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Berkeley High Fosters Positivity For Students With Disabilities

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“[The disabled community] brings unique experiences, ways of thinking, and talents. It can take additional time to get to know some students, but it’s worth it,” said Josh Austin, a teacher and education specialist at Berkeley High School (BHS). 

Roughly 320 students at BHS have Individual Education Plans (IEPs), which focus on meeting the diverse needs of students with a wide range of learning requirements. “We have a large special education staff, which includes some teachers on special assignment and two special education administrators on site,” Austin said. “This allows the staff-to-student ratio to be relatively low compared with surrounding districts, and for teachers and case managers to be better supported.”

Austin has taught at BHS for 12 years. He is also the faculty sponsor for Best Buddies, a world-wide organization dedicated to ending the physical, social, and economic exclusion of the 200 million people in the world with intellectual and developmental disabilities. BHS Best Buddies takes place every Tuesday and Wednesday at lunch. 

Nora Costello, a sophomore in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), has been attending Best Buddies since the beginning of the school year. She explained that one benefit of Best Buddies is that it allows students to interact with peers who have intellectual disabilities, which may be harder to do otherwise. 

“It fosters new friendships and helps eradicate the stigma or prejudice against people with intellectual disabilities,” Costello said.

Olivia Mitchell, a sophomore in Academic Choice (AC), has been attending Best Buddies lunch meetings for about two months. “I love Best Buddies because it sets apart differences between the students of BHS,” Mitchell said. She went on to explain how the community never fails to lift her spirits. “If I’m having a bad day, the people there always cheer me up and make me laugh. We always have fun.” 

Stephen McGonagle, an IEP case manager and Inclusive Education (INE) Literature teacher, has been teaching for four years. INE classes are designed to support students with IEPs on campus. This is his first year at BHS.

“I believe that a high school of this size creates many challenges for everyone,” McGonagle said. “I feel that we do the best we can in offering quality services and tools to students with disabilities at BHS.”

BHS students connect over a game of Sorry! during a lunch time meeting of Best Buddies.

BHS students connect over a game of Sorry! during a lunch time meeting of Best Buddies.

Fiona Firepine

However, as significant as this topic is, it isn’t discussed as often as one might expect. Both interviewees agreed that part of the discomfort comes from uncertainty when addressing members of the disabled community. To this, both Austin and McGonagle said that addressing the person first is preferable. 

“Danny is a student with learning challenges/a disability/orthopedic impairments,” Austin provided as an example. This is a way of acknowledging that those with disabilities aren’t defined by them. 

“I most frequently utilize the term ‘students with disabilities,’” McGonagle said, “to ensure we are always prioritizing them as a student first and foremost, as opposed to labeling them as someone who is disabled or somehow limited in their abilities.”

Taking a closer look, however, the uncertainty around how to comfortably talk about the disabled community goes deeper. 

“I do feel that communication relative to students with disabilities can be a topic that is avoided or considered awkward, but this is in large part due to differences in knowledge that people have about special education in general,” McGonagle said.

Ava Kurapka, a junior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), spoke on this. She agreed that discomfort plays a large factor, saying, “I think that generally, in society, it’s a very taboo topic and not heavily discussed, specifically in terms of accessibility.” Kurapka added that although growing up in Berkeley has meant learning how to discuss the topic respectfully and openly, “I do think we have a long way to go and I still wish I was more educated.”

  According to Austin, this discomfort around people who are different may only become worse when not addressed. “I would say that able-bodied people in general tend to avoid talking about disabilities because of their own fear, guilt, and uncertainty when around people with disabilities,” Austin stated. “This taboo is a vicious circle in that fears of discrimination, being treated differently to others, being seen as a nuisance or lesser than, and other concerns cause people to be less open about their disability.” 

Austin, Kurapka, and McGonagle emphasized that having open conversations can help reshape preconceived notions about people with disabilities. “Everyone is temporarily or permanently impaired at some point in their lives,” said Austin. “We all feel the same range of emotions, pain and pleasure, loss and gain. Each of us desires and deserves access to the full range of opportunities for participation in all areas of life.”