Many of us grew up in a time when we were taught to look away or turn a deaf ear when we encountered a person with a disability. Those days are over. With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the doors of communication have swung open and our society is learning to welcome people with disabilities into the mainstream as productive individuals. A dialogue has been initiated between what were once considered separate and disparate worlds.
Because of their high public profile, driver teams on special-needs buses have a significant influence on parents and students with disabilities and upon how others perceive students with disabilities. How driver team members interact with community members has a direct effect on how they describe their students. Additionally, how the driver team interacts with the special-needs student influences how others interact with the child.
Students use the same terms that the driver teams use about them when describing themselves to others. As such, words do matter, and it is important to realize this when interacting with not just special-needs individuals but with all. This is especially important during the initial meeting.
When meeting the special-needs child and family for the first time, just be yourself. As in any new situation, everyone will feel more comfortable if you relax. Get the job done. Find out during the home visit what the challenges will be on the special-needs bus. Assess the facts and put off forming any definitive opinions about the student, family, home and neighborhood.
Meeting someone with a disability
Students using wheelchairs may have a variety of disabilities. Some use their arms. Some do not. When you meet someone, extend your hand to shake it if that is what you normally do. A person who cannot shake a hand will let you know. He will appreciate being treated in a normal way. When meeting a blind person, identify yourself. If you have met before, remind him of the context, as he will not have visual clues to jog his memory.
Talk directly to the student, not to a personal assistant or the child’s interpreter. If the child is very young and unable to communicate, talk to the parents. If the child has a speech impairment, listen carefully and patiently. Ask him to repeat if you do not understand. If the person does not understand you, try again. Don’t let the child think your communication with him is not worthwhile. If the child is deaf or hard of hearing, use gestures. Do not leave a person with a disability out of a conversation on the bus just because you feel uncomfortable or fear that he will feel uncomfortable. Include the child as you would anyone else.
Be sensitive about the environmental setting. A noisy or dark environment at a morning pick-up site makes a dangerous pick-up service for both student and bus assistant. Driver team members talking more than their students may not be appropriate either, unless the talk is essential to bus safety. The environment question is: Is the special-needs bus acting, moving and performing safely in traffic and with student rider safety considered?
Attitudinal barriers and prejudice severely limit the success and long-term helpfulness of driver teams. Remember that driver teams do not judge individuals — they transport them. Also remember that we are all complex human beings and that the disability is just one aspect of that student.
Dr. Ray Turner is a special-needs transportation authority, expert witness and author of numerous books and newsletters. For more information, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.whitebuffalopress.com.