Cluster Leader Shares Best Practices for Inclusion

Batuhan, Nikita, and a third student stand and smile in an outdoor setting.
Annalisa Barrie is a CIEE Cluster Leader whose 2014-15 cluster of high school exchange students included two students with disabilities, a blind student from Turkey and a student from Russia who has a mobility disability.

My role as a CIEE cluster leader is to organize enhancement activities that build the leadership and teamwork skills of my students. Last year I had sixteen students in my cluster, two of whom were students with disabilities. Both were studying in the United States on programs sponsored by the U.S Department of State.

There are certain activities that we do every year as a cluster. One of the most memorable of those activities took place in the winter. All sixteen of my students went up to our little cabin, which is what we do every year, to go cross-country skiing.

In planning the activity, I contacted Mobility International USA (MIUSA) and the SouthEastern Wisconsin Adaptive Ski Program about accommodations for Batuhan, who is blind.

One idea was to have the skier ahead of Batuhan wear a bell (or similar device) so that he could follow that skier’s path along the track. Unfortunately, we didn’t bring one or have one, so we just went with it. Batuhan listened to the students in front of him who talked through the entire activity. When there was a rise or a fall along the course, we would stop and explain what was coming up and although Batuhan did crash a couple of times, so did almost everybody else, including me. The other students were helpful in every single way when and if they needed to be. Batuhan didn’t always need assistance.

So, while Batuhan was keeping pace with the other students, the surprise came with Nikita whose access needs I had not fully considered.

Nikita has a mild form of cerebral palsy that affects his mobility on the left side of his body resulting in some weakness and balance issues. In retrospect, I first noticed that he was having a little difficulty when asked to put his skis on. Once we started skiing, I quickly realized that Nikita was at the back of the group and not keeping up. “Come on, Nikita, let’s go!” I said to encourage him. Then I looked down and realized that because of the way his left foot turned, his ski was cutting across the groomed track instead of gliding on the track. Additionally, because he has some weakness in his left hand, his balance was off a little bit too.

Everyone was zooming along and there was Nikita. So, I said to him, “Let’s just go, let’s just do this, let’s see how far we get.” And he was all in. He was so excited to be out there.

Everybody else skied hundreds of yards that day, but Nikita and I stayed at the back of the pack, and might have completed 100 yards. He could go a little while and he could glide a little bit but took many, many falls. After each one, he would just get up, or he would laugh, or I would laugh, or we would laugh together.

It was after one of these epic falls that Nikita said, “I hope I will be remembering this day 50 years from now.”

I have a hundred other stories like this one. If we hadn’t given Nikita the opportunity to try and fall, he wouldn’t have had this life-changing experience. Our day on the trails speaks to the importance of taking any preconceived ideas of what your students with disabilities can do and what they can’t do, and putting those firmly aside.

When I first met Batuhan and Nikita, I had no experience working with students with disabilities. It was a big learning experience for me and one of the best experiences I’ve had as a cluster leader. It was the strongest cluster I have ever had, and it included Batuhan and Nikita in no small way.



Annalisa Barrie