8 Things I Wish Teachers Understood About Students With Disabilities


I am a special education teacher and have been for upwards of 15 years. I’ve run a classroom for students with various disabilities. I’ve run a resource program so my students could be integrated into the general education classroom with my help.

Furthermore, I was in the same boat as the students I teach. I was that “special ed” student in your classroom. I was integrated in the beginnings of the original IDEA law when students with disabilities had to be included in classrooms with their non-disabled peers. My teachers, with little experience and training, had to find ways to relate to me and make my education productive and meaningful.

Here are some universal themes I wish I could tell the teachers who taught me then, and the teachers who teach my students now.

1. If you think disability is a big deal, it is. So much of disability is about the perception of the non-disabled person. Many times my students were welcomed by teachers who treated their needs as a variation of their humanity. Other teachers found their needs too much of an aberration to handle. The students were the same — the perspective wasn’t.

2. My students have a sixth sense. Even with the most professional teacher, my students and I could tell who wanted us there and who didn’t. Children by nature want to please people they like and who like them. My students are no different. Find the connection and they will do whatever you ask as best they can.

3. Disability is situational. Students may have academic or behavioral challenges in certain areas. But I guarantee you they have a strength. Build their confidence and self-worth by identifying that area and finding ways for them to use it — big or small — as often as possible.

4. Disability is a two-way street. I know I have to make certain social efforts or submit to some medical procedures to survive and get along with some degree of conventionality. It means a lot to me and my students for non-disabled people to make the effort to make an adjustment to a room, a conversation or activity to meet us halfway. It tells us you want us there, too. Our personhood comes first.

5. Disability is part of us. For many of my students and me, we were born with a disability, just as we were born with a certain hair color. Even if we are “diagnosed” at school age, chances are you are just putting a label on characteristics we have had for years. So please be careful as you discuss our struggles. Criticism and frustration can easily sound like rejection and judgement of what is inherent in our nature.

6. A “fix” is not the answer. So many times, the undercurrent of any conversation I have regarding my students reflects an attitude on the teacher’s part in which they view my job as the “fix it” teacher. The expectation is that I “fix” the student so the students will not “suffer” or that the teacher does not have to put in extra time learning strategies to include them on top of the insurmountable things they already have to do. I cannot “fix” them. What I can do is highlight their strengths and teach them how to work around their disability as much as possible. But it will still take acceptance and accommodations on the part of others to integrate them into mainstream society.

7. Beware of the “not in my backyard” mentality. On the surface, many people will support my work and support the integration of students with disabilities — until one of “my” students enters their classroom. Then it is “too much” or “not fair” to “my” student or “their” students. Understand that disabled or not, each student is our student. If you are feeling ill-equipped or unsure, talk to me. If you are open to learning and collaboration, we can work together to make it work.

8. Be kind. Take a breath, gather yourself and no matter how you address a frustrating situation — choose kindness. Address the disability and how it is frustrating you, not the child. Focusing on the disability is proactive and productive. Addressing the child as if the disability has no part in your frustration just shames the child for something she has little to no control over.

teacher and students sitting around table
Maria and her students

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