“Please raise your hand if you understand this concept,” I said, to the college class.
Angela cleared her throat loudly.
By this time, very comfortable with Angela, I smiled and said, “Okay, Angela, you are excused.” It was a testament to Angela and her self-effacing humor that we could have such an exchange.
You see Angela couldn’t raise her hand. Angela spends her days in a wheelchair with two arms and two legs that are present, but not functional. But that never stopped her.
Angela insisted on Excelling
She has made adaptive choices since childhood, using her mouth, lips, and tongue to open, write, and maneuver her way through life. Angela was one of my students and as her motor-powered wheelchair burst into the room, she adroitly positioned it wherever she wanted by leaning into the side of it.
Angela was always a presence in the room—vocal, take-charge, with self-effacing humor. I would recommend a book in the class that pertained to what we were discussing and before everyone else had written it down, Angela’s head bobbed down to the table, her lips and tongue moving the screen on her phone and within seconds, she would announce to everyone where they could get the book and the cost.
Not Broken Anywhere! I Can Peel an Orange in One Motion
Students often brought their food to eat at the beginning of class. As I was talking, I watched Angela peel an orange—adeptly going round and round removing the peel with her mouth and tongue.
When she finished, I said, “Amazing! I was watching you. You are quite adept.”
She smiled and popped back, “Yep, and all in one peel. Not broken anywhere.”
I admired Angela and knew she felt strongly that her she found her purpose in being a special-education counselor and teacher for high school students. According to Angela, special education is often a place where difficult students are sent. She straightens them out very quickly and many have come back after graduation to tell her thank you.
I Wasn’t Coddled, but I Was Certainly Supported
She freely and sometimes, enthusiastically, talks about “experiences and hardships I have faced throughout my life, which has shaped me into the adult I am today. There have been many lessons and experiences I have faced in the past few years of my life; I feel that I have experience and knowledge that I can offer.”
I was truly blessed with having parents who were not afraid to let me figure things out for myself. There is no doubt in my mind that this fact allowed me to become the strong individual I am now. They were not afraid to let me roll around the floor, which was exactly how I got around for the first couple of years of my life.
When I was two, my mother who, along with my father, was active duty Air Force, took me for an evaluation and fitting of my first electric wheelchair. In their supportive role, my parents provided more mobility than I could have ever thought possible. Having this mobility, even at the age of a little older than two, allowed me the independence I needed. I did not have to rely on rolling on the floor or having to be carried around by my parents or other adults.
I Learned What Worked for Me
In my elementary school years, no one really knew what to do with a child who was physically disabled but was cognitively normal. I was originally enrolled in a special education preschool, but at the end of the semester, the teacher told my mother that I needed to be enrolled in mainstream education. This came as no surprise to my mother, but I needed the formal evaluations that actually stated this.
Armed with the evaluations in my file, I started mainstream kindergarten and learned my first lesson about how children and some adults can be so cruel and judgmental. Clearly, educators, physical therapists, and occupational therapists have come a long way since I was in elementary school. But when I was an elementary student, teachers I had early on were unwilling to listen to me and thought that they were right when it came to the way I did things.
They wanted me to use crazy-looking contraptions on my head that moved a pointer on a computer screen or a mouthpiece with an attached pencil which I was supposed to use to “write.” I put write in quotations because I could not write with that contraption in my mouth. All it did was cause me to drool all over my paper.
Little had the teachers and occupational therapist realized, I was quite a stubborn child and eventually did things the way I saw fit. I wrote with a pen in my mouth and used a regular computer mouse to move the pointer around on the screen.
Even though others may be well-meaning, it’s important to own your own choices and have enough self-awareness to know what works for you.
The Importance of Assertively Speaking Up
I learned to speak up for myself in elementary school and to let adults and other people know if certain things were or were not benefiting me in a positive way. I also learned to do things for myself; I thank my mother and my fifth-grade teacher for these life skills.
Not only have I been able to continue to use this approach throughout my own life, but I have been able to show other students that if they are able to do something for themselves, then they should. Conversely, we should also speak up and ask for help when we are unable to do a task alone.
It’s a balanced strategy that works:
If you can do it yourself, do it. If not, don’t hesitate to ask for help.
