Invisible Obstacles

If you spend any time on social media it is likely that you have seen the image of three children watching a baseball game in two different scenarios. The first scenario is labeled equality. It depicts the three children, each of different heights (one short, one average, and one tall), all standing on a same size box trying to see the game over a fence. The shortest child’s view remains obstructed. The second scenario labeled equity, shows the tallest child standing on the ground, the average height child standing on one box, and the shortest child standing on two boxes now with an unobstructed view. This image provides a very clear illustration of the difference between equality and equity. A message that is difficult to disagree with, equity isn’t about all things being equal, but instead about all things being accessible. In my opinion, the reason most would not argue with this image is because it provides an example of supporting someone with a physical disadvantage. We can see the obstacle that the shortest child is faced with and the solution becomes obvious… give them more boxes.

This obvious concept however, seems to be not so obvious when we start to consider the “invisible obstacles” that many children face. I say “invisible obstacles” not to lessen their importance but to point out that they are the less overt and often misunderstood.  If we have a child in a wheelchair it is obvious that walking is an obstacle for them. We would not expect them to run the mile in Physical Education class.  However we would expect them to participate with accommodations, the use of their wheel chair, to ensure that it is equitable.  Likewise, if we have a child that is climbing under their desk and refusing to do work, they too are faced with an obstacle that must be supported to ensure equity.

The challenge that arises with the second scenario is the ability to apply the previously mentioned “obvious” logic around equity to these obstacles as well.  When it is a matter of providing an extra box so a child can see over the fence, it is a more obvious fix. When it is a matter of supporting a child that shuts down and refuses to work at the mere mention of writing, it is not so clear, as there are many potential contributing factors. Autism Spectrum Disorders, Emotional Behavioral Disorders, anxiety, depression, trauma, attention deficits, cognitive processing delays, sensory processing disorders, and many, many more undiagnosed challenges just to name a few. Even with the knowledge of a diagnosed disability such as these the understanding around providing equity remains elusive.

There seems to be a constant concern around expectations and the idea that if we are providing supports around behavior (which is the predominate sign of a “invisible obstacles”) then the students are not being held accountable. This is where I would ask….How can we hold children accountable for behavior that they as a child are unable to manage? How can we hold children accountable to expectations that they do not have the skill set to reach?  To be clear I am not saying that we shouldn’t have expectations. In fact it is quite the opposite, expectations are crucial for success. The difference is in having flexibility with expectations and providing the supports (explicit skill instruction, regulation strategies, calming spaces, communication supports, etc.) necessary for children to meet them.

I would argue that if a shift can be made in understanding the “invisible obstacles” in the same way we understand the “obvious obstacles” the path towards providing equity will not seem so murky.  Instead of considering the child that is crawling under their desk as a disruption and sending them out of the room, consider the “invisible obstacles” they may be facing and ways to provide support. When your perspective shifts so do the options available to both you and the children in your classroom.



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