Opening Up the World for Students with Special Needs

"My career has gone from a basement special education teacher without a single window in my room, to being an educator who is opening doors for people all over the world." Brett Bigham reached out to me with this incredible story of understanding student needs and helping them make connections where no one else has. 


Many special educators never get a chance to think globally. Since our students have such a difficult time mastering the skills needed just to get to the local store or ride a bus to the park, we don’t often think about the bigger picture. The global picture.

Somehow though, my career has gone from a basement special education teacher without a single window in my room, to being an educator who is opening doors for people all over the world.  I have come to that realization that as I advocate and fight for my students here in Oregon, their struggle is shared by people in every country on the globe.

My story really begins when I met a student who had such severe autism that she could hardly leave the classroom without becoming upset. She had three years of school left and if I didn’t find a way to get her out into the world, she may never get to go. Since we went on a weekly field trip I began to make books for her about the upcoming trip. If the class was going to ride the arial tram, then I went the week before and took pictures of every step needed to ride the tram. I made a picture book, “I Am Going To Ride The Tram UP!” and my student would study it the whole week. Each step of the process had a picture. This is where you line up. This is where you buy your ticket. This is what the ticket looks like. Every step, clearly defined. Hopefully knowing what was coming up would quash her fears.

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It was a smashing success. Each week I made her a new book and each week she stayed calm and enjoyed herself.  It went so well I ended up making a book for the family to use to go on vacation to Hawaii.  This girl who couldn’t go out of the school when I met her was now flying, successfully, to Hawaii. The Portland Airport heard about the book for Hawaii and brought me in to make a book called “Let’s Fly.” Suddenly my little classroom project was having implications for my whole city.

It was just the start though.  I was honored in 2014 to be the first special education teacher to be named the Oregon State Teacher of the Year. I was given a platform to share about the work I had been doing. And with that platform came travel. And with that travel came an idea.

My students were not the only kids benefitting from the Portland books I had made. I had put them online and every teacher and family that supports people with autism now had these valuable tools at hand.  If I was going to travel to talk about these books, why not keep making them?

In May of 2014 I was honored, along with 53 other Teachers of the Year from every state, the Department of Defense, and several territories, at the White House by the President. It was an amazing day, and when everyone got back to the hotel, I snuck off and started taking pictures. From that trip I created “I Am Going to the Supreme Court” and “I Am Going to the National Gallery of Art.” With each trip the number of books grew as did the number of cities. I felt like I was making a difference for people all over my country. I was setting an example of what every community should have to make life easier for their people with autism.

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In 2015, I was named a National Education Association Foundation Global Fellow. I was sent to Peru to work with teachers and students. From that visit, I developed six Ability Guidebooks. I was named a Fellow again for 2018 and will create more books when they send me to South Africa. Last year, Dr Stephen Hawking invited me to the UK to meet with him, and that trip led to six books for London.

 

There are now over 75 Ability Guidebooks for fifteen countries with books in five languages. Those books are opening doors for people with autism all over the world. That is pretty incredible considering they were born in a classroom that didn’t even have a window.

By Brett Bigham


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Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a two-time National Education Association Foundation Global Fellow.  He lives in Portland, Oregon and his hobby is trying to make the whole world accessible to people with special needs.

Connect with Brett on Twitter  @2014ORTOY and see more of his work on his website, Mr B's Classroom.