To the Only Child in School Who Uses a Wheelchair,
I hear you. I know exactly how you’re probably feeling right now. Maybe you’ve just started at a big school, or maybe you’ve been there for a while now, but you’re feeling like you’re the wrong-shaped jigsaw piece for the puzzle that is school, and you just don’t fit into the picture. You are not alone.
You may feel lonely, sad, isolated and upset. You may feel like you don’t belong. You may feel like you have no friends. Maybe there are some nasty children picking on you and you feel you have no one to back you up. My friend… I and many others have been there. We aren’t saying our situation is worse than yours, but we do understand. You are not alone.
You start the day in the classroom. You have to sit at the front near the door. Maybe the teacher wants you at the front of the classroom so they can see you, but really, you just want to be at the back where you feel no one can see you. The teacher takes the attendance, but you may be dreading having to say “Here, Miss,” as you feel like you’re drawing attention to yourself just by being present.
If you experience discomfort or pain, sometimes you fidget a lot which you feel other children notice. Maybe the other children around you draw attention to it, which hurts your feelings because you are just trying to get on with your work. Sometimes, the pain means you won’t be able to complete the work, and then you have to pass your work on to the child next to you for peer marking. They comment, just loud enough for the teacher and everyone else to hear, about how little work you’ve done.
Maybe now it’s time to move to your next lesson. This means having to leave the classroom and enter the corridors, which sometimes resemble pedestrians trying to cross a busy motorway. The hustle and bustle of students late for their lessons and frantically trying to make up for time is a daily occurrence. You sit lower than your peers… you can hear many a conversation taking place, but you often aren’t part of them. You’ve got people staring at you as if you’ve got three heads, people catching your face with their shoulder bags as they rush on ahead and silly groups of children running right into you.
Maybe it’s break time and you’re watching your peers play soccer. You wish you could join in. Maybe you used to be able to play but now, for whatever reason, you can’t. Or maybe you don’t even go out at break time as you’ll only feel excluded, so instead, you sit and catch up on work. You may feel as if everyone, including the adults around you, are against you or even punishing you. But they really aren’t.
Assembly time. This may be the only time you can sit at the back of the hall. Now, you can see just how many other children fidget, pick their nose when they think no one is looking, and sneak a phone into school.
Lunch time. You are sitting at a table with peers, or the teachers’ table, or perhaps, alone. After, instead of going out to play, you go back to your classroom or the Learning Support Center… or maybe you do go into the playground but instead of having fun, you watch everyone else have fun… why aren’t you joining in?
Physical Education time… one of the biggest challenges you may face. Guess what? It’s either football, cross-country running or gymnastics. Maybe you can do some of the gymnastics with the help of a learning support assistant. That’s brilliant, you go for it. Or maybe, for whatever reason, you can’t. You watch everyone else climb up that rugged rope complaining that their hands are burning. You sit there wishing your hands would burn like theirs do, so you could get to the top to view the hall from their perspective.
Being different can really affect how you feel about yourself and others. It can make you think everyone is against you. It can make you feel like you’re a million miles away from reality.
But I have hope for you. You can get through this.
Maybe you have a very understanding learning support assistant like I did. Maybe they support you in all your lessons, or some of them. They might help you with work… maybe you get to leave the lessons earlier (yay!) to get to your next lesson on time. They might help you with your personal care as well. If you’re honest with them, they’ll likely do whatever they can to help you. If you feel your assistant doesn’t understand what you are going through or how you feel, speak to a teacher you trust.
Just remember, even though you feel alone, you really aren’t. I’ll tell you this as an adult… you will always remember your favorite teachers from each school you go to. Take that particular teacher whose lessons you genuinely look forward to. They’re fun, engaging and you learn something even when you feel like you can’t carry on with the day. You arrive at their classroom and they ask how your day is going. They’ve got everything ready for you, like positioning your adapted seat in exactly the right place for you. They’ve got the learning materials out already too, so now you don’t have to navigate through the swamp of school chairs in your path. They know exactly where you like to sit and why, but they don’t draw attention to it, because why would they need to?
They’re aware that you’ll fidget, move, make noise, and get really uncomfortable at some point during their lesson, but they don’t stop the whole class to tell you to be quiet because you’re supposedly disrupting things… instead, they continue and then later check to see if you’re OK. If you need time out for the bathroom, that’s fine. If you’re having a bad day, they genuinely seem to care and will let you know they’re there in whatever professional way they can be.
Sometimes, feeling that someone of authority genuinely cares about you as a student, while also positively pushing and reinforcing your self-confidence, can make a world of difference
to how you feel. This is the kind of teacher you want. The teacher who knows each individual child in their class, their strengths and weaknesses and individual needs. They genuinely want you to excel and do your very best, even with the 1001 challenges being thrown at you from all other angles of your life.
Maybe you could see if your parents can find a local sports club for you? I found wheelchair basketball at a very young age, then took up wheelchair tennis, went on numerous tours including some international competitions, and now I’m back at wheelchair basketball once again. Not only will you meet others in a similar situation as you, but you’re taking up a new skill. You get to try out amazingly cool wheelchairs with slanted wheels, and find out how to bounce a ball while wheeling along and improving your communication skills. You’ll make friends there too. And guess what? This is something that you could talk about with your peers at school. They’ve probably never heard of sports for disabled people.
If you feel like you’ve got no friends, try to find out what your peers enjoy as hobbies. Bring up your new hobby (whether it be a sport or something else) and that’ll soon get you talking. Hey, maybe if you choose a sport like wheelchair basketball or tennis, your club may be able to come to your school to provide your class with a whole new PE lesson. Then who is going to be the cool kid, eh? An experience like that will help your peers and your teachers to experience the challenges you face… which in turn will help them understand you more.
Talk to those around you. Try not to remain quiet… I know it can be difficult to talk if you’re uncomfortable but I encourage you to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It’ll be worth it. If you need help with this, your school may have a counseling service to help you.
Laugh… a lot.
School can be damn hard. It may feel like you’re in the middle of a battle you can’t win. I’ve not even covered half of the things you and I may have experienced at school, but I hope reading this letter shows you that you can do this. You can get through school even if you’re the only kid riding around on four wheels.
Prove all the doubters wrong… I believe you can do whatever you put your mind to. If you want to be a teacher when you’re older, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t because you’re in a wheelchair. If you want to be a scientist, go for it. If you want to go to university, work hard and you’ll get there.
I believe in you.
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