Dennis sent us a note asking us to pray that "the Lord would prepare the hearts of those attending the banquet," and that his words would be used to "bring God glory and encourage the people of Lebanon to continue their efforts to serve and minister to students with special needs."
After the event, he reported it was a wonderful evening with great responses from those in attendance. Praise the Lord! For it is He who moved the hearts of the Lebanese government to stand in the gap for children with special needs who deserve the same rights and privileges in education as everyone else. Lebanon is living out Scripture in a real and much-needed way.
Open your mouth for the mute, For the rights of all who are unfortunate and defenseless; Open your mouth, judge righteously, And administer justice for the afflicted and needy. Proverbs 31:8, 9
I asked Dennis to send his notes for his speech because I want to add my voice to the many who are already crying out on behalf of these students.
If one student, one parent, one teacher reads this and is encouraged to understand better, care more, or do more, then another child will be given HOPE through the kindness and grace of the one who seeks to understand what it is like to live in their world, and then, do something to make that world BETTER.
It is an honor for me to share this important and distinct day with all of you. To have been at the very first National Day and now see how it continues to gain momentum is truly exciting.
My remarks come to you by way of several perspectives:
My own as that of a parent and teacher
During my first year as a teacher, I had a student in my history class with a physical need. Though he could see large font, David was legally blind. His mother requested notes and lesson materials in advance so she could enlarge them on a copier. Believing this request to be inconvenient, I resolved I would not give the materials before the lesson.
A few years later I had Michael in my class. He had dyslexia. The learning center at the school asked that Michael be given extra time to complete tests. If the test was lengthy, the learning lab also requested I provide a copy of the test so Michael could complete it at lunch or after school. I considered this an unfair advantage other students did not have. I would not drop off a copy of the exam.
Ben could not sit still or stop talking. Every three minutes he would blurt out whatever came to mind in the middle of the lesson. His impulsiveness was becoming a distraction to me and to others. The learning center said he needed consistent routines and a predictable schedule. I was the teacher in this class. I would not be compelled to change my routines and schedule for his needs.
John could tell a story that was descriptive and engaging. However, when given a one-page writing assignment, the same story took him two hours and many tears to write. He asked for another way to complete his work. I considered his request unreasonable and labeled him as lazy, unmotivated, and defiant. I would not accept an alternative assignment.
The common denominator in each of these cases was that the students had a need which prevented their learning, and I made excuses that prevented their SUCCESS in learning.
They could not learn in the manner I was teaching.
I would not accommodate their learning needs.
It was my attitude that had the disability. I offered no assistance but gave labels and judgments.
It was me who was placing burdens on the backs of struggling students without lifting a hand to help.
They had no choice.
I made my choice.
Only after I had children of my own would I realize that by refusing to accommodate for the learning needs of my students, I was committing a form of discrimination and communicating to them that their needs were not worthy of my effort, and not as important as my convenience.
Some learning needs are physically invisible and emotionally private, but the effects of those needs are often quite public in nearly every arena of a child’s life. I have learned this first hand. My wife and I have been blessed with six children who have wonderful strengths and abilities. However, five of those six children have mild to moderate learning needs that affect their lives in a very real way nearly every day.
I have learned through many thoughtful and emotionally painful conversations with my children that students with learning needs do not desire our sympathy, but our empathy.
Sympathy offers a condolence or a message of, “I feel sorry for you.”
However, empathy leads to action.
Empathy does not judge how the person bears the burden, but asks, "How can I help with your burden?"
Empathy does not ask, “How smart are you?” but urges “How are you smart?” and comes alongside to aid in that discovery.
My son Caleb, who has dyslexia, has been an incredible example of empathy in the lives of children with physical and learning needs. To raise a few dollars for missions one summer, our children ran Camp Eastman. Parents dropped off their children and our kids played games and did activities with the campers. On one occasion, a wonderful boy who has a degenerative disease that has impaired his eyesight was one of our campers. Upon his arrival, Caleb ran down the driveway to meet Kyle. He then took him by the hand and began advertising the great things in store for him that afternoon. “Kyle, we have toys, cars, trains, we can build puzzles, and we are going to play games. If you need anything let me know because I will be right here to help you.” And then, during the relay races, he put Kyle on his back and ran with him so he could feel like he was part of the games.
The acts of kindness, compassion, and empathy, demonstrated by my son did more to help a child with a need in one afternoon than I had done in half my career as a classroom teacher. As this scene unfolded before me, I confess, I was convicted. His example greatly inspired me and has done much to help change my perspective and my practice of advocacy for students with needs of all kinds. Beginning with my children.
While learning invites a change in perspective, it also invites a change in practice. There are an estimated 1,172,038 school-aged children in Lebanon. If just 5% of the school-aged population had some form of learning need, that 5% would represent over 58,000 students.
When a country, and specifically, the universities, are committed to educating teachers to serve all students, including those with differences, teachers become ambassadors for change and opportunity in the life of a child. And when that effort is replicated across the country, those 58,000 children with learning needs experience learning in a whole new light. All of this begins - with a change in attitude.
I asked two of my sons, Micah and Caleb, both of whom have dyslexia, “If you could tell the people of Lebanon one thing they need to know about students with learning needs, what would it be?” Here is what they said:
Micah (age 18): “I would want them to know that I do want to learn. Actually, I really want to learn, but it doesn’t look the way it does for everyone else. I may not able to articulate it like my peers through papers and tests, but I can verbally tell them what I am taking in and understanding. Though there is very rarely an opportunity to do so verbally. The bottom line is, I really do want to learn and so do many other kids. We just need to find a different way to do it.”
Caleb (age 14): “I would enjoy school and give better effort if I could actually do the work. But since some things seem absolutely impossible, like math and writing, I don’t even know where to start. And it seems like I always fail, which is why I would rather do things I enjoy and things that come easy. It is not because I am lazy, but because everything in school is so very hard.”
An awareness of student learning needs offers a solid start toward change. However, a change of mind without a change of practice only ensures good intentions.
Consistent and broad interventions are required to make a real impact for providing support on behalf of all students. This undertaking is a worthy task to be considered by all. Education in this country, above all things, should be about equipping the next generation of the citizens of Lebanon. Education is about nation-building.
When all students are equipped with a quality education and taught to think deeply about solving problems, they will be more prepared to accept greater challenges and bear more significant responsibilities in the future. Including the responsibilities of contributing to their families, their workplace, and ultimately the nation.
Your willingness to set aside a day to come together as a country and celebrate students with learning differences provides a message of possibility, opportunity, and hope in the life of a child and for their parents as well.
Congratulations to you and your valued partners for your continued commitment toward taking active steps to come alongside students with needs as you seek to strengthen your amazing country one child at a time.