickson’s technical problems that sometimes stall class.
“Lots of people have a guest speaker, but I thought a long-term presence will create change,” Kasa-Hendrickson said. “One of the things I am very committed for them to do is to learn how to speak and interact with someone in a very typical and normal way. To learn to do that takes time.”
But it’s working.
“I am hoping that by the end of the class, they will decrease their fear about being around people with disabilities and they learn tons of strategies of how to include kids and how to communicate with someone who can’t talk,” she said.
Julia Smith, a teacher at Children’s Ark in Green Mountain Falls, said being exposed to someone with such significant disabilities has been eye-opening.
“I’ve seen how capable and talented he is,” Smith said. “I’ve learned asking him questions is OK. For him to say, ‘I need more time to answer’ and ‘This is how I will communicate,’ that is huge.”