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High School Students Experience Feelings of Being Handicapped

By Paul King



This activity was inspired by the story "Robert Vandenberg Wins Special Olympics" from Basic Genetics: A Human Approach, second edition, 1991, developed by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) with support from the National Science Foundation, and published by Kendall/Hunt.

Very special thanks is given to Stephen LeClair, Director of Greater Randolph Opportunities For Work of the Randolph Occupational Workshop, Inc., a division of the Randolph Public School System, Randolph, Massachusetts, without whom this activity would never have reached the classroom. Mr. LeClair developed and presents an outline of past and present practices in state institutions, chooses and provides materials for the hands-on activity which my students carry out, and brings and supervises the presentation made by individuals with Down Syndrome who address my classes.


Type of Entry:

  • Lesson/class activity

Type of Activity:

  • Hands-on activity
  • Group/cooperative learning

Target Audience:

  • Life Science
  • Biology
  • Genetics
  • Biotechnology

Notes to Teacher:

The teacher should have a working knowledge of the genetic causes and phenotypic effects of Down Syndrome.

It is of great advantage to enlist the aid of a specialist who routinely works with persons who have Down Syndrome. In Randolph Stephen LeClair, the Director of Greater Randolph Opportunities For Work of the Randolph Occupational Workshop, Inc., a division of the Randolph Public School System, is such a person.

Required of students:

The students should have a working knowledge of the genetic causes and phenotypic effects of Down Syndrome.

Prior to class discussion the students will need to read for homework "Robert Vandenberg Wins Special Olympics", from Basic Genetics: A Human Approach, second edition, 1991, published by Kendall/Hunt. The reading and the class discussion which follows provide an interactive means of acquainting the students with the life of a teenage boy who has Down Syndrome, and his family. Although this objective could be accomplished through some other means of instructor presentation, I highly recommend use of the reading and the discussion which follows.

Preparation time needed:

Depending on the background of the instructor, approximately one hour should be adequate to read the section on Robert Vandenberg and prepare for the discussion as outlined in the Teacher's Guide.

Additional time will be required to contact the specialist and make arrangements for him or her to address the class, as well as to discuss what is to be presented.

Class time needed:

Discussion of "Robert Vandenberg..."1 class period
Presentation by specialist, and class activity1 class period
Presentation by person(s) with Down Syndrome1 class period

Note: The class time indicated above does not take into account time needed to lay the foundation in basic genetics, a knowledge of which will enable the students to understand the genetic cause of Down Syndrome.


Abstract

Following a study of the genetic cause of Down Syndrome, class discussion centers around the story of a teenage boy who has Down Syndrome. A specialist who works with persons who have Down Syndrome makes a presentation concerning past and present treatment of the developmentally disabled as well as his or her experience with persons having Down Syndrome. The classroom students discover that it is they who are "handicapped" when they attempt to compete against the clock to assemble piece-work items routinely put together by individuals who have Down Syndrome and are enrolled in the Greater Randolph Opportunities For Work (GROW) program of the Randolph Occupational Workshop, Inc. As a conclusion to the activity, a person (or persons) with Down Syndrome makes a presentation to the class describing some aspects of his or her life, and meets each of the students in the class.


Background

What question does this activity help students to answer?

Students will be able to contrast past and present treatment of, and facilities for, the developmentally disabled. Students will come away from this activity with a personal experience of what it feels like to be challenged. In addition they will be able to describe from their own experience the personal attributes of persons with Down Syndrome. I might add that the persons with Down Syndrome who come to the classroom, make presentations, and meet the classroom students, also learn from the experience. They will be able to describe what it is like to be among "regular" students in a "regular" classroom setting. They will come away with a sense of pride of accomplishment and contribution. The gain made by these presenters is equally as important as that made by the classroom students.


Project

The instructor will need a copy of Basic Genetics: A Human Approach, second edition, 1991, both the student text and Teacher's Guide, published by Kendall/Hunt, 4050 Westmark Drive, Dubuque, Iowa 52002 [Tel.: (319) 589-1000]. The students will need copies of the student text.

The student hands-on activity requires piece-work items which are normally assembled in sheltered employment by persons with Down Syndrome. For example, one might use a small circuit board and wires, all of which have to be soldered together, the components of a bicycle lock which must be assembled in a particular order prior to packaging, or other materials necessary for completing similar types of labor intensive work. Contact an organization like GROW to obtain help in this regard.

