Disability 101: The greatest gift is not help
January 17, 2008
I’m a special education teacher. I don’t teach anymore because my MS no longer allows me the energy to keep up with the pace of active middle-schoolers. But I taught special education in middle school for quite a few years.
I want to tell you about an eighth-grade student I once had. His name was Austin. Austin could walk a little bit, but for anything further than across our classroom he used his wheelchair. Austin was not an athlete. He didn’t participate in any athletic events. He was just an average guy in a wheelchair.
The highlight of Austin’s eighth-grade year, for both him and me, was the winter pep assembly. At our middle school, pep assemblies included recognition for sports teams and also fun competitions. I had the opportunity to organize one such competition for the winter pep assembly that year.
When it was time, I gave a signal to Austin and took the microphone from the principal. Austin rolled out onto the basketball court, found his line at the far end, and adjusted his bike gloves. Next to him, one of my paraprofessionals was rolling out a borrowed wheelchair.
I turned to the crowd of students and announced that Austin would like to challenge one of them to a wheelchair race. I explained the race would be two lengths of the gym, one up and one down. I asked for a volunteer.
There was a little shuffling in the crowd at first. Students looked at each other in confusion. They were used to thinking of Austin as “that kid in the wheelchair,” but most of them didn’t know Austin very well. But slowly hands started to go up.
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I scanned the crowd hoping to find the hand I wanted. Sure enough, Jeremy’s hand was up. Jeremy was the top jock in our middle school. He was the star in football, basketball and track. He was likely to be the star in high school and would probably get some kind of athletic scholarship for college. So I called Jeremy down.
Jeremy had a look of surprise on his face when he heard his name. In fact, most of the students had a look of surprise on their face. Why would I choose the best athlete in the school to race Austin? Surely Jeremy would cream Austin, wouldn’t he? Some of the looks on the students’ faces turned to anger. Why would I do this to Austin? What kind of teacher was I anyway?
I was having a hard time containing my grin. I focused on keeping a straight face while walking Jeremy down to his wheelchair. I made sure Jeremy was familiar with his chair and gave him a chance to move around in it a bit. Then Jeremy lined up with Austin.
I blew the whistle and they were off. Jeremy never stood a chance. Austin pulled ahead immediately despite Jeremy’s frantic attempts to keep up. Austin won the race by half the length of the gym.
The other kids jumped to their feet with an amazing ovation and the grin on Austin’s face was a mile wide. When Jeremy finally pulled up he congratulated Austin and shook his hand. Austin’s grin just got bigger.
After the pep assembly, Austin was late getting back to class. So many kids stopped Austin to congratulate him and talk with him that I think there were quite a few kids getting back to class late. I don’t believe any teacher was handing out tardies though.
Help is not the best gift you can give to a person with disabilities. The greatest gift you can give a disabled person is to show them the many things they can do well.