Special education teacher explains why she wants to be called 'accessibility specialist'

GENEVIEVE SHAW BROWN
·4 min read

One teacher has decided to change her title and has a powerful message to go along with the switch.

McAlister Greiner Huynh is a teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina. "I teach a self-contained adapted curriculum elementary classroom, serving disabled students K-5," she told "Good Morning America." "I am passionate about radical acceptance and disability pride."

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In a recent Instagram post, Huynh announced that instead of "special education" teacher, she will call herself an "accessibility specialist."

She wrote in part:

"At the end of the day, I'm an educator; my students are getting an education; their needs are human needs; and "special" is only used as a term of othering.

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"So I've decided that I'm just going to start calling myself an accessibility specialist, because I spend my days making abstract state standards accessible to my students (and really...don't all educators?). My classroom is an accessible classroom, where accessibility to the environment and curriculum is prioritized. And my students' needs are accessibility needs, because talking about making things (environments, communities, curricula) accessible to students often leads to a much more productive conversation than simply saying they're 'special."'

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I've never loved the term "special educator," "special education," or "special needs." Because at the end of the day, I'm an educator; my students are getting an education; their needs are human needs; and "special" is only used as a term of othering. . . . So I've decided that I'm just going to start calling myself an accessibility specialist, because I spend my days making abstract state standards accessible to my students (and really...don't all educators?). My classroom is an accessible classroom, where accessibility to the environment and curriculum is prioritized. And my students' needs are accessibility needs, because talking about making things (environments, communities, curricula) accessible to students often leads to a much more productive conversation than simply saying they're "special." . . . My students' needs come down to accessibility. My degree comes down to accessibility. My classroom comes down to accessibility. If we put in the work to make the world more accessible, we realize that my students' needs, their right to education, and the way I teach aren't so "special" after all. They are simply meeting needs that are just as valid, just as human, just as important as any other students' needs. And that just because something is different, doesn't make it wrong, extra, or "special." . . . Anyways, I made a shirt to commemorate my new title. You can get your own by visiting bit.ly/accessibility_specialist or by tapping the link in my bio. . . . #TheFutureIsAccessible #AccessibilitySpecialist #SpecialEducation #SpecialEducationTeacher #SpecialEd #Teacher #TeacherTee

A post shared by McAlister (she/her/hers) (@the_neurodivergent_teacher) on Oct 25, 2020 at 2:01pm PDT

She told "GMA" that within the disabled community -- the community of actually disabled individuals bonding over their shared experiences as disabled humans -- euphemisms such as "special needs," "differently abled," or "handicapable" are "pretty widely rejected."

"When we use euphemisms to avoid using the word 'disabled,' what we are communicating is that being disabled is somehow a bad thing, and we shouldn't label it or talk about it," she said. "But in reality, being disabled is just another perfectly valid way of being human. Being disabled is an innate part of our identity, much like race, gender or sexuality. And our needs as disabled humans aren't "special" -- we have the same human needs as everyone else. We need food to eat, a place to live, community members who love and accept us, a purpose in life. We need the things everyone else can get without thinking to simply be made accessible to us."

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Huynh said she's never liked the job title "special educator."

"What does that even mean? she asked. "What I do every day is work to make the school environment accessible for my students, whether that's adapting the curriculum, building in sensory stimming time, providing visual supports, supporting communication development, teaching self-regulation and coping skills, or collaborating with other educators to brainstorm ways to make their own classrooms more accessible."

She decided it was time for a change, in large part for the reaction of others when she said what she did for a living.

"I often get responses of, 'Oh, that takes a special person,' or 'Oh, you must be so patient,' or -- heaven forbid -- 'Special needs babies are just angels sent from heaven.'"

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"These phrases alienate and dehumanize my students," she told "GMA," "as if they aren't amazing, fun, creative, funny, hardworking, problem-solving children who are the greatest joy to teach. My students are phenomenal, not 'special.' And they don't need a teacher who lowers expectations because they're 'special' or doesn't provide them opportunities to be with their peers because they're 'special,' or ignores their clear self-advocacy and deems it bad behavior because they're 'special.'"

What they need, Huynh said, is a teacher who makes the challenging work accessible to them so they can "rise to the occasion."

"They need a teacher who engages non-disabled students in conversations about disability, acceptance and equity so that all classrooms can become more accessible for disabled students," she said. "They need a teacher who sees them struggling and takes a step back to reflect on why this space or activity is inaccessible for that student. That is what I strive to do. That is what many special education teachers, related service providers, therapists and parents strive to do."

And that's where she came up with her new job title: accessibility specialist.

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"I decided we needed a new job title, one that didn't elicit such cringe-worthy responses and overwhelming misinformation," she said. "I settled on accessibility specialist, because my day focuses on taking things that are inaccessible and making them accessible. And that's the part of my job I love the most, am most proud of and want to share with others. Maybe now that I've dubbed myself an accessibility specialist instead of responding with, 'Oh, I could never do that,' inquiring minds might take a moment to ask 'What does that mean?' and I'll actually have the opportunity to tell them how amazing my job is."

Special education teacher explains why she wants to be called 'accessibility specialist' originally appeared on goodmorningamerica.com