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What True Empowerment Means for Students With Disabilities

I am a special education teacher. I have also had the privilege (yes, I said privilege) of being a special education student in the 70s all the way through the 90s. I started in an infant class and was mainstreamed part-time in preschool. By kindergarten, I was fully included in a general education classroom with support from a resource teacher, adaptive PE teacher and a speech pathologist.

By third grade all services were dropped — by accident or design, I will never know. It never occurred to me to ask my mom — my chief advocate — why they stopped or to ask for services again. In any case, I trampled through the rest of my education by sheer force of will because I believed I had no choice until I was offered services again in graduate school. I was able to get notetaking services and reduced-price speech therapy. I felt like I’d come full circle.

Now if you noticed, I gave a rudimentary chronicle of my educational history as a student from infancy to when I got my Master’s and teaching credential in special education. If you add up all the years of education I have had and noticed where special education services began and dropped, and then picked up again, I spent very little time “labeled” a special education student. However long I spent “included” in a general education classroom — even without support — I still considered myself a special education student. I had something my classmates did not — a disability. I never felt I fully belonged in general education, no matter how much time I spent in it or how much I was able to keep up with my classmates academically.

I started my education in the general education setting around the time when the 1975 law Education for All Handicapped Children (now known as IDEA) said I had to have access to classrooms. That’s how it felt to me. I was not automatically empowered by being there. I was given access to physically occupy space. Oftentimes I felt it was under protest from the teacher, though they tried to be professional about my presence. Teachers can have anyone sitting in their classroom and they still may not feel like they belong.

I felt I had only two options to deal with the situation. One was to ignore my disability and pretend to be the same as everyone else, with the same experiences and expectations of myself and my classmates, which made me feel like I was denying an inextricable part of myself. This gave my teachers and classmates the right to ignore my disability as well. My other option was to acknowledge my disability and the disconnect between my world view and that of my classmates, which meant I felt out of place.

Being the only person with a disability in a general education classroom did not make me feel like I belonged any more than being in “one of those classrooms” for students with disabilities made me feel I was part of the school. Nothing had really changed, just my geography. I was “high functioning” enough not to need the constant support of a special education setting. But for the most part, I did not see anyone else with a disability — mine or any other — in my general education classrooms. I can probably count on one hand the number of people with disabilities I have seen throughout my academic career, from inclusion until I started graduate school.

Being in general education, my teacher and classmates did not have significant training or experience with what it meant to have a disability or interact with someone with a disability. Special education classes afforded me the opportunity to be around people who just “got it” on some level — either by education or experience. In general education, it was incumbent on me to educate my teachers and peers through self-advocacy. This helped a bit. I was accepted and understood more, but it did not make me feel any less alone.

Diversity is an important component of belonging. Goldenhar syndrome is a rare condition. I realize it was wishful thinking to hope that I would find another person with my same condition sitting next to me in the classroom. However, in sixth grade I discovered the book “Karen” by Marie Killilea. The book chronicled the childhood of the author’s daughter, who was born with cerebral palsy. It wasn’t Goldenhar’s and it was set at least 50 years in the past, but many of the experiences and issues described in the book were things I could relate to. I felt less alone.

This began my lifelong love of seeking out books and movies about people with disabilities. Growing up, it was my way of creating the diversity I did not have around me. Diversity, even in book form, made me feel more empowered and comfortable in my own skin and in my surroundings. Education must include diverse disability portrayals in their curriculum texts and available literature in order to empower the students they are teaching.

In my field of education, inclusion is a very loud buzz word. Oftentimes, inclusion of students with disabilities in a general education classroom looks like accessibility. Students are “allowed” in class with their general education peers for a set period of time to access the academic curriculum and then leave. They bring their own materials and follow along with the lesson tailored to the general education class. They miss the relationship-building rituals that make a group of students and a teacher a collaborative class.

Authentic inclusion, on the other hand, means they will have a place in the class to call their own, they have a place in team building, they have a place in class celebrations, they have a place in class problem-solving. They have a place in class decisions. Successful inclusion has happened for my students when teachers have integrated their presence — and needs — into the daily routines of the class and lessons rather than just when they show up.

All this, and yet we have not considered giving a student with a disability a sense of belonging in the general education classroom. Belonging is the accumulation of all these stages. Once a student is able to get into a classroom, belonging happens when they feel their story is represented, they are able to contribute to the class, and they are finally heard and valued for who they are. Not who they are expected to be. When students feel they belong in the classroom for who they are, as they are, empowerment happens. Empowerment is the foundation of success.

Getty image by Vyacheslav Petelin.

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