Lessons from People with Abilities

I have been working with and for people with disabilities for decades. I have concluded that almost everything of value that I have learned in my life is credited to individuals with disabilities.  I can say without hesitation, I would be an incomplete person had I not chosen to devote my life to special education.  The beautiful individuals and families I have had the privilege of meeting have given me invaluable gifts that continue to redefine the way I see the world.

Gift: Redefining Able 

In a world where people see things through the lens of able-mindedness, things like walking, running, catching, talking, or academic performance define what it means to be capable.  However, strength does not come from the muscle of the body; it comes from the muscle of the spirit.  Someone who is truly “able” has qualities far more precious such as: patience, persistence, determination, humility, and flexibility.  It is those traits that I have overwhelmingly witnessed from my students with disabilities.  

I walked into my first teaching placement as a self-declared capable, strong young adult and left that day as a self-declared idiot. I realized I knew nothing of what it meant to be strong or capable.  A sense of shame and embarrassment washed over my ego thinking of every moment I had ever felt bad for myself or like the cards were stacked against me.  I had an arsenal of easy to combat my struggles.  My students, who were between the ages of 18 to 21 and had significant disabilities, had to conquer every moment of every day in a society often built without them in mind.  It is in them that I see the true ableness I strive to achieve in myself.    

Lesson: Real ability does not come from what you can do, but rather from who you are.

Gift: Redefining Communication 

I am a talker.  I hate silence.  When I first began working with students who required pictures, signing, or speech devices I was impatient and often granted myself the liberty of speaking for my students.  This was a habit I had to be made aware of and break! 

Adults who can use spoken words quickly forget what it is like to be seen and not heard.  We fail to present our students with choices because it takes too much time.  We fail to bring his or her speech device with us because it is another thing to carry.  We fail to wait for our students’ responses because we think we know what they were going to say anyway.  Our voices grant us access to our communities and relationships, but you can only have a voice if people around you give you an opportunity to be heard.  

I also learned that communication requires presence and patience.  When you cannot rely on the spoken word you are left to study that person’s every move and expression.  A single wince, turned-up smile, rubbing of the eyes, or tugging of the hair speaks 1000 words.  We should all work towards being present and staying attuned with those in which we are communicating.  Practice patience (without interrupting, finishing someone’s sentence, or speaking for them) so that you can truly listen to what those around you need or want to say.

Lesson: Be the champion of everyone’s voice!  Be present, patient, and aware.

Gift: Redefining Assumptions 

Assumptions are ideas based on false knowledge.  People who are non-disabled have a tendency to assume because they do not have a disability, they know better than their students and their students’ families.  They use this weapon of misconception to believe that they can gauge someone’s “innate” potential or fix every perceived “deficit” or “problem” their student has. 

It is my job to be a voice at the table when planning next steps to meet my students’ educational and personal goals.  It is not my job to pretend that I am the one who knows everything or the expert in defining a student’s potential.  I also will not pretend that I know what it means to be a parent of a child with a disability.  I can listen and learn, but never truly know how their lives have had to change or adjust to meet the needs of their child.  I have been teaching long enough to know that I am always surprised.  Students continue to show me that given the right conditions and support they can exceed what is expected of them. 

If you are looking for some assumptions to hold on to try these. Assume that you do not have the entire picture.  Assume that it may be possible that you misunderstood what this person is thinking or saying (Don’t just make shit up!).  Assume that you do not know everything about this person’s past or present.  Assume that you are not a damn fortune teller that can hand out life’s certainties like ribbons at an art fair. Assume that there is always a path to learning and growing and it doesn’t have to be YOUR path.  

Lesson: Never assume you are an expert on individuality and NEVER assume potential!

Gift: Redefining Value

What do we value in our world, communities, or schools?   I am hit with the answers to this question every day of every year. 

Society values able-bodiedness.  I couldn’t wait to head out into the community during my first round of student teaching.  I was working with young adults and wanted to get out of our tiny classroom for much needed fun.  I rapidly learned what accessibility, or lack thereof, meant.  The volume of sidewalks that could not be accessed, the bus ramps that weren’t working, the lack of handicap bathrooms, and the public spaces or furniture that could not be used were overwhelming.  This inaccessibility isn’t only exclusionary, it is a message about worth.  The few were not worth the time or money to design spaces for all.   

Our society values speed.  I have seen this in the school setting and out in the community.  Countless people would become visibly frustrated while my students attempted to count out their money to pay for something, to manage materials while in line or isles, or when attempting to verbally communicate or use a device.  The sighs, eye rolls, and attempts to finish my students’ sentences communicated the message that they were not worth waiting for.  The ego in many can trick them into thinking that their time is worth more than the time of others.  Slowing down and giving the gift of independence to someone is far more worthy of a moment than rushing along to your next perturbance.  

Our society values academic intellect and compliance.  Inclusive programming scares the shit out of a lot of people.  They worry about the impact on “typical students” and how it will affect their progress.  In response to this fear, we took it upon ourselves to create nice, neat boxes to place our learners in such as: the genius box, the high box, the kinda smart box, the average box, the low box, the low-low box, the oh my gosh they can’t learn box, and the bad behavior box.  I am sure I left out some boxes, but you get the idea.   Now what we did was not ill intentioned.  Boxes were created so that kids get what they need academically.  However, if we look at what we really want for our children I’m guessing it is more than what comes out of a textbook.  To put it in perspective, for a moment ponder on what your most important memories were from school?  I know mine had nothing to do with a chemistry lesson or grammar practice.  Those skills are needed, but relationships, experiences, and feeling socially accepted are the things that truly contribute to a person’s self-worth.  Our children are part of something bigger.  They are the building blocks of communities and societies to come.  If we want a tomorrow that is inclusive for all kids, we need to realize that their first chance at community building is in their schools.  It will be the first snapshot they have of what value they hold to those around them.  They are a piece to a puzzle. Every piece is not the same shape and size but should have somewhere to fit. 

Lesson: Don’t waste time focusing on what others cannot do.  Instead ask yourself what we can all do to allow others an opportunity to share their gifts and worth?

My gratitude cannot be captured in words for all the patience, grace, and love I have been given from my students.  Over the last 20 years I have found myself brought to my knees time and time again with sheer gratitude.  My journey has not met its end.  Every day I breathe, I will strive to be better than the woman that began 20 years ago.  For every individual with a disability please hear me say, thank you!  Thank you for not giving up, for your demonstration of strength and courage, and for giving of yourself even when others have not thought to return the favor.  You are the example by which I live my life and teach my children. 

Final Lesson: When you step back and look outside of yourself, you will see a world filled with people who have abilities not disabilities.

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