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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Advantage of Disadvantage: Teachers with Disabilities Are Not a Handicap

Disabled teachers bring a unique perspective to the classroom.
By Denise Kersten Wills

Audio:

Gary LeGates on teaching without sight

Like most new teachers, Amanda Trei had trouble sleeping the night before her first day in the classroom. On top of the usual new-job jitters -- Would she be a good teacher? Would the kids like her? Would she find a friend among her new colleagues? -- Trei had an additional worry. She wondered how the special education students at Schwegler Elementary School, in Lawrence, Kansas, would react to her wheelchair.

Trei was fourteen years old in 1992 when she suffered severe injuries in a car accident. All of her ribs were shattered, her liver was severed, a rotator cuff was torn, and her back was broken, leaving her lower body paralyzed. She spent a full year in the hospital before finishing high school and enrolling in college. Trei had planned to become a nurse. After the accident, she decided to go into education because she felt a kinship with students who have learning disabilities and physical handicaps. "I live being different every day," she says. "In what other job could I make an impact on kids who live what I live?"

On her first day -- five years ago -- Trei's students noticed her wheelchair and were curious. "A student asked me why I needed a car to get around -- my wheelchair car," she says with a laugh. "After they asked me about it, we went on with our business and it was cool."

Trei, who now teaches at Riverview Elementary School, in Shawnee, Kansas, says she has discovered that her disability can be an advantage in working with special education students. "I have a one-up on anybody who can walk, because I can see what my students need, and I can see the struggles they're going to face," she says. "Somebody who isn't disabled -- they can read about it, they can watch it, but if they never live through it, they never really know."

Most of Trei's students require modifications to their classroom work. Some need extra time on tests; others might need to hear, rather than read, their textbooks. "I think when they see me do things differently, they feel OK about that," Trei says. "Because I'm accepted in my school, I think they feel like they're accepted, too." She turns questions about her disability into lessons on finding alternate ways to do things. She might demonstrate to students how she gets in and out of her wheelchair, or take them to her car to show them the hand controls she uses to drive.

No Barriers:

Disability didn’t stop Tricia Downing from getting back into competitive cycling and back to helping teens.

Credit: Tim Mantoani

The idea that there's always more than one way to reach a goal is also integral to what Tricia Downing teaches, regardless of her students' abilities. Downing, a competitive cyclist, had been the internship coordinator for Denver's CEC Middle College, a magnet high school, for just two weeks in 2000 before she was hit by a car during a training ride. Though she was paralyzed from the chest down, she went back to work and resumed her life as a competitive athlete, becoming the first paraplegic woman to complete an Iron Man-distance triathlon.

"Sometimes, students get stuck in their teenage world, where everything's a crisis," she says. "I've been able to get across to students that the world is bigger than their problems. My message is that life is full of challenges, but if you're willing to try to overcome them, you can find the resources within yourself."

Gary LeGates hopes his presence in the classroom has helped dispel stereotypes about people with disabilities. LeGates, who is blind, struggled to find his first teaching job in the late 1970s. He was hired, finally, when another instructor went on maternity leave. "People were afraid to hire a blind person. I think they were afraid I wouldn't be able to handle the classroom situation," says LeGates, who retired last spring after teaching Latin and French for thirty years at Westminster Senior High School, in Westminster, Maryland.

Though it wasn't always easy, LeGates found ways to work around his disability. Early in his tenure, he learned students were cheating in his class. He discussed the situation with the principal and thereafter relied on hall monitors and community volunteers to watch students during tests. Another time, a student wrote, "I have some marijuana" on the board in LeGates's classroom. "Half the class went to the office and reported him," LeGates says. "They thought that was unfair, because there's no way I could see it."

LeGates often surprised students with his classroom-management skills, says John Seaman, Westminster's principal. Seaman's own son took Latin classes with LeGates in the 1990s and initially wondered how a blind teacher would be able to control a roomful of teenagers. "Within two days, Gary had learned each student's name and voice," the principal says, "and if a student responded, he knew exactly who was speaking to him."

Seaman reports that he and his son, now in his early thirties, still occasionally talk about the example LeGates set -- of hard work, perseverance, and scholarship. "I'm convinced that our students have gained an understanding that having an obvious handicap does not preclude someone from being a professional and an intellectual," he says. "We will miss him as an influence."

Unfortunately, though, LeGates says, schools seem no more open to blind teachers now than when he started his career. "People have contacted me about the possibility of getting teaching jobs," he says, "and it sounds like they're facing the same kind of thing I was facing." Discipline hasn't gotten any easier, he adds, and the amount of paperwork required of teachers has grown.

Simpatico:

After the accident that paralyzed her lower body, Amanda Trei chose to go into teaching because she feels a kinship with special education students.

Credit: Mike Yoder

No organization tracks the number of K-12 educators with disabilities, and few resources are available for those who hope to enter the teaching field. Clayton E. Keller, coauthor of Enhancing Diversity: Educators with Disabilities, says districts should be actively recruiting disabled teachers. "One of the things that gets talked about a lot in nondisability diversity is, 'Are there images of people like me? Are there people like me in positions of responsibility?'" Keller says. "If kids with disabilities don't see people with disabilities in positions of responsibility, will they think they'll ever be able to do those things?"

Wendy Shugol, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair and a service dog, says she, too, has encountered prospective employers who couldn't see past her disability. She uses those experiences to help prepare her special education students at Falls Church High School, in Fairfax County, Virginia, for life after high school.

"I'm tougher on them than the nondisabled teachers, because I know what skills they need to be able to cope in the real world," she says. "The other teachers will let them slide when they don't do their homework, but the boss isn't going to give you six extra days if the deadline is today."

Shugol says she pushes other teachers to let disabled students decide whether to try something, rather than deciding for them. "I find my nondisabled counterparts making judgments about students based on what the kids look like," she says. Years ago, she successfully lobbied for the physical disabilities department to offer more demanding courses such as algebra and physics, and for the school to offer late busing for her students so they could stay for extra help or participate in clubs.

"I talked about retirement last year, and there was an uproar among the kids, who said, 'If you retire, there will be nobody to speak for us,'" Shugol says. "I really don't stop to think about my disability very much. I've never looked at myself as a role model for my students. But a number of them have said they knew if I could do it, they could do it."

Denise Kersten Wills is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.

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