An Exceptional Take on Learning
Education course dispels disability stigma through inclusion
Tuesday, January 7, 2020
Heather Haynes Smith stands with two students in a classroom

Individuals with disabilities are often stigmatized and marginalized. One Trinity course strives to change these mindsets by preparing future teachers to focus on inclusion.

Taught by Associate Professor of Education Heather Haynes Smith '97, M'98, Ph.D., “Understanding Learners with Exceptionalities in School and Society” is not like the typical introduction to special education course. The first indication is in the title: Smith prefers the term “exceptionality” to “disability” to account for all students who may struggle with learning, including students at risk for difficulty in school, those from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and gifted and talented students.

“The course challenged us to think in a different way than what we have thought and been taught our whole lives about students and their abilities,” says Madison Carolin ’20, a psychology major who intends to pursue the Master of Arts in Teaching at Trinity with a supplemental certificate in special education. “Society uses labels that can be very stigmatizing. The course is an introduction to the complexity which is often just boiled down to two words—special education—which is another label that can be limiting to students and their abilities.” 

Heather Haynes Smith '97, M'98 with Sarah Thompson '21 and Madison Carolin '20

The curriculum, Smith explains, focuses on inclusion, a term that has evolved over time. In the United States, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act mandates inclusion in public schools, but the definition behind the term has gone through three different iterations.

The first generation of the term focused on an inclusive physical space—the learning environment—while the second iteration emphasized inclusive teaching practices. Now, inclusive practices hone in on both instructional methods and curriculum mastery. Smith adopts this definition into her course.

“Most introductory courses in special education use a textbook and cover a different disability every week,” says Smith, who has taught the course in some form for the past 10 years. “With that approach I wasn’t seeing deeper learning, but rather silos of information and superficial knowledge. I began refining the view of disability categories in a way that focused on strengths, characteristics, and instructional accommodations and modifications, which helps students in the course recognize equity issues and frame their learning and goals around social justice.”

The equity issues the course recognizes is a concept included in Trinity’s aspiration toward intentional inclusion. “Equity” values understanding that diverse backgrounds and abilities require differing levels of resources as opposed to “equality,” which provides the same resources despite varying backgrounds and abilities.

Smith’s course focuses on equity over equality, giving all students the optimal environment to learn through inclusive instructional practices.

Students learn about equity and inclusive practices in Heather Haynes Smith's course.

Kaylee Ghent, a sophomore computer science major with a minor in education, is currently learning this and more in the course. The aspiring middle school computer science teacher is “learning and practicing empathy, knowing how to accommodate students in a classroom and knowing how to engage all students in ways that are helpful to them,” she says.

In addition to implementing an instructor-focused curriculum, Smith requires students to establish their own learning goals and accomplish them by partnering with a local organization. This service-learning aspect of the course, Smith explains, allows students to form a personal connection to what they’re learning.

Drake Dukes ’16, now a senior consultant at Deloitte in corporate finance, spent his service-learning hours at San Antonio’s Providence Place. His work with young adults with disabilities allowed him a learning experience he continually applies in his daily life.

“I learned so much from all the extraordinary individuals I met,” Dukes says. “I always try to keep an open mind and not judge an individual or situation before I truly have the opportunity to learn about them or it.”

That’s the exact message Smith aims for her course to impart. “This course reflects the reality that people with disabilities are marginalized in all spaces, not just schools,” she says. “It is my hope that the learning in this course stays with my students in whatever their future careers are.”

Robin Johnson is an English Ph.D. student UTSA. She is an alumna of St. Mary's University in San Antonio, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree and two master's degrees.

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