Communication is the Key to Inclusive Field Trips
Updated: Jun 24, 2021
By Emily Ladau
On days when school field trips were announced, I’d come home bubbling with enthusiasm and waving my permission slip around until my mother signed it. Unfortunately, the recent news story about Holdan Crawley, the young boy who was excluded from going on a school field trip with his able-bodied peers, sent me into a stream of flashbacks about how often my bubble of field trip excitement would pop. As the only physically disabled student in my mainstream public school’s graduating class, field trips rarely went off without a hitch for me. Everything from blatant oversights regarding accessibility to transportation troubles made field trips a frustrating – and sometimes even embarrassing – affair.
While Holdan’s school district claims his exclusion was only due to a transportation mix-up, the problem and subsequent investigation has garnered a fair amount of national coverage. Of course, it would have been ideal if this hadn’t happened to Holdan at all, but since it did, I definitely think it’s important for such issues to be presented to the public. That being said, this kind of exclusion, accidental or not, continues to happen every single day to students who have disabilities. It’s obvious that there are important lessons to be learned from stories such as Holdan’s, but if my experiences and the experiences of tens of thousands of other students are any indication, I fear that the necessity of inclusion is all too often forgotten or completely ignored.
Based on some of my more memorable field trip snafus, I’ve devised some key points for teachers to keep in mind while planning field trips to ensure that all students are included. I should clarify that I absolutely understand that certain factors will be legitimately out of an educator’s hands, but in order to avoid as many issues as possible, there are simple ways to be prepared.
1) Maintain an open line of communication with parents or guardians of young students, and as the students get older, be sure to listen to them and encourage them to advocate for themselves. – When a field trip is in the planning stage, consult with your student and any involved family members. Teachers who kept me informed and asked me any pertinent questions were the ones who pulled off some of the best, most inclusive field trips.
2) Check, double-check, and triple-check that accessible transportation has been confirmed. – This is essential. It still saddens me to recall instances when I had to swallow my pride and have teachers carry me onto inaccessible buses in front of all my peers. Not only is this incredibly unsafe, but also the issue could have been totally avoided in the first place.
3) ALWAYS inquire about accessibility of the field trip location ahead of time. – Alice Wong, a friend of mine and a wonderful disability rights advocate, recounted a story to me about a French class field trip gone wrong: “I signed my permission slip and everything. The day before, the teacher tells me that the place is inaccessible and I can’t go. That’s it. She didn’t apologize or think about another accommodation or anything. It crushed me to find out that I couldn’t go with my friends and that my teacher cared so little about me.” This situation should be a cautionary tale to all educators. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to investigate accessibility. Doing so usually requires no more than simple phone calls, and will prevent getting a student’s hopes up about a trip only to realize they won’t be able to go. Even more importantly, this will guarantee that you don’t show up with your entire class on the day of a field trip only to be met with a giant environmental barrier. Remember, everything from staircases to construction sites to broken elevators can pose accessibility issues. Try to be thorough in your research.
4) Be careful not to presume full knowledge of what a student needs because of his/her disability. – In my opinion, this is the most important point. Since I’ve lived in my body for my whole life and I am able to effectively express my needs, I know what is best or easiest for me. After all, teachers only see students in a school environment, and circumstances may be different at a field trip location. So, while I understand that education professionals mean well, I cannot stress enough that assumptions must be avoided. Communicate with disabled students and their families, and respect any input they provide.
To illustrate why this point is so crucial, consider this field trip experience I had in 7th grade: The entire grade took an overnight field trip to the East End of Long Island, New York. Some of the school administrators decided without consulting me that my assigned chaperone should be the school nurse. They assumed that I had medical needs and decided that I required some kind of special care, which I didn’t. First of all, if a student does need medical care, this is likely something that a trained personal care assistant or family member should be handling. But in my case, having the school nurse as a chaperone wasn’t necessary. In fact, it only served to hold me back from participating in certain aspects of the trip because she treated me more like a patient than a student. Moreover, the nurse was elderly and wasn’t strong enough to assist in pushing my wheelchair over uneven ground, precluding me from keeping up with my friends. These awkward issues could have been avoided if the school administration had communicated with me to learn my needs and treated me as a student rather than a medical diagnosis on wheels.
5) If a field trip activity may be difficult but still possible for a student, be sure to communicate with the student about what they feel comfortable doing and how they would like to be assisted. – This is essentially the culmination of all my main points. Communicate, be it with parents and guardians, students, or both. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
6) Stay calm in unforeseen circumstances and be open to problem solving. – Even the most thorough preparation and communication won’t prevent unexpected predicaments. But with an inclusive mindset, teacher-student teamwork, and some creative thinking, you’ll be able to provide your whole class with a positive field trip and memories that can last a lifetime.
Emily Ladau is a passionate disability rights activist, writer, storyteller, and digital communications consultant whose career began at the age of 10, when she appeared on several episodes of Sesame Street to educate children about her life with a physical disability. She serves as the Editor in Chief of the Rooted in Rights Blog, a platform dedicated to amplifying authentic narratives on the disability experience through an intersectional lens. Her writing has been published in outlets including The New York Times, SELF, Salon, Vice, and HuffPost and her first book, Demystifying Disability, is being published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in fall 2021. Emily has spoken before numerous audiences, from the U.S. Department of Education to the United Nations. Central to all of her work is a focus on and harnessing the power of storytelling as a tool for people to become engaged in disability and social justice issues.