For Educators

Living with Special Needs – Procedures For Teachers

PrepPreparing for the lesson
StepsConducting the lesson
ExtensionAdditional Activities


Media Components

Computer Resources:

  • Modem: 56.6 Kbps or faster.
  • Browser: Netscape Navigator 4.0 or above or Internet Explorer 4.0 or above.
  • Personal computer (Pentium II 350 MHz or Celeron 600 MHz) running Windows® 95 or higher and at least 32 MB of RAM.
    Macintosh computer: System 8.1 or above and at least 32 MB of RAM.

Bookmarked sites:

TIP: Preview all the sites and videos before presenting them to the class.

  • Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: Feature — Deaf Mass
    A visit to a congregation that offers services conducted in American Sign Language (ASL) and geared to the particular needs of hearing-impaired people.
  • Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: Feature — Faith and Disability
    Introduces several young people disabled by illness or accident and explores the mental, physical, relational, and spiritual processes that help them cope.
  • Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: Feature — Mattie and Jeni Stepanek
    An interview with a 13-year-old boy who has muscular dystrophy and wrote a best-selling book of inspirational poetry. Also featured is his mother, who has a different form of the same disease.
  • Internet Resources for Special Children (IRSC)
    Dedicated “to children with disabilities and other health-related disorders worldwide,” this site and the IRSC aim to improve the lives of these children through education; enhancing public awareness; and integrating information, resources, and communication opportunities. Many excellent educational resources are featured here.
  • National Association of the Deaf
    The mission of the NAD is to promote, protect, and preserve the rights and quality of life of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in the U.S.A.
  • Learning Disabilities Association of America
    Primarily for professionals, parents of special needs children, and adults with disabilities, this site lists resources and links.
  • Learning Disabilities Online
    This Web site about learning disabilities provides various resources for parents, teachers, and other professionals.
    First-person essays by people with learning disabilities, suitable for use with older elementary students.
  • Tufts University Family Webguide
    This site describes and evaluates Web sites with research-based resources on child development.


Teachers will need the following supplies:

  • Board and/or chart paper
  • Ideally a screen on which to project the Web-based video clips
  • Handouts of Web resources if computers are not available in the classroom

Students will need the following supplies:

  • Notebook or journal
  • Pens/pencils
  • Dictionaries
  • Books for Ages 5-8:
      Elana’s Ears, or How I Became the Best Big Sister in the World
      by Gloria Roth Lowell, Karen Stormer Brooks
      American Psychological Association, 2000)I’m Deaf and It’s Okay
      by Lorraine Aseltine, Evelyn Mueller, Nancy Tait
      Albert Whitman & Co., 1987

      Dad and Me in the Morning
      by Pat Lakin, Robert C. Steele
      Concept Books, 1994.

      I Have a Sister, My Sister is Deaf
      by Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson, Deborah K. Ray
      Harper Trophy, 1984.

      Silent Lotus
      by Jeanne M. Lee
      Sunburst, 1994


Introductory Activity: Web about Hearing

A note about terminology: The preferred term is “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled”; “hearing-impaired people” rather than “the deaf.” The idea is to honor the “whole person” and avoid defining a person solely by a particular condition. The term “disability” is also preferred to “handicap,” in recognition of the fact that many people with disabilities are not prevented from living fulfilling, productive lives.

For more information on terminology, visit the following Web site:

1. To begin, conduct a web exercise to help students organize their thoughts about what it means to hear and listen. First, tell students they are going to do a brief exercise in hearing and identifying sounds. Turn out the lights and ask students to be silent. Instruct them to listen for all the sounds they can hear and to remember what they are. After a minute or so, turn the lights back on and ask students to write down the sounds they heard, and then share their list with a partner. Briefly discuss the exercise. Ask: “What were some sounds you heard? Why were you able to identify these sounds you normally might not hear?” Point out that our ears can pick up — and also tune out — a wide range of sounds.

2. Next, write the word “hearing” on the board. Ask children to think about all the ways in which hearing is useful to us, naming specific sounds we hear, and to call out their ideas one at a time as you write them around the word in web form. Be sure to elicit some language about the practical aspects of hearing (alarm clock; the sound of an approaching car; the teacher’s spoken directions), the emotional aspects (a conversation with a friend), and the pleasurable aspects (music; the sound of a rushing waterfall). Students may note that hearing can also be painful or irritating (a loud siren; a dripping faucet).

3. Explain that the class will think and talk about what it means and how it feels not to be able to hear — to be partially or totally hearing-impaired, or deaf. The class will also look at how we, as individuals and as a society, treat and respond to those who have hearing impairment or other disabilities.

4. At this point, you might ask younger students to draw a picture about the many ways that people use their hearing. They can share and discuss finished drawings with a partner.

