Making education beautiful

Photo courtesy of Katie Kennedy

Our student group had been in Guatemala for just three days when we woke up early on a Thursday morning to visit a special education elementary school. We had just started gaining a deeper understanding of the people, their strengths and the problems in this country. We hadn’t yet heard the stories of the widows and ex-guerrilla fighters of the 36-year war, hiked to a coffee farm in Santa Anita or danced with the abuelitas in the elderly women’s home during their zumba exercise routine — that would come later.

Our purpose for living in Guatemala for two weeks this summer was to study occupational justice, which is at the heart of occupational therapy. In our profession, we believe that each individual should have the right to fully participate in life’s routines and daily activities. Additionally, they should be granted the resources and environments necessary for them to do so. Anything less than this is considered occupational injustice, and we must work to eliminate it.

When we arrived at the Escuela Oficial Mixta de Educación Especial in Xelaju, we were a little nervous because we were still trying to understand how our group of 18 occupational therapy majors fit into this culture.

Our first impression was shaped by the first student we met, a smiling boy who was preoccupied with trying to steal our water bottles. This sparked laughter among our group and broke the tension. After we made our introductions, the teachers led us through a tour of their classrooms while school was in session. The rooms were organized by grade level. Although they were small, the walls were covered in colorful schedules, letters and lesson plans. Many of the children were happy to see new faces when we walked in. Some were quiet, while others had boundless energy and craved extra attention.

When we saw the first boy we had met earlier in his classroom, his teacher told us that he was very smart and excelled at using technology devices. Unfortunately, the school didn’t have access to devices he was interested in, so he often acted out from boredom. This stood out to us as an example of occupational injustice because the school lacked the resources, not the drive, to engage and challenge its students.

During our tour, we learned the students are dropped off by their parents in the morning, and some travel great distances. The school barely had enough teachers yet spared one to give us the tour. Even though the faculty and the children wore genuine smiles and created a positive, inclusive learning environment, it was clear the school had limited space, faculty support, supplies and resources.

We were impressed and touched by how established this program was, but we knew that these limits were preventing the students from achieving their full potential.

Through our interactions at the Xelaju school and group reflections, our learning process felt so much more meaningful and tangible than it would have in a Cohen classroom. Seeing firsthand the injustices an individual with disabilities can face when they seek education in Guatemala made us question what could be done to allocate more funds toward special education to support students, families and teachers.

In Guatemala and in our own country, so little of the budget is given to education. Policymakers are encouraged to minimize funding for special education to make up for funding in other areas. This means that we are not giving students with special needs the same value as other students — we are marginalizing them. This must change!

This isn’t just a problem in a faraway country or for faraway students; in Cincinnati we have several schools for children with developmental disabilities, such as the Margaret B. Rost School, which we visited last semester. There, the students have many classrooms and are provided with opportunities to express their talents and intelligence in several ways. Yet, the school still struggles with the same problems of funding and finding ways to teach older students to become more independent as they approach graduation.

Despite its limitations, the teachers at the Xelaju school showed us they were still able to make it a meaningful place for the students. They stopped all of the classes for an hour at the end of our tour so that we could play with the children and sing Spanish songs with them.

One teacher said, “We may not have all the resources we need to provide the highest level of education for these students, but we have all we need — love, passion and open arms.” This quote stuck with us as proof of the beautiful outcomes that can come from engaging all students in a supportive, universally accepting space.

As future occupational therapists, we hope to take this same love and passion from Xelaju with us as we work to promote occupational justice for individuals with disabilities.

This feature essay was written by Lauren Benson, Jacqueline Fox, Amanda Grebenc, Hannah Heisler, Katie Kennedy, and Kaitlin Mullahey.