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.
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.
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
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.