I was the first child with a physical disability to enter my elementary school. Having a student with a physical disability was something new for the school staff and the school wasn’t built to be accessible. However, during my time there the school worked extremely hard to meet my physical needs so I could receive the same education as my classmates. I had a one-on-one aide to help with my physical challenges, such as helping with taking my notes. My hand control is affected by my disability, so handwriting in school was a huge struggle for me. I had to battle through many different struggles, such as being bullied and people of all ages misunderstanding my disability.
The first time a teacher judged me because of the “special needs” label given to me was in the sixth grade. The first day in class all the students were allowed to pick their seats. I went and sat at the desk by two of my friends who also had disabilities. Once every child was seated, she made my friends and I switch seats, separating us from each other. We were the only students she forced to move. Over the school year, my friends and I were often treated like we were troubled students, even though we were following the classroom’s rules.
Right before winter break, my elementary school would invite all the classes into the gym to enjoy a movie. When my class entered the gym, I went to sit down by my friends. Right before the movie began playing, the same teacher came up to us and told us if she heard us make one peep during the movie, we would have to write a five-page essay about it. Once again, we were the only students she threatened. We were good kids! Now as a young adult looking back at these moments, I can’t help but believe this teacher saw all students with disabilities as nothing but troubled.
In middle school and my first year of high school, the school followed my IEP correctly. The schools allowed me to use a rolling backpack so I wouldn’t have to carry heavy textbooks in my arms. The school made sure there was an aide helping me with my writing and note taking. My teachers would cut down my classwork and homework because they knew I understood everything, but it takes me twice as long to complete my work because of my physical challenges. At times I was given extra time to complete tests. I was allowed to leave class five minutes early to get to my next class, so I wouldn’t get knocked over by the crowd of students.
After my first year of high school, my family had to move states due to my dad’s job. It took the new school half a year to start following what was written in my IEP. I came home discouraged every single day because I couldn’t keep up physically in my classes. I went from being an A and high B student to a C student. Thankfully, the following year everything on my IEP was put into place. The teachers began cutting down my work, gave me extra time to complete tests, provided copies of the class notes, and allowed me to leave class five minutes early. I had a one-on-one aide to help me with writing. I would tell her my words and answers for the assignments and she would write them down on the paper.
Then came senior year. I was with my same one-on-one aide like the year before, but things began changing. I would ask for her to help with the writing on assignments, because this what she was being paid to do, but sometimes she just replied, “No one will be able to help you with this stuff out of high school.” While she would spend time on her iPod in the back of the classroom, I would be up front struggling with trying to keep up with the writing by myself.
I began falling behind in my classes again, and would come home in tears. This aide would also make comments that made me feel like I was going to fail in the future. She would tell me how other students she worked with never had to have help with writing. Reports were made about my situation with this aide, but it took me having a complete major meltdown at school for the school to take action.
During senior year I also had to deal with a teacher who wouldn’t follow my IEP at all. One day I walked to her classroom and the door was already opened, so I entered, quietly. I caught the teacher talking about me to another staff member, calling me a lazy student. When the teacher noticed me standing in the doorway, she stopped speaking to the other staff member. She labeled me “lazy” because I was struggling to keep up in her class because of my physical disability. The night before this incident, I was up past midnight finishing the classroom work and the homework she assigned the day before.
I am not sharing these events publicly to seek attention. I am not trying to shame those who treated me poorly; I have forgiven them. I’m sharing this as a life lesson to educate others and bring more understanding for students with disabilities.
If you work at a school and have a student with a disability, please take the time to learn about and understand their disability. If you see a student falling behind in class, ask the student what can be done to help them. Please keep in mind that every child is different, disabled or not. Be patient with them. If a student is reaching out for help, don’t ignore them just because all the other students got it the first time around. Most importantly, don’t allow the label “special needs” to affect the way you see that child.