Teachers with Disabilities

20 Jul

I was asked by another blogger about my thoughts concerning being a special educator with disabilities. At first, I didn’t think I’d have anything to say about the subject since I don’t don’t have any identified disabilities. At least not a physical disability beyond severe myopia although some might argue that I have some sort of emotional or behavior disorder! But over the years, I have known various teachers who had disabilities of various sorts and most had gotten along pretty well.

One of the earliest persons I met in the business was a para who had a visual impairment. He was quite successful at his job, working with students with moderate and severe disabilities in an elementary school. While I only briefly met him, he was highly thought of by his fellow teachers and paras and was well-liked by the kids.

I also knew a teacher who slipped and fell and broke his hip. He had several complications which put him in a wheelchair (and several medications) for over a year. He got pretty good at getting around in the wheelchair. He taught students with mild disabilities in co-teaching and resource settings in the high school so his capacity to teach was less severely impacted. However, before the end of his second year in the wheelchair, he did resign because the medications he was on were having an impact on his overall health.

Something we don’t often think about is short-term disabilities, when a teacher becomes injured. In fact this happened to me way back when I was a para, and I twisted up my knee while chasing a kid. I was on crutches for several weeks, and so was limited in the things I could do. But since this was toward the end of the year, we had the kids pretty much into a routine. So while it was a royal pain trying to get around, I was still able to work with the middle school students at the psychoed center albeit in a more limited capacity. I learned how much more work is involved doing simple things with a physical disability. I was going to grad school at the time at Georgia State, and it was a lot of work just getting from the subway to class! By the time I got there in the heat of May, I was drenched in sweat. Any one of us could become disabled through accident or illness at anytime so it just makes good sense being compassionate toward those with differing abilities and exceptionalities.  We’re almost all destined to be on that list at least once.

And then there is a teacher who I’ve known for a few years who has mild CP. She went to college and became certified as an elementary teacher. Just getting through college was a victory, but once out, she discovered that getting a job would be more difficult. There was a lot of prejudice against her as a teacher because of her disability. In fact one administrator she interviewed with told her that she had no business teaching or even being around children. I can only imagine how hurtful that must have been. However, this lady had the pluck to continue trying to find a job and landed in our county where a principal gave her a chance. And she was successful. The obstacles she encountered, as well as a lot of the prejudice and discrimination just made her more determined to prove her detractors wrong and be more successful. She is now a media specialist at one of the elementary schools in our county. She is married and has a son about the same age as my youngest. Her CP presented challenges to her all along the way, but she persevered and met all of them. Things we take for granted like driving or even changing a diaper were things she had to deal with and learn how to do. She is respected and admired by everyone who knows her, not just on account of having such an indomitable spirit, but also on account of her kindness and bigheartedness.

So for people with disabilities who are considering teaching as a career, I would encourage it for several reasons. First of all, we really do need more diversity in teaching all around. While there are many groups under represented on the faculty of any school, those who have disabilities have to be the most underrepresented group of all. Is it because teaching is so demanding? That’s possible, as it can be physically and emotionally taxing. However I think a lot of it is simply part of a larger culture of discrimination against people with disabilities. Just because a person has limitations, we often think of them being less than a whole or capable person. This is a tragedy, I think, because we can learn a lot by being around people who have overcome their limitations in order to improve themselves and the rest of us.

As far as my particular position, it would be very difficult or impossible to do if I had to be in a wheelchair. There is a great deal of lifting involved and while I have capable paras, it would be tremendously unfair to ask them to do all the grunt work that I was unable to do. I do believe there needs to be a certain level of physical fitness required to be in a SID/PID room, but that threshold is relatively low. One needs to be able to lift at least 50 pounds, be able to get on the floor and get up again with relative ease. Other than that, it is mostly mental/emotional. Basically, if a body is able and willing to change the poopy diapers of a young adult, everything else is gravy. The biggest obstacle, in my experience, is a willingness to do it more than ability for most otherwise capable people. I see this especially with guys who were first hired to coach football. If I had to chose between the young guy who coaches football and the young lady who wasn’t as physically strong, I’d pick the lady every time. Someone, no matter how physically fit, who has a poor attitude is all but worthless.

And that’s the take-home message here. Attitude is much more important and critical to success than any physical characteristic and limitation, no matter what field you get into. One can often deal learn to compensate for a physical disability but compensation for a poor attitude just means everyone else has to do more work and put up with it.

One Response to “Teachers with Disabilities”

  1. Erin July 20, 2009 at 11:07 am #

    Dan, thank you so much! I’m so excited to hear your thoughts and to be able to reference this post when I finish up some blogging tasks today. It’s funny that you spent such a long while on the lady with mild CP…it’s what I have, and though I’m able to walk, talk, read, write, and one day soon, drive, I do feel like people with disabilities are very under represented in the education field.

    I did finf out that the CEC has an educators with disabilities caucus that I will join once I am a student member in a couple years, My certification will initially be in Interrelated Special Education, as I’ll be at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville.

    I participated in a teacher cadet sort of program last year that was every day for two hours per day. I spent one hour i a resource English classroom and one hour in a collaborative Math I classroom. I loved the collaborative classroom, partly because of the fact that it was more geared to my ultimate goal of becoming a director of disability services for a university in the sense that I was charged with implementing strategies and technique for student success and successful integration into the regular education environment. Half of that battle was the supervising teacher. I really fit in well with those ladies and have a way to obtain fabulous references for job interviews in the future. After totaling up my hours spent in internship last night, I discovered that I had 320 hours. Good start, eh?

    I’ve also worked with Special Olympics, a respite center for medically fragile children, another resource environment for more severely affected students with disabilities (that was a paid summer job two summers ago), and I’m just trying to prove to the right folks that I am more than capable.

    Anyway, why don’t you e-mail me or something? I’m eager to tell you more!

    Thanks again!

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