Note: In all likelihood, there are students in your school or classroom who are hearing-impaired or have a family member who is hearing-impaired. These students (and their family members) can, if they are willing, bring their perspective to this unit. This is an opportunity to dispel stereotypes and misconceptions and provide a forum in which people with disabilities can be heard.

Sometimes children feel embarrassed by their own disability or the disability of a family member. It is important to honor the wishes of those who prefer to keep themselves or their family out of the spotlight. If you notice a student becoming upset by this topic, you might take an opportunity to speak privately with that student and, if you think it necessary, speak to the child’s family and get the school guidance counselor involved.

Learning Activities

Activity One: Looking at Hearing Impairment (for Grades 3-5)

Part A: Reading the Transcript

1. Tell students that they are going to discuss an article from a television news program that features special religious services for people who are hearing-impaired. You may want to talk with students about what religious services are, bringing out the idea that many different people attend them and want to have access to them.

2. Ask students to brainstorm some ideas about what a religious service for hearing- impaired people might be like. Ask: If this religious service is for people who don’t hear well or don’t hear at all, how might it look different from religious services for hearing people? Chart students’ ideas and save for Part B of this activity.

3. Give each student a copy of the Transcript handout, which contains an edited transcript of the Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly story “Deaf Mass.” Explain to them that this is a transcript from a television news series called Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly; that is, the words that people say are written down, along with a few indications of what is being shown on the video. The challenges of reading a transcript are to mentally make the written voices expressive and to imagine what the visuals would be.

4. Briefly discuss the format of television news. Most students will be familiar with the anchor/ cut away to reporter/cut away to visuals with a mix of actual dialogue and voiceover commentary.

5. Explain the format of the transcript: “name” followed by what the person says. Then invite students who are proficient readers to take roles and read the transcript aloud.

    • Bob Abernethy (anchor)
      Judy Valente (reporter)
      Father Joseph Mulcrone (Pastor, St. Francis Borgia Church)
      Lynn Gallagher (hearing impaired woman)
      Mary Wright (parishoner; speaks to non-hearing-impaired churchgoers)
      L.J. Raci (hearing daughter of hearing-impaired parishioners)
      Mitchell Raci (L.J.’s father)
      Laurel Raci (L.J’s mother)
  • The roles below also are listed at the top of the Transcript handout.

    Note: The entire transcript can be found here:

Part B: After Reading the Transcript

1. With students, note the similarities and differences between the content of the transcript and the brainstormed list.

2. Distribute the Discussion: Deaf Mass handout. Have the class form groups of four and ask each group to discuss one of the following quotes from the program, keeping in mind all the information in the transcript. Before they begin discussion, read both quotations with the class and talk about what they mean. You may want to define or review the following vocabulary: isolation, deaf community, preaching.

    Discussion Option 1“Judy Valente: Like Lynn Gallagher, most of the deaf are born into hearing families. They have grown up with a sense of isolation.

    Ms. Gallagher: It was very lonely. I always felt very, very lonely. I do truly feel very much like this is my second family…”

    Why would being hearing-impaired lead to isolation? What are some things that hearing-impaired and hearing people can do to ease that loneliness?

    Discussion Option 2

    “Father Mulcrone: When I started working in the deaf community I had to shut my ears off, and look at everything in terms of, not how does it sound, but how does it look? … I always have to think, when I’m preaching — can they picture what I’m saying? Preaching stories are really important, because the story allows them to picture the point.”

    Think about the idea of communicating through stories that can be pictured. What does that mean? How would this help hearing-impaired people? Do you think it would help hearing people as well?

3. For the discussion, tell the groups that each student will have a turn to speak, uninterrupted, for about a minute, while the other students just listen. When everyone has had a turn to speak in this way, groups can engage in free-flowing discussion for about 5 minutes. Finally, each group will select a reporter who will share the general tone of the discussion and the points that were raised in the group with the entire class, without divulging any one person’s opinions.

Activity One: Looking at Hearing Impairment (for Grades K-2)

To help students focus on what it means to be hearing-impaired, read one of the books suggested in the Materials section of this lesson plan; all are recommended by the IRSC.

Follow up with a discussion of what it’s like to not be able to hear and of the ways in which hearing-impaired people communicate: e.g., signing with ASL, lip reading, speaking, writing. Discuss the fact that the speech of someone who is hearing-impaired might sound “different” and why that might be. Discuss also how hearing-impaired people are likely to notice visual cues, such as facial expression or body language, that hearing individuals sometimes miss.

Note: Consider tying the topic of hearing impairment to the study of sound or of the senses.

Activity Two: Looking at Our School (for Grades K-5)

1. Following the discussion of hearing impairment, ask students to think of differences in ability other than hearing impairment. Brainstorm and chart a list with the group. If students do not name learning differences/disabilities, be sure you name a few and add them to the list.

