High school can be a tough experience for anyone, so I can only imagine what it’s like to be a student with a disability. For many years, students with disabilities were held to the notion that they were not capable of much and it was very unlikely for them to graduate. Recent media has showed how that view is starting to change.
In a recent article by US News (http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/high-school-notes/2014/04/28/high-school-graduation-rates-reach-record) seventy-seven percent of student with disabilities in Kansas graduate, compared to the about twenty percent national average. Kansas officials say this is because they integrate students with disabilities in general education courses. The idea is, the higher expectations you hold disabled students to, the better that will do. This is supported by a new worldwide program called Teach For All which trains teachers and coaches on how to teach children with “learning differences.” In an article by Education Week (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/09/10/03teachforall.h34.html), Rachel Brody, the managing director of Teach For America’s Special Education and Ability Initiative says, “We came to the decision to focus very heavily on high expectations. For every single kid we work with, we’re going to focus on the high expectations for them.” Underestimating a student with disabilities can keep them from reaching their full potential.
Many times, I’ll watch the news and see a feature story of how a disabled student was able to overcome their disability or has done something great. These are great examples of how you never know what someone is capable of doing. One thing I notice in all of the success stories I see of students with disabilities, is a strong support system. It’s amazing what people can accomplish with the motivation of other people. Parents, teachers, coaches and anyone else that focuses on disabled student’s strengths and motivate them to use those strengths to get over their weaknesses can make such a difference in that person’s quality of life. An article in NEA Today (http://neatoday.org/2013/03/28/students-with-physical-challenges-speak-out/) featured a physically disabled boy named Curtis who says his math teacher sophomore year pushed him to get into mainstream classes, and because of this motivation; he was able to do so. He says that children with disabilities need to be pushed and motivated just as much as any other student. Motivation is what helps push us to do things to the best of our ability. Granted, we already had the skills somewhere deep down inside, but we may have never known without the encouragement from others.
When I first entered UMFS Charter School I had so many thoughts racing through my mind as to what I should expect. All I knew was that I signed up for a class called “Video Mentoring” through VCU and that I would be teaching special needs children the basics of shooting, interviewing and editing. My classmates and I had been previously prompted about how the children had all been through some type of traumatic situation and to treat them with a certain delicacy. To be honest I felt uneasy to get to know them because some of the things I had been told. I was so afraid of getting too close and making them uncomfortable. The last thing I wanted was for one of the students to have an episode because I had invaded their personal space. As I waited for their arrival I kept thinking of all these scenarios in my head of how that could happen.
The students came in the room and after our first and somewhat awkward introductions to each other, then we were encouraged to get up and meet and greet with each other. The first interaction my classmates and I had with one of the students didn’t exactly go as smooth as I’m sure we all had hoped. We stepped out of the conference room to introduce ourselves to a girl who had a chocolate allergy and couldn’t be in the room, but due to the lingering smell of the m&m’s and chocolate chip cookies that were set out for us, she passed out. In my mind I just knew that indecent would set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
We returned into the room and formed little circles and made small talk just trying to get a feel for the students we would be working with, keeping the personal space bubble at the forefront of our minds. After just a few minutes of talking I realized these kids were more like me than I could have ever imagined. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much and had such fun conversation. We shared our personal stories about how tough it can be to be a girl sometimes with the tight corset dresses and spanx and we also shared some of our weird food craving like burger doughnuts and fried Oreos. As conversation went on our laughs got louder and our circle around each other formed tighter. Every thought I had about them in my mind before went right out the window and I was able to talk to them just as I would anyone else.
That’s really when it all clicked for me. I realized we are all equal human beings and just because their circumstances are different than mine, doesn’t mean we can’t relate to one another. They had no control over the situations they were either born with or born into, so instead of profiling them before I got to know them, I should have given more of a chance. I realized I was the one that had put up a personal bubble.
My goal for this class was always to help people, but I think at first it was for selfish reasons. I was focused more on how the experience would impact me and mold me to be a better person instead of thinking about how much much my service could do for them. Now I have made a real connection with these kids and genuinely care about them. I want to help them make it to college and get just as far, if not further than me in life.