This principle was very real to me during my transition from elementary school to middle school. Like many students, that time can be exciting but also difficult. I had a one-on-one EA (Educational Assistant) who was constantly with me, but all I wanted was to not be different from my other classmates. Having an EA attached to my hip all day long definitely made me different from my classmates. And I did not want to be different!
Thankfully though, this EA had been with me since my elementary school years and knew me well. She understood that I was like any other sixth grader and I wanted to be “cool,” so she started to back off and only help me if I asked for her help.
She demonstrated well this balanced approach of being there/not being there. I still use this strategy for my students in the school system with children of all ages. Depending on the ages of my students and their independence level, I tend to be more hands-off than hands-on. However, I am always there to help and assist a student.
How to Use Influence to Make the Way Smoother For Others
In middle school, I was enrolled in a music class where we played an instrument (it still baffles me to this day why I was enrolled in this class). In short order, the teacher saw that it was very difficult for me to play any of the instruments that were in the classroom and I was daily frustrated. Though I am a can-do person, this was a waste of my time and talent. I can usually figure out a workaround, but this was ridiculous.
The music teacher approached me one morning before class and asked if I was happy in this class. I shared my frustrations with him. He immediately went to the school counselor and asked for me to be switched from music class to choir class. I realized then that stepping up as a teacher/assistant/friend/parent is one of the best things an adult can do for a child or even another adult when they do not have the voice, power, or influence to do so for themselves.
My Victory Was Short-Lived
Since both of my folks were on active duty Air Force, shortly after I completed my sophomore year of high school in Washington State, they received orders to leave. This news of a move was tough because I had fought for my independence at this school and had finally won. I shortly proved to them that I was capable of being on my own (and not having an EA) because I had a support system of teachers and friends who were willing to help me if I asked them. It was a great sense of independence and what all teenagers wanted.
Then I moved to a new school and the battle started all over again. The move brought more red tape in the administration of the new school. Unfortunately, there was no ally in the new school; but fortunately, I was old enough to be my own ally. The school, the teachers, and the people in the Special Education Department did not know me at all and assumed that I could not do anything for myself and insisted an Educational Assistant follow me around everywhere. This was a huge frustration for me as I felt that I was back in elementary school again.
We All Know What Assuming Does
The word “assume” is a bad word in my vocabulary. Assuming that someone can or cannot do something is such an ignorant way of thinking. I actually had a verbal fight with the head of Special Education, insisting that I did not need a one-on-one Educational Assistant. After dodging my EA for more than half of the school year, she allowed me to not have an EA my senior year of high school; I also refused to be enrolled in a Special Educational classroom. I insisted that I could do more for myself than she could even think I was capable of doing. She “assumed” that I was unable to do things for myself.
Over the next two years of high school, I taught the teachers and the head of Special Education more than they taught me. Perhaps because of my leadership and insistence on my own capabilities (and the head of Special Education at my new high school who I finally won over), I was asked to speak about my experiences.
Next Up? Public Speaking and Becoming an Author, No Less
At the start of my senior year, I was invited to be a guest speaker at the University of New Mexico. I also wrote a chapter in the book Listening to the Experts which is now used in the College of Special Education at the University of New Mexico.
In this book, “students with a wide range of disabilities give readers a rare inside look at their past and present school experiences, both in self-contained classrooms and in inclusive environments. With uncensored candor and insight.”(Keefe et al., 2006)
Candor and insight are my specialties.
As a student in high school, I spoke to college students who were going to be the future teachers of Special Education. I spoke about my past experiences in the different levels of education and how I knew what worked best for me.
As I continued to guest speak during my senior year, I was also invited to speak at a national conference in Chicago, IL called TASH. I talked about individuals speaking up for themselves and relying upon themselves, instead of relying on others. In the end, after school is done, we only have ourselves to rely on.
Becoming a Better Communicator and Reading Others
As an adult, I have learned effective communication and how to read other people’s body language. Communication skills help a lot when working with high school students who have been labeled with behavioral issues. Gaining more life experiences in communication with agitated teenagers has helped me to be more understanding and a better listener.
The Give and Take of Positive Influence
Many people have influenced my life in a positive way. I have also been told by prior teachers and students that I have had a positive effect on their lives as well. I expect to continue giving and contributing as my life moves.
Keefe, E., Moore, V., & Duff, F. (2006). Listening to the Experts: Students With Disabilities Speak Out: Paul H Brookes Publishing Company.