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When I Doubted My Abilities as a Legally Blind Teacher

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I am a year and a half away from graduating with my bachelor’s in special education and a minor in sociology, and it is absolutely terrifying. Once I got through my core classes like algebra, biology and physics, I was able to take only curriculum and instruction and special education classes, and get As. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to internalize and remember the things I would need to put into practice in a short time. I have been in school for 15 years, and soon I will have my own classroom.

Emily Parma, ready to teach.

And then my entire physical being trembled with fear. Could I really teach students when I was struggling with facing my disability in the academic setting? In high school I was able to get by with barely any accommodations, and no assistive technology. Math and geography were always the hardest for me, since the nature of those classes are visual, but I got by. The teachers who tried to push me to help myself — to sit closer to the board I could not see — just made me frustrated. I refused the help and barely passed those classes. I had testing accommodations, but I pretended not to need help during activities or class presentations. Truth be told, I used my own adaptations to do the work. If I feared not being able to read a PowerPoint, I memorized it. High school flew by, and I graduated with a goal to become a teacher. At that time, I still ignored the part of my identity that needed extra help to succeed. I thought I had figured it out.

So here I am in my first block class (the part of an education major’s classes that prepares for student teaching), and I have never been so overwhelmed before. The first block is ESL (English as a second language), and we are expected to create lesson plans, present methods for teaching, observe teachers in elementary schools, and various classroom activities. Unfortunately, I grew to hate this class because my disability was in the way.

I have been forced to grasp the part of me I pretended was not there for so long. I am learning to teach and learning how to adapt to my needs. There have been many tears shed during my years here at school, because I fear I will not be able to teach. I know it is what I am meant to do, but because I never used technology in my education career before, I have to teach myself how to use adaptive technology now, like a CCTV or zoomtext on a computer.

It is exhausting. Some days I have to opt out of classroom activities because I cannot read the text, and then I have to explain why to everyone. Of course they ask if I wear glasses, so I have to further explain that I am legally blind, and my contacts or glasses only help so much. Answering people’s questions is not my main concern — it is the fact that I am expected to already know how to help myself, because I’ve been in school for so long.

In my teaching classes, we have spontaneous assignments where we are given a text and we have to present the information we find. For a student with a disability, this is the most anxiety-creating assignment a teacher can give. There is no extended time given to read the text or figure out how to present it. Put partner work on top of that, and I have to make sure I write it down so I can read it, or memorize it. By the end of the class, I am exhausted, and terrified of teaching. Some classes are like that when I do not know how to help myself.

I had to do something. Was this major really for me? I was afraid my future students would not respect me. Was there someone I could talk to? I remembered my first special education professor I had last semester, and how she said her office door was always open for students to approach her with a problem.

I found myself in her office that very week, in tears because my heart knew what I was meant to do, but my mind had doubts. It was overwhelming. But she told me she believed in me, that I was one of her best students, and she needed my head in the game. I needed to hear that. She also reminded me that if this is what God wants me to do, I must go forward. I know not everyone is religious, but everyone needs something to motivate them, and for me, it was being reminded of where I believe God has me. Then my kind professor told me she knew just who could help me. Her best friend is legally blind, and has been teaching for decades. I finally had a mentor, and it turned out we were more alike than either of us realized. It was a good feeling to find someone who can relate to my struggles and guide me in finding the most helpful technology to use when I am a teacher. Now I have one less thing to worry about.

I wish I had not been so shy about my disability in high school, because maybe then I would not be working as hard now to learn how to adapt. Reaching my breaking point in college and asking for help was the best thing I did for my future. I will always have insecurities that come and go, but now I have people in my life to talk to about them. I will forever be grateful to the professor who spoke truth to me, and to the role model who will help me be a better teacher. Thanks to them, I now know I can be an effective teacher, and I will do whatever it takes.

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Originally published: April 27, 2016
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