All Students with Physical Disabilities Really Need is a Fair Shake
September 26, 2019
September 26, 2019
By Kelly Hickok
Because I both work for a Richmond-based nonprofit that helps people with disabilities live more independent lives and I’m also an individual with a physical disability, I’ve had a unique opportunity to observe “special” education for young people with disabilities in Virginia. I’ve also experienced it firsthand, as I began maneuvering through our state’s public education system over 50 years ago and have seen how many things have changed—some for the good, some not so much.
My education, until fifth grade, was through a homebound teacher coming to me. Why? Well, that’s what happened with kids perceived to be “different” and having “special needs.” Turned out that the only “special need” I had was a way to physically get my wheelchair into the building! I never really (and still don’t) consider my needs to be “special” but rather just a little unique sometimes.
Because going to school for the first time in fifth grade was such a strange experience (after all, I had a teacher all to myself and now had to share her with 30 other kids), I repeated that grade and then went on to middle school. There, I had to face the challenge of changing classes while using braces and crutches. Things got better after I started using my wheelchair to keep up. I was the only kid using one, so I stood out in the crowd.
High school required some strong advocacy from my parents. The school I was supposed to attend was a two-story building with no elevator, and it was suggested I be shipped across town to a campus-style school. I wanted to go to high school in my community and with my friends, so we reached a compromise: I would be carried, in my chair, up and down the steps every day. That wasn’t a bad deal for a young girl who had so many good-looking, strong classmates willing to tote me up the stairs for four years. I had a blast! I was involved in so many extracurricular activities. Socialization is absolutely critical for young people with disabilities.
We are a society of label-making. Unfortunately, when we allow labels to suggest limitations, we can easily lower our expectations of fellow human beings.
Our world is also fast-paced, goal-oriented, and outcome driven – all things that can keep us accountable and moving forward. However, as we move ahead, we must remember who is being left behind and why. That begins by realizing we’re all individuals who move at different paces, do things a little differently, and are still developing.
Here’s a simple but profoundly misunderstood concept for educators and for all of us: Individuals with disabilities are not broken. We don’t need to be “fixed.” We just need for you to see us and to make an effort to understand our needs.
My own niece was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder as a toddler. While some may think this is extremely unfortunate, it was actually a wonderful thing to have a diagnosis so early. Although our family had been down the road of advocating for physical access to an education for me, we now had to learn a different type of advocacy in requesting what she would need in school to be successful. We also had to learn how to teach her in the way that she could best learn “a little differently.” Today she is an incredibly successful wife, mother, and special education teacher. It didn’t magically unfold for her. It took a tremendous amount of hard work on everyone’s part through her years of schooling, all the way to her master’s degree.
I’ve used the term “different” several times. Although it might be necessary to recognize the “differences” associated with disabilities, here’s another important concept: it’s much more important to focus on the individual’s abilities. That’s where you find the strengths, the talents and the human spirit of each person regardless of perceived limitations. Who knew a child living with autism and blindness could one day become a most accomplished musician? Who knew that some of the most famous people we know, who have won numerous awards in their fields, are also individuals with disabilities? Walt Disney had dyslexia. Lucille Ball lived with severe arthritis. Our first President, George Washington, had a learning disability. Did they face challenges and obstacles? Of course! Did it stop them? Obviously not. Did they have people who believed in their abilities and helped them reach their full potential? Most likely!
The challenge and the charge are to look behind the scenes, notice and accommodate for differences, and then treat people equally, focusing on what you and they can do rather than what they can’t. Our job is not to decide what people are capable of, but to provide an environment where we can all learn what’s possible. We can’t fix the system for everyone today, but we can each take a step forward along the journey to a more inclusive tomorrow for our children.
Another surprise for many when it comes to people with disabilities: We don’t view our wheelchairs or other mobility aids as “confining.” Such assistance, in fact, is quite liberating because it gives us greater independence.
Through legislation and hopefully our own desire as a society to provide an “equal education for all,” we realize our legal, moral, and ethical obligation to accommodate all students in our public education system.
The way we make those accommodations varies greatly depending on individual needs. Some students need physical barriers removed; some need instructional barriers removed; but in addition, almost all of us, both educators and students, need barriers of attitude, intolerance and assumptions removed.
Hickok is the community services manager for Resources for Independent Living, a Richmond-based nonprofit.
Source: Resources for Independent Living (www.ril-va.org)