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We Need More Disabled Special Education Teachers

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I am a disabled special education teacher… and I am struggling to get a job.

May 27, 2018 was one of the most exciting and proudest days of my life. I joined several of my classmates, whom I had spent a year and a half working, bonding, laughing, and crying with at graduation. My name was called and I rolled across the stage, signifying that I had earned my Education Specialist Teaching Credential. I felt like such a badass in that moment. I’d had one of, if not the best interview of my life with a school district a couple weeks before that I was beyond excited to work in, and everything felt like a done deal. In that moment, I felt like I could take on the world. I was taking on the world.

A narrative that had been repeated over and over again before and during my credential program is our desperate need for special education teachers. I did not expect this to mean that I would not have to work hard, or that I would not have to prove myself, but I did expect that school districts would be excited enough about the prospect of hiring me that my disability would not factor into the hiring process like it does in most other contexts. It has been just over a month since my graduation day and I have still heard nothing from that school district, or any other.

If you had told me even a couple years ago that I would be a special education teacher, I would have probably told you that sounded like the beginning of either a really bad joke or a really good story. Luckily for me, it’s the latter. I decided to pursue Special Education, and teaching in general, somewhat begrudgingly. Teaching “runs in my family,” and whether it was the result of a prolonged rebellious phase where I was determined to not be what people expected me to be, or the result of what my parents lovingly refer to as “stubborn bitchiness” which we’re pretty sure is genetic, becoming a teacher — especially a special ed teacher — is something I never thought I would do.

Going through my credential program was a period of tremendous self-discovery for me, and I can now proudly say that being a special education teacher is not just something I do. It is literally who I am, fundamentally in the depths of my soul. I feel this aspect of my identity in the same place in my soul where I feel my identity as a disabled person, and as a woman, but it took me the majority of my 29 years on this Earth to realize it, partly because of the reasons I have just mentioned, but also because of representation.

My view of special education as someone who was born with a disability and who utilized and benefited from special education throughout my educational career, is one I think many members of the disabled community share. I felt like special ed was something that was happening to me, rather than something I could actually have a say in. The intention of special ed is to remove as many barriers to an equal and quality education as possible, but at its worst, I think it has a tendency to look a lot like segregation. It can sometimes feel like a system designed to minimize or even erase a person’s disability. As a person with a permanent, unchanging disability that cannot be “fixed” by any amount of positive attitude or hard work, this was a hard pill for me to swallow.

I have come to realize that much of my perception of special ed has to do with the fact that I never had any visibly disabled teachers. As a white cisgender woman from an upper-middle class suburban family, the irony is not lost on me that I fit the stereotype of what a teacher is in every way, except that I can’t walk, but the important thing to realize about representation is that it needs to be intersectional.

School is a place where we learn not just what we like and want to do, but who we are. For many members of the disabled community, this is difficult to reconcile because we often don’t see ourselves represented anywhere. Our teachers act as guides to help us discover who we are, and the best teachers are sources of inspiration in the complicated business of self-discovery. Kids who grow up in special education not only have to come to terms with the stigma that comes with being a special ed student, but without teachers who reflect their own identities, self-discovery becomes exponentially more difficult.

Having more disabled special education teachers and disabled education professionals in general doesn’t just benefit our disabled students. It benefits everyone. The disabled community is not only the largest marginalized group in the world, but it’s also the only identity group that intersects every other identity group. Disability does not discriminate along the lines of race, gender, socioeconomic status or sexual orientation. When we hire more disabled teachers, we are automatically including other underrepresented groups too. Disability is also the only marginalized group that everyone has the potential to become a part of at some point in their lives. I think this fact makes many people so uncomfortable with the concept of disability, especially with the idea of framing disability in a positive light.

But if we see disabled people becoming teachers in any numbers that parallel our existence in the world, I believe disability would become much less scary to people. A disabled kindergarten teacher might get a lot of questions on the first day of school from her students who have never seen anyone who looks like her before, but soon their teacher’s disability will become normal to them, and they will have much fewer questions when they become adults. Implicitly teaching kids about the disabled community by having members of that community as their teachers, school administrators, paraprofessionals, and various other staff is a resource of immeasurable proportions that we have not tapped into yet.

Several months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in an activity on Facebook with a group of some of the toughest, strongest, most incredible women I know. The activity was connected to a YouTube video called, “The Things We Tell Ourselves.” In the video, a woman sits down with several women from diverse backgrounds and asks them about some of the things they say to themselves internally on a daily basis. Each woman had at least one disparaging comment she said to herself regularly. Not surprisingly, they all acknowledged that these were things they would never say or even think about another person. The women were then shown pictures of themselves as children, and asked to say something to the girl in the photo. If they could say anything to her, what would they want her to know?

Each of us then posted a picture of our childhood selves and wrote a note to that girl. This activity resonated particularly deeply with me, not only because I imagined saying the words I wrote to my childhood self, but I was also imagining saying them to my future students. What would I want all of them to know based on my life experiences that have brought me to where I am today? This is part of what I wrote:

Dearest Me,

You will spend a lot of time feeling like the “weird kid”. You will spend too much time worrying about what other people think. You will spend a lot of time trying to prove yourself to the people who doubt your abilities. You will internalize the notion that your needs are an inconvenience to other people, and that this makes you undeserving of love, affection, and sometimes, even respect. Society may tell you that you are not beautiful, or that you do not deserve to take up space. You’ll even wish at times that you lived in a different body. Or perhaps that you would be better off not living at all.

It may take you longer than you wish it would to find your voice, but once you do, Little One, you will be an unstoppable force of nature. You will realize that each of those things that make you stand out, that have made you feel alone for so long, are actually gifts for you to give back to the universe in the form of your unique voice. I wish I could tell you about the feeling of knowing your purpose, and having something meaningful to contribute to the world, but I do not think there are adequate words to describe it. Just know that it’s worth all the tears, heartbreak and self-doubt. Just. Keep. Going.

I think it would benefit all of us to look in the mirror at our childhood selves every once in a while, and to tell that kid something to encourage them to be the best possible versions of themselves they can be. As a teacher, I am given the incredible gift of being able to do this every single day for my students. Historically, disability was nothing more than a diagnosis. It has been used as a justification for pitying and even fearing members of the disabled community. We are rarely represented in the world at large, and when we are, it is often to illustrate a point for the benefit of those outside of the disabled community.

For as long as it took me to realize my identity as a teacher, it took me nearly as long to realize that my disability isn’t just something for me to overcome. It is an aspect of my identity that I can be proud of. I do not need to be “fixed” because I am not broken. This is a value I hope to impart to my disabled students. I have spent most of my adult life unlearning the implicit lessons of shame that I was taught in large part through special education. As a special education teacher, I hope to not participate in perpetuating the same ideas I grew up with, but to create an environment where my students will never learn those lessons in the first place.

I am experiencing the crushing realization that even though I am entering into a field where I will be working with members of my own community, the gatekeepers of the jobs I am seeking are outsiders to that community. Many of them still see my disability as a reason that I am not capable of working with this population. To many of them, I look like a special education student, rather than a special education teacher. Until I become one. Then maybe people will realize there should be more like me.
Sarah and her classmates at graduation.

Originally published: July 4, 2018
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