Before starting college, I never felt fully independent. I am a person with a disability called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC), which causes muscle weakness in my hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, feet and knees. For the 12 years before graduation, I always had an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), an aide to help me at school, my mom to go home to, and an entire community to lean on.
Going to college was the first time I truly had to figure things out on my own and advocate for myself. Boy was it a huge learning experience. But I had been learning these skills for years – sometimes from teachers who helped me, and sometimes despite the most well-intentioned adults around me. I want to share what I learned from my experience about how teachers can support students with disabilities.
Committed to supporting your students with disabilities? Here’s my advice for you.
#1 Listen to me – especially when I’m telling you what I need (or don’t need)
Figuring out accommodations and accessible equipment when I was in school involved a lot of trial and error. Some were genuinely helpful and others not so much – but I had to fight to be heard by the adults around me.
In elementary school, my occupational therapists suggested I use adaptive eating tools. They weren’t that helpful and I hated using them. The therapists suggested I just practice more. I continued to use them until one day, frustrated and defeated, I gathered the courage to voice that they just made eating harder. Regular utensils worked just fine. I think my look of exasperation finally made them listen, and I never saw those awful utensils again.
Something similar happened when I tried to use Dragon speech software, a talk to type program that allows you to speak into a microphone instead of using a keyboard. It takes a significant amount of practice, including a lot of hours being pulled out of class, for the program to recognize your voice – and ultimately it didn’t work for me.
From the start, I didn’t feel comfortable using this technology, but I felt pushed and was afraid of disappointing the adults around me.
I want to emphasize how important it is to be encouraging rather than pressuring. It’s perfectly fine to encourage a student to give something a fair shot, but if it’s not working, or if they are voicing concerns, don’t add pressure to the situation. Not every adaptive tool or accommodation is going to make a disabled person’s life easier. But it sometimes felt like the adults around me doubted my capabilities, which caused me to feel doubt within myself. It’s important to really listen to what works and what doesn’t – I wished they had trusted and respected my needs more.
#2 Work with me to figure out what inclusion looks like
I was never excluded from learning among able-bodied students. There were times when I couldn’t physically complete a task and the teachers worked with me to find alternatives. For example, due to my disability I had trouble raising my hand in class. When the teacher noticed I wasn’t answering questions as much, we had a sit down to discuss different ways to show class participation. We came to the conclusion that in the moments where I feel like answering a question, I’ll hold my pencil up.
This allowed me to still feel involved but not stick out from the other kids, which was really important to me.
In these types of situations, communication, understanding and inclusion are all key.
#3 Give me lots of practice in advocating for myself
From kindergarten through high school, my IEP team met every year, and in middle school I started to join the meetings. At first it was really intimidating, like I was telling the adults what to do for once. But being involved in every meeting and requesting my own accommodations, while having the adults around me actually listen and respect my decisions, really helped me learn how to advocate for myself. All of my accommodations, no matter how small, made a huge impact on my success in school. The more meetings I was involved in, the more confident I was in voicing my needs. It made me feel a lot more comfortable when I transitioned into college.
#4 Help me find resources to reach my goals
I knew that I wanted to attend college right after high school. My high school counselor helped me and my mom got in touch with our local Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS). They helped me write resumes, offered different job shadowing opportunities, answered all my questions about transitioning to college, and gave me all the technology I needed to be successful. They even offered me financial assistance for college as long as I kept my GPA up. I used these services all throughout high school and college, and it made an enormous impact on the ways I was able to prepare for early adulthood.
I’m extremely grateful to the staff at my school that went above and beyond to provide and connect me to all the resources I needed to successfully transition into the next stage of life. At the same time, I often had to push back against what the adults around me wanted in order to get my needs met. Students with disabilities are first and foremost people.
As teachers, administrators, and counselors, it is so important for you to be our advocate but also inspire ways in which we can advocate for ourselves.
Know us, encourage us, respect us. It should be your mission to support all students to help us become the best we can be. Even the small things have a big impact. And that’s how you and your fellow teachers can truly support students with disabilities like me.