By Billy Pickens, Intern
As a senior in college, I have had the pleasure of taking many classes in which I received a great deal of powerful information. One thing that made every college class worthwhile was the fact that, no matter how important I felt each class was, I still learned a valuable lesson that would leave a lasting impact on my life. Some of these lessons were immediately recognizable. However, there were some that did not occur to me as extremely valuable until I really thought about them.
One specific example of the latter was a lecture given by my General Psychology professor. In this lecture, we were discussing the history of mental illness in America and how it has been dealt with over time. My professor made the point that prior to scientific research and progressive movements within the disability community, those with disabilities were often seen as useless or less than human. Many were seen as being under the spell of a demon and therefore were locked away, abused or even killed simply because they did not live up to the standard of what was considered “normal.”
While I found this history both riveting and disheartening, it was a story I had heard too many times before as a person with a disability. For that reason, at first I did not see it as anything inspiring or thought-provoking. It was not until I began serving on the Student Advisory Board for my school’s Disability Services that these stories gained more impact and became more important to me.
As a student advisor, one of my tasks is to go into classrooms throughout my school and talk to students about how I have managed to live a normal, productive life despite my disability. My peers and I share stories of how we had been underestimated, written off and treated unfairly by many who had negative perceptions of persons with disabilities. It was through our stories, and students saying that our testimonies really changed their own perspectives, that I was reminded of my professor’s lecture.
I began thinking more about my own journey and how I found myself in college striving for employment, yet many of my friends with my disability are still relying heavily on the support systems around them. While pondering the perceptions of the world and the history of disability culture, I came to the conclusion that one of the key reasons why many with disabilities struggle to flourish in today’s society is society’s attempt to change a person’s disability instead of adapting to it. However, I believe that this is not so much the fault of society in general, but the support system of the person with a disability.
From the time I was born, my parents were prepared for the possibility that I would be totally blind with gradual hearing loss. There had been a slight hope that maybe I would be born completely normal. However, being that my condition was genetic and the chance of me inheriting the gene was extremely high, my parents knew that this was highly unlikely. Even so, I was raised normally, participated in activities relevant to my age group and attended public school.
There was always the lingering conversation of restoring my sight. I remember from a young age attending conferences centered around vision restoration. While I willingly agreed to attend these conferences with my parents, restoring my sight was hardly ever a desire of mine. What is the point? I am achieving my goals despite my blindness and have no time to focus on changing it.
I say this to say that if you are a person who has a disability or are associated with someone who has a disability, the last thing you should do to help that person is try to cure them of that disability. I am not saying that if the opportunity to cure someone of a disability arises you should not benefit from it. However, you should focus more on adapting to the present situation than trying to find a cure. In my opinion, this is the most important characteristic of someone who overcomes obstacles and turns perception into progression.
We have come so far as a culture in awareness of our value to society. We are showing the world each day that we can break down barriers, and do it with our disability. People like Helen Keller, Louis Braille and others were not respected just because of their disability, but because of what they chose to do with that disability. Those who embrace their disabilities and use them as motivation instead of defeat will have the main ingredient in conquering any obstacle that comes their way. Likewise, people who support those with disabilities may experience a shift in their own perspective when they focus more energy on teaching skills to successfully adapt to the environment. Through this approach, they will see how obstacles are conquered and real progress is made.
For many students who have disabilities, the accommodations that are provided through their Individualized Educational Program (IEP) or Section 504 Accommodation Plan are extremely important to their school success. The accommodations are the things that are being done in a different way because of the impacts of the child’s disability. Accommodations could involve changes in the physical environment, school assignments, how the student participates in school activities, instructional materials, how much time a student is given to complete a test or assignment, additional supports, etc. The range of possible accommodations is mind-blowing, but they are selected based on the unique needs of each individual student.
Children should be told about their accommodations as soon as they are old enough to understand what they are and why they were chosen for them. Many parents are not comfortable talking to their child about his or her disability. They worry that it might negatively impact the child’s self-esteem. This concern suggests that the child is unaware that they have a disability. Even if the child does not know the name of a “condition” that they may have been diagnosed with, most kids are very aware of the things that they have trouble with. They know that it’s harder for them to write neatly, read, do math, remember things, see the board, walk fast, speak clearly, and so on. If they do have a diagnosis, learning that there’s a reason for why they struggle with certain things can come as a big relief. Even if there is no diagnosis or other explanation for why, it is generally helpful to have others at least acknowledge that things are difficult, and that it’s not their fault.
Talk to your child about how each accommodation is expected to help and how it should be implemented. Explain that sometimes a teacher or other school staff member might not be aware of the accommodations. Talk to him about how to handle situations where an accommodation is not provided. Discuss or role play what your child can do or say to let the adult know that he is supposed to have extra time, be moved into a separate room for a test, etc. Let your child know that it is also important for him to tell you when accommodations are not followed. You want to be able to address any problems as soon as possible.
Speaking with your child about her accommodations also gives her a chance to tell you about what is, and is not, working for her. It could be time to take another look at different ways that your child’s needs can be met, and maybe see if another accommodation would be more appropriate at this point. IEPs and 504 Plans are fluid documents and student input can sometimes make the difference between whether you have a document that looks good on paper, or one that actually works for your child.
Having these conversations, and preparing your child to handle “what if…” situations, can help your child learn how to effectively advocate for himself. That is an important life skill that he needs to start learning as early as possible.