Special Needs: An Insider’s Perspective
Originally published May 2017
You’ve been teaching us about types of writing: the difference between fiction and non-fiction; procedural writing; business letters and personal letters—like thank-you letters. I thought I’d practise and write a letter to you about teaching me. And “me” is a student who has a disability.
That makes writing this hard—not because it sometimes takes me longer to write things, or to figure out what I want to say. It’s hard because I don’t know how to describe this letter. My disability is part of my life, and it is not the worst thing to ever happen to me. It is not the worst thing to happen to our classroom. I don’t think I’m amazing because I live with one. I’m not a superhero; I don’t expect you to be one, either.
I know disability makes some things in my life—and in our classroom—different, and difficult. I want to help you understand this so you can teach all your students better. This isn’t a “how-to” piece of procedural writing, though. It can’t be. Each student with a disability is different—even students with the same diagnosis. To teach me well, get to know me, not just my diagnosis. Learn how I learn and what causes me trouble. Physical disabilities don’t all come with learning disabilities. Someone who doesn’t have a physical disability may have a learning disability. The trickiest part about having a learning disability may be that it makes it hard to know why learning is hard.
But I have some general tips to help you.
First, please teach me the way you expect me to learn. You want me to do my homework and ask questions. I want you to learn about my disability. Talk to my doctors, therapists and educational assistants when appropriate. My parents can help explain how we live with the disability at home. They may have resources to help you. Remember, though: I live with this disability more than anyone else. Ask me what I need.
Some things at school are more difficult—some buildings are hard to enter and navigate, or plain impossible. I can’t do some things. You need to consider this when planning lessons. Sometimes, I’ll need extra time to learn something, just like people who live farther away from school need to leave earlier to get there. What seems like extra work to you is a regular part of my life. When I ask for help, please respect me. I probably didn’t want to ask for help, and I’m not trying to be unreasonable. I want to learn, and I want to make sure I’m in an environment where I can.
But the learning expectations for me—that I do my best and work hard—should be the same as they are for every other student. Don’t pamper me because of my disability. Don’t give me marks for showing up. Don’t use my disability to shame other students who may not be working as hard.
Keep those expectations realistic. I’m not going to fail at everything; I’m not going to excel all the time, either. Let me achieve—and fail—like everyone else.
As much as I want you to treat me like them, I’m not like my classmates. Disability makes life different. Being disabled automatically puts me at a disadvantage in some situations in ways others don’t experience. I know everyone has challenges in life, but some challenges disappear. Disability doesn’t. That can be hard, but it isn’t always bad.
Much of what makes living with disability hard—or exciting—is how people respond. You can help me and my classmates learn to respond appropriately. This means you need to let us talk about it. I know you want to be nice, but don’t be afraid to say the words “disabled” or “disability.” People know what they mean. When you tell me I can’t use them, or you use a fancy term like “exceptionality” or “special need,” it can sound like disability is something we need to ignore, or remove completely. That makes me wonder—even a tiny bit—if that could make it easier for people to ignore me, or think my life doesn’t matter, that it would be better for everyone if my disability—or me—wasn’t here.
Disability is going to be part of my life after I’m your student. I need to know the right way to describe it. I will be explaining this part of my life forever. I need to learn to do that well. Let my classmates ask questions. A lot of times, they have questions because they’re curious. They don’t live with my disability. They don’t know how it works. Let them ask politely. I may decide it’s not appropriate to answer. It can be easier for students to bully or ignore me because of my disability. We need to watch out for that; I may not always know what’s happening. But if they have an honest question, let us talk about it.
Please make sure I’m not the only disabled person my classmates or your future students meet. My life can’t be a pattern for everyone else. Use good stories with disabled people in the classroom. Find realistic characters: people who aren’t objects of pity or inspiration. Even better—get to know people who are disabled in regular, social situations where you are interacting as equals. Don’t just meet people with disabilities in charity situations. Do this after I leave your class. Disability is part of the world we live in, and it’s your job as a teacher to help my classmates and I live in it.
Maybe we need to re-think what we mean when we say education is “inclusive.” Sometimes, when people talk about it, they make it sound like the only reason students have opportunities in life is because teachers gave them the opportunities. Education increases my opportunities. But I was part of the world before I entered your classroom. I don’t think I’m being “inclusive” when I spend time with my non-disabled peers. (And let’s be honest—that’s almost everyone in this school.) I think I’m just interacting with other people.
I’m not always going to be nice to everyone, either. We need to discuss how we all can help and befriend each other. Sometimes, my disability hurts and that makes me angry. It’s not OK for me to intentionally hurt others because of this. I need to apologize, ask for forgiveness, and do what I can to also be a good friend and student.
We’re going to make mistakes, and to be totally honest, we probably already have. We can’t fix the past, but we can learn from it and help each other move forward.
This will teach all of us how to say thanks.
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto.