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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.

Comments (35)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Hill's picture

This is good info. I am considering switching careers and have often wanted to pursue my teaching certificate but was worried about school systems hiring me due to a disability. I am currently a social worker.

Arlene Pagan's picture

To Whom It May Concern:

Disabled French Teacher Reaches Out to American Teachers regarding Discrimination please forward and Spread the word!

The French disabled have been officially protected by a law only recently : la Loi du 11 Fevrier 2005 promoting the equality of rights and chances for handicapped people . One of the terms was that every company ( private or public) employing over 10 people would be fined if they did not hire 6% disabled employees before January 1st 2010 . Last December, President Sarkozy announced that the January 1st 2010 deadline was postponed to an indefinite date . The other two main points, regarding pension for those who cannot possibly work and ACCESSIBILITY, are also postponed to an indefinite date .

Last March 27th, 15000 people gathered in protest marches in various cities of France to show their disagreement, their despair and their will to continue with their struggle for justice . Protest marches are not rare in France but protest marchers in wheel chairs are a novelty !

As a teacher of English in the French Public School system , I have had to face every possible form of discrimination coming from the Regional School Authorities and, at times, from some principals and some colleagues , never from students ( Senior High School level) . Rheumatoid poly-arthritis attacks different joints on different patients . I have suffered from it for 8 years 1/2 and meet difficulties to walk ( need a crutch) and to use my right elbow ( can't write on a board AND electronic blackboards are rare in France ). An adapted teaching position was offered to me during 3 years : small groups of students ( up to 10) registered on a voluntary basis or groups shared with another teacher . Teaching small groups was positive for my health and for the students, especially those preparing for an Oral English exam at their Grade 12 National Exam ( Baccalaureate ) whereas "normal" classes can include up to 30 students . The results at exams were particularly good .

This present school year, the Regional School Authorities have done every single action possible to apply pressure and discrimination ... we could refer even to harassment ... on me, so that I remained banned from the world of teaching and of work . My right to work is denied ; I am on "long sick leave" ( and ironically receive full salary to stay at home and remain silent ) . The incredible slowness of French officialdom creates the fact that I just learnt of my definite ban for this school year ( it finishes at the end of June) . Hopes for more justice for my last 2 years teaching before I am entitled to retire, are very slim; yet, I intend to continue my fight so as to be "rehabilitated in my teaching functions " .

An incredible number of handwritten letters from me, from my Teachers'Union, from the handicapped Association to which I belong, from former students and/or their parents, of medical certificates from several doctors ( including " government expert doctors "), the official support of the delegate to the Minister of Education( delegate in charge of the employment of disabled teachers) have been sent but not one has had an impact on the Regional School Authorities .

I should maybe recall here that we can't resort to the help of a private lawyer . In France, it is almost impossible to sue the State . An administrative trial requires a minimum of 3 years .

France, once the Land of Men's Rights has now become ... the Land of Men's shortcomings !

Dijovels

Arlene Pagan's picture

I am friends with a Disabled Teacher in France who has been banned from Teaching....She wrote this statement seeking your support... if you would like to get in contact with her please send me an email and I will be more than happy to provide you with the information. At this time she fears retaliation so I cannot publish her name publicly.

Disabled French Teacher Reaches Out to American Teachers regarding Discrimination please forward and Spread the word!

The French disabled have been officially protected by a law only recently : la Loi du 11 Fevrier 2005 promoting the equality of rights and chances for handicapped people . One of the terms was that every company ( private or public) employing over 10 people would be fined if they did not hire 6% disabled employees before January 1st 2010 . Last December, President Sarkozy announced that the January 1st 2010 deadline was postponed to an indefinite date . The other two main points, regarding pension for those who cannot possibly work and ACCESSIBILITY, are also postponed to an indefinite date .

Last March 27th, 15000 people gathered in protest marches in various cities of France to show their disagreement, their despair and their will to continue with their struggle for justice . Protest marches are not rare in France but protest marchers in wheel chairs are a novelty !

As a teacher of English in the French Public School system , I have had to face every possible form of discrimination coming from the Regional School Authorities and, at times, from some principals and some colleagues , never from students ( Senior High School level) . Rheumatoid poly-arthritis attacks different joints on different patients . I have suffered from it for 8 years 1/2 and meet difficulties to walk ( need a crutch) and to use my right elbow ( can't write on a board AND electronic blackboards are rare in France ). An adapted teaching position was offered to me during 3 years : small groups of students ( up to 10) registered on a voluntary basis or groups shared with another teacher . Teaching small groups was positive for my health and for the students, especially those preparing for an Oral English exam at their Grade 12 National Exam ( Baccalaureate ) whereas "normal" classes can include up to 30 students . The results at exams were particularly good .

This present school year, the Regional School Authorities have done every single action possible to apply pressure and discrimination ... we could refer even to harassment ... on me, so that I remained banned from the world of teaching and of work . My right to work is denied ; I am on "long sick leave" ( and ironically receive full salary to stay at home and remain silent ) . The incredible slowness of French officialdom creates the fact that I just learnt of my definite ban for this school year ( it finishes at the end of June) . Hopes for more justice for my last 2 years teaching before I am entitled to retire, are very slim; yet, I intend to continue my fight so as to be "rehabilitated in my teaching functions " .

An incredible number of handwritten letters from me, from my Teachers'Union, from the handicapped Association to which I belong, from former students and/or their parents, of medical certificates from several doctors ( including " government expert doctors "), the official support of the delegate to the Minister of Education( delegate in charge of the employment of disabled teachers) have been sent but not one has had an impact on the Regional School Authorities .

I should maybe recall here that we can't resort to the help of a private lawyer . In France, it is almost impossible to sue the State . An administrative trial requires a minimum of 3 years .

France, once the Land of Men's Rights has now become ... the Land of Men's shortcomings !

Dijovels

JoAnn Sustrick's picture

Edutopia thank you so much for the great article on teachers with disabilities. I have been looking for information and the opportunity to speak with other teachers with a disability. I am a licensed teacher with visual challenges. (I use specialized lenses, bi-optics, to drive and to view small detail from a distance). I finished my Masters in Special Education at a small northwest university in June of 2009. I have taught in another state. And I sub teach, whenever there are jobs. My state has seen a sizable drop in personal income revenue, and the schools are headed for a SECOND round of lay offs. Currently, I am still searching for a job as a Special education teacher. I am thinking about starting a web site and blog for teachers with disabilities. If this is of interest to you. You may contact me at JSustrick@msn.com

Ann's picture

I am a disabled teacher, Art Ed and ESE, working on reading endorsement in my state (FL). Due to disabilities I can only work part time, employment is limited, part time teaching positions at the K-12 level are RARE, unless I work as a paraprofessional. Don't like to sub because I don't get a chance to get to know the students. It's tough but it's possible, sometimes I wish I didn't have that CALLING to teach. But I think teachers with disabilities can have a HUGE impact on building tolerance for diversity. The word is CAN not can't. I was really happy to find this article, read the posts, and discover the Educators with Disabilities Caucus. There is the Capably Disabled Teachers Committee in CA. which has some info on accommodations. Anybody who ever thought they couldn't teach because of a disability or anyone who ever thought people with disabilities shouldn't teach, watch the movie Front of the Class about Brad Cohen - extraordinary person with a disability who became "the teacher he never had". Pursuing a satisfying and fulfilling life is a right not a privilege.

Arthur's picture

I am a disabled teacher just out of college. I contacted the EDC 6 times asking for help with accommodation issues, wanting to join their organization and a host of other questions regarding needed support. I not only received NO support, they never even bothered returning my inquiry emails.

The organization boasts of how much help they provide disabled teachers, from what I have found thats really all it is, fluff. I have been trying for over a month to get someone to just respond to my inquiries, never mins actual mentorship, a waste of time.

Maybe someone, someday will come up with an organization that actually follows through with what they say they do for disabled teachers.

Arthur's picture

I have been trying to get support/mentorship/join the EDC for over a month. I have not received acknowledgement of my 3 email inquiries about membership nor have I received any support other than I know how you feel from a so called mentor.

I am very disappointed in this organization. They boast of how much they do for educators with disabilities, but I have found that's all it is - fluff.

Maybe someday someone will create an organization that helps disabled teachers and actually follows through with what they say they do. The educators with disabilities caucus is a disappointment and waste of time, don't bother.

Abe Bilodeau's picture

I have CP and started back to school about 3 years ago to get my Masters in Special Education after receiving my Bachelor of Social Work. Until last year I thought this was a very attainable goal, but I developed Spinal Stenosis in my neck and have to use a hemi walker or wheelchair to get around. Reading this article has pushed me to continue on to get my degree despite my new found obstacle.

UDTN's picture

This is a social network specifically for teachers with disabilities. Please come over, share your experiences, both challenging and successful, get support, share practice and pedagogy, and encourage other people with disabilities to enter the teaching profession.

http://udtn.forumotion.com/

UDTN's picture

This is a social network specifically for teachers with disabilities. Please come over, share your experiences, both challenging and successful, get support, share practice and pedagogy, and encourage other people with disabilities to enter the teaching profession. This is our new address.

http://disabledteachersnetwork.weebly.com/index.html

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