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Dear Teacher of a Child With Cerebral Palsy

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Dear Teachers,

I am 26 and have cerebral palsy. I didn’t always have the greatest experience at school, and while much of this can be attributed to the many months I missed due to surgeries and recovery, some of it was due to teachers failing to understand my disability, and how serious and longstanding the impact of misplaced and unkind words can be.

I participated in a local fundraising walk yesterday. It was the culmination of about four months of training that has helped me on the long journey to acceptance of my disability, and. for perhaps the first time in my life, appreciation and of my body and what it achieves despite its stiffness, soreness, and the all the arguments my muscles have with my brain! But there was more to this walk than just five kilometers of pacing, sweat and determination to finish.

At the same location sixteen years earlier, my homeroom teacher had looked me in the eyes prior to a school running event and told me there was no way I could do it. I was 11, and my already tenuous self-belief was seriously shaken. I vaguely remember trying not to cry. I was new to the school, still trying to find my way. I felt the isolation provoked by my obviously physical differences from other children acutely. For sixteen years, I have remembered what he said.

Over the years, many people have asked why I have a negative outlook, doubt myself and have such low self-confidence, especially when it comes to sports and my physical abilities. Only a couple of weeks ago, I heard somebody say, “I wonder what goes on in her head?” It was through training for (and completing) the event yesterday that I realized this stems in part from remarks like the one made by my teacher all those years ago.

On the other end of my run was another teacher. He was beaming, clapping and congratulating me on my achievement. I was the very last to finish out of about three hundred students, but he made me feel like the biggest success, rather than a failure before I had even tried. We remain firm friends to this day.

Here a few things to know about having a child in your class with cerebral palsy.

It is understandable that upon learning that a child you will be responsible for has a disability, you might feel uncertain. What will they be able to do? How much help will they need? Will they make friends and feel included? How can I best help them? Can I do this? These are all completely understandable concerns, and raising them shows just how dedicated you are to ensuring the best experience for the child in your care; that’s great! What’s also great is there are usually plenty of people around the child who will be thrilled to answer these questions and more, so ask away. Family members, usually weary from the intense and repetitive advocacy that has been required of them even before their child reaches school age, will be so happy and relieved to know you are taking an interest. By asking these questions, you are becoming a part of the essential support team for the family. You are needed and loved; welcome!

Your encouragement is essential and valued more than you will perhaps ever realize. How you interact with the child builds a foundation for their self-image into adulthood. In a world where friends may at times be scarce, and family relationships can be strained due to the “family members as therapists” dichotomy, helping a child with cerebral palsy to believe in his or her abilities can be as simple as making one positive remark a day. Your words have weight, and matter to the child. They have the power to either lift that child to beautiful new heights, or to crush self-belief or ambition. Use them wisely.

Efforts towards inclusion must be genuine. Including a child with cerebral palsy does not always mean putting them with everyone else if they cannot participate fully. Being forced to watch from the sidelines when the activity has not been appropriately adapted for them is worse for many children than not being there at all, because it reminds them, often painfully, of the things they might struggle with due to their disability. Instead, encourage and celebrate their achievements in the areas they are passionate about, whether sports, mathematics, or music. Single them out for praise of their talent and hard work.

If you see exclusion, bullying or a safety concern, please speak up! Although you may only witness one instance of this, the child may be dealing with it on a daily basis and not be certain where to turn for help. Knowing there is a teacher on their side is a huge relief. If something just doesn’t seem right for the child or they become withdrawn, please say something. It could stop a problem escalating into something worse.

Believe that potential is limitless, and make sure your classroom is set up for the child with cerebral palsy to achieve theirs. In the right environment, disability need not halt achievement, although acceptance of one’s disability does take time, so accept that some days will be better than others.

Because of your efforts, children with cerebral palsy can grow in confidence and learn to accept themselves as talented, aware, and determined individuals, often with great senses of humor. I am a coach nowadays and see this often. From personal experience, I can promise you they will remember you as a great supporter and someone who cared deeply for their experience in education. Even a small dose of positivity each day makes a great impression, but negativity leaves a dent on self-image that can take a long time to recover from, even years. Don’t impose this on them, please.

To all teachers, soon to be teachers, and students planning to become teachers one day: thank you for making the choice to nurture children with disabilities, and guiding them to greatness! You are their superheroes!

Originally published: May 21, 2018
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