To the Disabled Student Who Said My 'Openness' Changed Her Life

university students working at their desks
university students working at their desks

I teach college freshmen. I’m only six or seven years older than most of them, yet I walk with a cane due to left-sided weakness and vertigo while standing. Before I walk in front of a new class of students, I always feel the flutter of nerves. I know I’m going to see them staring at me with curiosity. I know I’m going to feel like a circus show while I walk around trying to pass out first day syllabi and materials without bumping them. I know I’m going to have to craft my persona in front of a class full of young, and often immature 18-year-olds, and that always makes me nervous.

Last semester I experienced the same emotions. On the first day, I spent extra time talking about classroom accommodations and my seriously lenient policy on disclosing disabilities. I always explain that I, of course, understand the importance of feeling like a person belongs in a classroom and has access to what they need to succeed. This class was particularly quiet. I was certain they all hated me.

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A couple students contacted me privately and disclosed things that allowed me to go out of my way to help them, and their classmates feel prepared for class. Throughout the semester I didn’t feel I was as bonded to this class as I did with other classes I’ve taught.

I openly discussed topics about disability throughout the semester. We looked deeply at some challenging topics, including a unit on controversial advertisements. Multiple students picked topics about mental illness and disability in advertisements. I was pleasantly shocked. These kids were writing bright and analytical papers. I felt so proud.

That pride was nothing compared to the happiness I felt on the last class of the semester. One of my students approached me as class was ending. She had never seemed to care that much about my class. She was a solid student, but seemed distant at best.

I was so shocked when she told me I had changed her life. She told me she had never felt like she belonged in the classroom due to the fact she had a lot of sensory issues. She cried when she told me that providing access copies of lecture, PowerPoint notes, and always following class up with a written copy of upcoming deadlines and reminders had allowed her to feel bold enough to register with student disability services so she could ask other instructors for this too. She told me I taught her how to be her own advocate and that she was worthy of an education.

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I told her she was strong, brave, and brilliant. I asked her if she was comfortable with a hug, and she was. When she left the room I went upstairs to my office and cried. It can be hard for me to vulnerable and address disability with my students, but that student who claimed I had changed her life had changed mine.

I really hadn’t been certain that my own problems might not have been interfering with my ability to teach my students. I had been in a bad place and was considering if I’d lost my touch, but she reminded me the importance of listening to others. She taught me that my vulnerability might be just what someone else needs to feel comfortable.

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