What I’ve Learned from a Disabled Student

What I’ve Learned from a Disabled Student March 2, 2014

I’m a substitute teacher, which means I’m on call at the local elementary school. Mainly I work with children who are learning disabled. There is a young boy named William (I’ve changed his name) who was born with many problems, and the doctors didn’t know what to name his condition. William has medium control over his hands and arms, so he needs assistance writing. I hold his hand and make sure he is paying attention and moving the pencil on his own instead of letting me do it. He has cognitive disabilities where he can only read on a kindergarten level and has trouble spelling and counting. I’ve known him since kindergarten, and now he is in the 6th grade. He is also pigeon toed, so he walks very slowly. We leave early for each class so he can make it on time. William also has facial deformities. His eyes are uneven and his forehead is too high. I worry about him since he will be going into Junior High School next year. How will he handle going from class to class? Will his classmates start bullying him? What about those in high school? He’ll have an aide, but all of the teachers want him to be as independent as possible.

What I find amazing about the other kids in school is that they don’t pick on him. Sure, they sometimes feel uncomfortable, I see it in their turned down mouths and confused eyes; they won’t sit by him at lunch or play with him at recess. Only the kids in the special classes do that. I don’t know if it bothers William or not. I’ve never asked him because I don’t want to hurt his feelings. He’s never brought it up either.

William’s future is a sad one when people with able bodies and minds look at it. Sure, he will be walked through the school system until high school graduation but he’ll never have a real job. He’ll always live with his mother or in a home. William though is one of the happiest kids I know. Each time he finishes his work he yells and jumps around, “I did it! I did it!” He’s happy. Shouldn’t that be good enough for people like me who aren’t are severely disabled or anyone else?

William loves basketball. Since he moves slowly though, he often doesn’t make it to the racks to get a ball for recess. Then we have to rely on asking other kids if he can play with them. Owen doesn’t really play. He doesn’t run after the ball, dribble as he runs, or chase the other students. Instead he will stand near the basket, stand in place, put the ball on his head, bend his knees, throw the ball up as hard as he can then make the goal! Eventually the other kids will run off and play with someone else but at least they leave the ball with William. I got smart about it and started getting William to recess extra early from lunch and grabbed a ball. Even though he didn’t care about the other kids looks, I’m ashamed to say it bothered me. I hurt for him when it happens.

When William plays basketball, he plays as hard as his deformed body will let him. No matter how many times he misses the goal, he keeps trying. The ball may hit the rim and come smashing into his chest because he can’t catch it, but he keeps trying. He refuses to let me play! He wants nobody’s help. I’ve learned from him to never give up and don’t let anyone else get in your way.

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  • Jennifer Gibbs

    the kids are taught very young not to make fun of disabled kids and at least in my daughter’s school the counselors crack down hard on the kids who make fun of disbabled kids in middle and high school.
    I know a boy who is 25. he still lives with his parents, he will never read or speak, he has some sort of neurological birth defect that killed his sister 4 years ago but she was quadriplegic so the fact that he moves seems to give him an advantage. he’s an awesome kid but even at 4 my youngest can run rings around him physically and mentally and he’s okay with that.
    I think as a society we’re taught to ignore or avoid them because they are different or ‘broken’ and it’s so untrue. there’s so much we can learn about overcoming obstacles and trying.

  • kadiera

    I know that the school district I currently live in has many job training opportunities for young people who come out of the special ed department. One of their best is a partnership with the local hospital, prepping operating theater tools. Many of those hired have cognitive disabilities, and yet over time, they’ve far out-performed those on the same job who were more typical in their cognitive skills.

    Our current elementary school has a big focus on diversity. They are taught from the beginning that everyone belongs and to be friendly even to those who are different.

  • I think people need to focus more on quality of life rather than ‘how “useful” is this person as a capitalist worker” That’s a very destructive mentality for folks with disabilities. I’ve known very smart people with Asperger’s syndrome (which I have) who constantly struggled with self-hatred, because they beat themselves up for not being “normal” enough, yet I’ve also met “severely” autistic people, who can’t live independently, fully communicate etc, but they seemed quite happy- in a safe environment, with people who loved & supported them with activities they enjoyed. And I’ve known even more people without disabilities who were “good productive capitalist workers” as far as society was concerned, but also pretty much wasted their lives because they were too busy conforming to “normality” to figure out who they really were.