Note: If you know of people in the school community who have particular disabilities, you might add those to the list as well, as a possible lead-in to inviting these individuals to speak and/or to be interviewed by students. Of course, privacy issues should be considered and individuals should be consulted before spotlighting anyone.

2. Follow up the brainstorming by asking students to think of all the ways in which their school helps and supports people who have disabilities or differences related to physical functioning or learning. Take students on a walk around the school to identify and write down structural accommodations and other resources; e.g., ramps, elevators, accessible bathrooms, resource rooms with special teachers, special staff to assist those whose needs require one-on-one attention.

3. Students can make a map of the school showing all the accommodations and aids they observed. They can use their maps to develop recommendations for additions and improvements.

Activity Three: Learning More (for Grades 3-5)

Have students read and report on disabilities other than hearing impairment. A good starting point is the Internet Resources for Special Children (IRSC) site, This page provides links to Web sites on topics such as: Autistic Spectrum Disorders, Visual Impairment, Brain Injuries, Cognitive Disabilities, Communication Disorders, Hearing Impairment, Diseases & Conditions, Learning Disabilities, Musculoskeletal Disorders, Neurological Disorders, and Rare Disorders.

Using this site, make a list of topics from which students can choose a disability they’d like to learn about. Be sure to include learning disabilities as a topic, as well as any disabilities that have relevance for your classroom or school community (e.g., a student may have a sibling with cerebral palsy). See “Note,” above.

It would also be helpful to scan the links for the topic selections you choose so you can steer students to the most helpful ones. A good rule of thumb for teachers and students alike is to pick out the national organizations first and then try those sites whose descriptions sound most promising.

1. Students can work on this project individually or cooperatively. The objectives are for each student to:

  • Cite at least four important facts about the disability they report on.
  • Cite at least four ways in which this disability challenges people who have it.
  • Name at least four ways in which people with this disability can be helped to cope with the challenges, either through their own efforts or through the support of their community.

2. Students will demonstrate what they know by completing the What I Have Learned about _________ organizer. This can be done as class work or homework.

3. When students have completed this sheet, they can share and discuss their findings in small groups, then use their sheets to make a whole-class book or display of “What we know about disabilities.”

4. Older students could use this activity as the basis for a five-paragraph essay. (Intro, facts, challenges, coping/supports, conclusion).

Activity Four: Interviewing Guest Speakers (Grades K-5)

1. Invite someone to speak to the group about a disability they have or one on which they have professional expertise. For instance, someone with dyslexia or spina bifida could speak about what it’s like to have this disability, or a learning specialist, member of the clergy, or health professional could speak about their knowledge of such conditions and their work with people who have them.

Note: There may be students with disabilities in your school who are willing to talk about them. You also might consider inviting high school students with disabilities, especially if you feel that respect for disabled classmates might be an issue among your own students. Seeing an older student may help students move beyond commonly held biases against those with disabilities.

2. Use the Tips for Interviewing handout and the Interview Planning Sheet organizer to help students focus on what they want to learn from the speakers and what questions they will ask. For instance, they might ask a learning specialist:

  • What is Asperger’s Syndrome?
  • When you talk to someone with Asperger’s, they sometimes don’t react the way you’d expect. Why?
  • How do I help someone with Asperger’s be part of the group?

Note: You may want to review guidelines for age-appropriateness with prospective guests. Stories that are gruesome, frightening, or very sad can upset young children, and people who are used to disturbing stories sometimes forget how upsetting they can be. Also, of course, presenters must avoid any stories involving students and their families.

Activity Five: Poll: Respect in Our School

The following activities provide a way to:
1. initiate discussion among students on how it feels to be “different” and
2. raise awareness of bias and discrimination directed at those considered different.

Version One: Respect and “Differences”(Grades K-5)
This activity is suitable for use with a single classroom. It could be extended to other classes as well, if there are several teachers in your school who would like to work on this concurrently.

Students can take a simple poll with a single question:

Have people ever put you down because
you were “different” in some way?

Students answer yes or no and add comments if they wish.

1. Tell students that they can use a poll to learn about what people experience. Distribute the Differences Poll handout, and go over it with students. Make sure they understand the question. Talk with them about what it means to put someone down and elicit some examples of differences. Point out that the poll says “no name, please,” which means it is anonymous-each person’s answer is private and confidential.

2. Distribute the polls in classrooms, have students complete them in class, and collect them immediately. Separate those with comments from those without. Several students can work with you on tabulating the “yes” and “no” responses from sheets where no comments are written. You can tell students the answers from the sheets with comments and compile an overview of the comments separately.

