Photo of Niagara Falls New York By Michelle Steiner
My journey in the river of having a disability began in kindergarten. I was drowning in learning how to tie my shoes, perform math, and or even catch a ball. I was also struggling socially as well. The diagnosis was my lifeboat.
I had to repeat Kindergarten at a new school the following year. Upon arrival at my new school, I was given several flotation devices. I was given a raft for specialized instruction. I spent my mornings learning how to read, write, and do simple math. I was frustrated because I wanted to learn and it seemed impossible. I was floating, but afraid of going back into the water of regular ed. Eventually, I began to develop strength in reading and writing.
Eventually, I was put into regular education for reading, science, and social studies. It was a life jacket of support. I had extended test time, and the test read aloud to me. Having those supports gave my brain more time to process information. I also was able to have the experience of regular education classes, which held me accountable to my peers. Eventually, I was in all regular ed classes except for math, and resource room.
Being in the same river with my peers was difficult. I often felt jealous that they were able to swim with such ease and didn’t need the supports that I did. I wanted to rip my life jacket off! I knew that if I did that then I would drown. Using the supports helped me to be successful and the water calmed.
The waters didn’t stay calm as I progressed through school. The next concern was what I was going to do after school, and moved into a bigger body of water. I knew I wanted to go to college, but many people thought I could not handle it. I often questioned this myself. Even though I was afraid and discouraged I pushed forward and decided to go forward.
When I got to college, I once again found the stigma of disability accommodations, that polluted my river. People were telling me that they gave me an unfair advantage. All I wanted to do was fit in and not have a disability. When I took off the life jacket, I began to drown. My grades plummeted and I became discouraged. Many people saw this and told me to try harder or that I could do better. Thankfully a professor in a class I was struggling with threw out the lifeboat and brought me back in. She suggested extra time on tests for her class. I took the advice and passed her class.
After I graduated from community college, I kept the life jacket on but longed for a life without it. I felt less than others and once again envied those who didn’t need one. I was able to move out on my own and have a job working with students. Due to financial reasons, I moved back with my parents.
When my job downsized, I decided that I wanted to try to go back to university. I found a program that interested me and had the least amount of math possible. I also used my life jacket and accepted other flotation devices that they offered such as extended test time, a note taker, and tutoring. Most importantly I let my professors know that I had a disability and advocated for myself. This experience in the river was much better. My grades improved and I made the Dean’s list for one semester. I didn’t take my life jacket off and ignored the stigma of others that swam around me. Putting in the effort and using the support let me graduate with my Bachelor’s Degree.
Today I work in a school with students with disabilities as a teacher’s aide. So many of my students want to take their life jackets off and swim like their peers. I gently encourage them to keep it on and that it’s okay that they have to wear one. How rewarding it is to help them!
I will always be in the river of having a disability. To survive I will need to wear my life jacket and use strategies to help me. I sink in the water when I don’t use these things. There will always be people I will pass that don’t need the supports or strategies that I need. Focusing on them or all the things I can’t do doesn’t help me. Focusing on my strengths is more empowering. I need to proudly wear my life jacket and chart my course.