In order for mentoring sessions to be most effective, it is important that all mentors who work with students with disabilities receive some general education and training on working with students who are diverse. It is important to remember that all students are unique, and therefore each situation will require an individualized approach based on the student’s particular characteristics and challenges. There are, however, some basic principles that can be applied in any setting, regardless of the type of disability present.
In interactions with those who have disabilities, it is important to utilize language that is sensitive and empowering. Disability is but one part of who a person is, it does not define them. For this reason, words that are seen as demeaning or restricting should be avoided. For example, one should say, “a person who uses a wheelchair” vs. “wheelchair bound” or “confined to a wheelchair”, “a person who is Deaf” vs. “a Deaf person”, and “a student with an intellectual disability” vs. “a retarded student”.
Avoiding Stereotypes and General Assumptions
It can be harmful to make incorrect assumptions about students who have disabilities. For example, that a student who is blind is also unable to hear, or that students who have learning disabilities are incapable of achieving academic success. Of course there is no truth to these beliefs and the perpetuation of this kind of thinking only serves to promote the idea that individuals with disabilities are somehow inferior to their non-disabled peers. The best resource for learning more about a particular disability is to go to the source: individuals who live with the condition on a daily basis. These individuals are experts in understanding their condition and its effects on him/her, and generally are happy to share their knowledge and experience with others.
Universal Design Principles
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is based on the premise that people learn differently. By focusing on the creation of learning environments that take this into consideration, and subsequently help all learners to be successful, UDL emphasizes inclusion rather than segregation. Just as automatic door openers benefit individuals in wheelchairs, so too do they assist others (ex., a mother pushing a stroller, someone with both hands full, etc.) The same can be said for learning environments. Captioning on videos is extremely helpful to someone who is hearing impaired. But it can also be beneficial to students who struggle with comprehension, who are non-native English speakers, or who are non-traditional and have been out of school for some time. Whenever possible, mentors should consider approaches to learning that will have a positive impact on all students, not just one particular group.
Disability is a very personal topic, and one that is highly sensitive. When working with students who have disabilities, it is important to exercise respect and care at all times. Conversations regarding sensitive matters should always be held in private, away from others who may be able to hear what is shared. Likewise, any paperwork that may contain personal or sensitive information should be held in a private and secure location. Taking steps to respect the feelings of your mentee will go a long way in gaining his/her trust.