3. Most likely, nearly all students will answer “yes” to the question. Use this information to lead into a discussion. Ask students to name ways in which people are different from each other. Record their responses on chart paper. Then discuss what differences kids pick on and how it feels to be treated badly or ignored because you’re perceived as being different.

4. From the discussion, students can develop classroom norms around respect for differences. While most classroom rules include some form of respect, this term can be vague to children. As a whole-class activity, students can brainstorm and chart specific things they can do — and not do — to make “respect for differences” a real and tangible part of school behavior. (Alternatively, you may have the students brainstorm in small groups first.) Examples might include: “Play with someone who is alone;” “Include boys and girls in any game,” “Don’t make fun of people’s sneakers.”

Version Two: Respect and Disabilities (Grades 3-5)

This activity is a large project suitable for use with an entire grade or the whole school.

Note: This project will require administrative support as well as buy-in on the part of staff and parents. Before attempting this activity, consult your administrator and plan the best way to present it and carry it out. For instance, if your school has a diversity committee, you might work with them on this project. Alternatively or additionally, the committee on special education might be involved.

1. Students can use a simple poll to begin to explore issues of respect for those with disabilities. Discuss with students what it means to show respect to someone. Elicit as many concrete behaviors as possible. Ask students if they ever experience or see disrespect happening in school, and how that feels. Tell students that they can use a poll to find out how people feel about respect in their school, and whether students who have disabilities have different experiences of respect than those who do not. To help students understand the idea of polling, you can distribute and read the Using Surveys and Polls handout.

2. Present the Respect Poll handout, and go over it with students. Talk about what they can expect to learn from this poll. Explain that to get the most meaningful information, the poll should be answered by as many people as possible. With students, identify the groups who will be included: The whole school? (Discuss whether the youngest children could understand the poll.) The upper grades only? One grade only?

3. Explain also that for a poll to be valid, everybody needs to have the same understanding of the questions. Consequently, if the poll is given to students in other classes, it will be important to visit these students and go over the poll with them before they respond to it.

4. Finally, point out that the poll says “no name, please,” which means it is anonymous-each person’s answer is private and confidential. Only a few students will look at the polls to gather the data and only you will look at polls on which comments are written.

5. Finally, distribute the polls in classrooms, have students do them in class, and collect them immediately. Separate those with comments from those without. Several students can work with you on tabulating the responses where no comments are written. You can tell students which “grade” respondents checked on the sheets with comments and compile an overview of the comments separately. If needed, enlist help from a math or computer specialist.

When the results of the poll are ready, write an announcement to present to the staff, administrators, students, and parents. Depending on the findings, plan steps to support/maintain a respectful school environment for all.

Culminating Activity: Awareness Campaign (Grades 3-5)

Have students initiate an “awareness campaign” to raise consciousness in the school and in the larger community of the needs and contributions of people with disabilities and differences of various kinds. Students can:

1. Research, write about, and make a poster about an individual with a disability who has accomplished great things. Possible subjects include:

    Albert Einstein (learning disabilities)
    Thomas Edison (hearing impairment)
    Marlee Matlin (hearing impairment)
    Helen Keller (vision and hearing impairment)
    Ray Charles (vision impairment)
    Christie Brown — featured in the film My Left Foot (cerebral palsy)
    Christopher Reeve (spinal cord injury)
    Michael J. Fox (Parkinson’s disease)
    Mattie Stepanek (muscular dystrophy — see Bookmarked sites)
    Temple Grandin (autism)

2. Formulate, post, and publicize classroom and school “Guidelines for Respect.”

3. Raise money for a disability-related organization or activity, such as the March of Dimes or the Special Olympics.

4. Designate a day on which to celebrate and honor individuals in the school community (including parents and staff) who face the personal challenge of disability, as well as those who work with them. Special events can be planned for the day, and representatives of appropriate support organizations can be invited — e.g., clergy, physicians, nurses, physical therapists, learning specialists, social workers.

Note: It is to be expected that some people with disabilities will want to avoid the spotlight, while others will be pleased to have this kind of recognition and attention. Proceed with sensitivity and caution.


  • Hearing students can enjoy trying out ASL. Invite a parent or specialist who knows ASL to give a few lessons to the class. Alternatively, published resources are available. Visit the “Fact Sheet about American Sign Language” at the National Associaton of the Deaf Web site for more information:
  • You may use the poll in Activity Five to generate writing prompts, such as:
      “A Time I Felt Different”
      “What Respect Means to Me”
      “If Everybody Were Exactly the Same…”

    Students also can elaborate on their comments to write personal essays.

  • One of the most common “special needs” among students is attention deficit disorder, or ADD. Fourth and fifth graders can read and discuss two books by Jack Gantos about a boy with ADD: Joey Pigza Loses Control (Farrar Strauss and Giroux 2000) and the sequel, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key (Bt Bound, 2001). Read an excerpt of the first title at