A stopwatch will be helpful for timing the student hands-on activity.

If presentations are to be made using 35 mm slides, a slide projector will be needed. (The persons with Down Syndrome used 35 mm slides during their presentation to my classes.)

Some persons with Down Syndrome have difficulty projecting their voices. For persons with such a difficulty, a hands-free microphone is very helpful.

Activity

I replaced my traditional approach to the study of genetics with a unit called Basic Genetics: A Human Approach, developed by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) with support from the National Science Foundation. Basic Genetics: A Human Approach allows me to teach the basic concepts of genetics from a human standpoint, thus insuring unparalleled interest and involvement of all students from the less academically inclined to those at the honors level.

In order to provide my students with a real-life opportunity to consider the ethical dilemmas involved in making decisions concerning human genetics, I developed an activity in conjunction with Stephen LeClair, the Director of Greater Randolph Opportunities For Work (GROW) of the Randolph Occupational Workshop, Inc., a part of the Randolph Public School System, Randolph, MA. My students first study the genetic basis for Down Syndrome, read for homework a story entitled "Robert Vandenberg Wins Special Olympics" from Basic Genetics: A Human Approach, and engage in a class discussion of the life of Robert Vandenberg, a teenage boy with Down Syndrome, and his family. The Teacher's Guide for Basic Genetics: A Human Approach provides well written directions for leading the class discussion. The activities mentioned above provide the students with a good working knowledge of the genotype, phenotype, and behavior of individuals with Down Syndrome. The discussion ends the first session for the activity. Note that the discussion of the life of Robert Vandenberg will occupy the entire first session, one full class period of approximately 45 minutes. The GROW Director, Stephen LeClair, then spends two class periods, which I will call the second and third sessions, working with the class.

During the second session (the first of the two class periods mentioned above) past and present treatment of the developmentally disabled is presented as well as are additional comments on the lives and personalities of individuals with Down Syndrome, based on Mr. LeClair's personal experience. Also given is a brief description of the individuals from the workshop who will make the presentation during the third session. The hands-on activity which follows is the highlight of this session. Groups of my students compete against the clock to assemble piece-work items routinely put together by individuals in GROW who have down syndrome. (For the GROW members this is sub-contracted work from local companies for which they are paid.) Invariably, as evidenced by the long time they take to complete the assigned tasks, my students discover that, under the circumstances at that moment, it is they who are handicapped. Actually, the students do not themselves reach the conclusion that they are handicapped; resistance is strong. It is pointed out to them that under the conditions in which they performed the assigned tasks, that is, without prior training and practice, they are indeed handicapped. Many resent being labeled as such. They have literally been put into the shoes of those they would probably label as handicapped.

During the third session, on a separate day, my students are addressed by, meet, and talk with two individuals from GROW who have Down Syndrome. These individuals bring with them a set of 35 mm slides which portray their lives, including many of the activities, both work related and social, in which they engage on a daily basis. They narrate the presentation and field questions students may have. At the completion of the presentation/question/answer session, the presenters enthusiastically move from student to student introducing themselves.

Interestingly enough, this meeting on a personal basis, that is, shaking hands and introducing oneself, appears to be much more difficult for many of my students than for the individuals from GROW. Having observed this from year to year, I take time on a previous day to mention my past observations to the class, and to help the students to realize that the individuals from the workshop who will address them are very much the same as they, the students, are, with regard to likes and dislikes, feelings and emotions, ups and downs. It is my hope that my students will gain much in the way of understanding and empathy.

My students, most of whom have never met a person with Down Syndrome, come away with a unique perspective of a genetic condition and of real human beings who have that condition. Not only have my students gained a new, positive understanding of genetics, in this instance Down Syndrome and its effect on the lives of real people, but also the individuals with Down Syndrome, as they have expressed to Mr. LeClair and to their peers in GROW, have had a wonderful and unique experience and wish to return again the following year.


Method of Assessment/Evaluation

Class discussion following the completion of the three-day activity gives me, as well as the students, an idea of the degree of their understanding of, and empathy for, persons with Down Syndrome.

Objective testing regarding the cause of Down Syndrome and the resulting phenotypic effects is carried out as part of my general objective exam on the genetics unit.


Extension/Reinforcement/Additional Ideas

Basic Genetics: A Human Approach contains many stories and exercises dealing with people, ethical questions, and decision making. Depending on time constraints, I typically conduct many of the activities suggested in the "survey" course outlined in the Teacher's Guide.


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