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April 2017 | Volume 74 | Number 7
Differences, Not Disabilities
My journey has led me into the classroom, preparing students to understand the importance of an inclusive society.
I was born in South Africa during the period of apartheid, and I discovered early on that apartheid did not only apply to race. South Africa had perfected the art of discrimination in many areas of life. When my parents wanted me to attend the local elementary school in 1980, I was excluded because of my short stature, a result of a rare form of dwarfism called diastrophic dysplasia.
Photo Courtesy of Deb Sulzberger
My parents worked at a mission hospital that was entirely integrated and employed many workers with disabilities, so they felt that discrimination on any grounds was wrong. My mother announced to the school's principal that I would begin the school year with the other children from my area. The principal firmly told her that this wouldn't be allowed because there were special schools for people like me. Not accepting this answer, my mother visited our province's Minister for Education with a copy of the current legislation, which stated that children with disabilities could only be excluded from mainstream education if they were a danger to themselves or other children or if they could not benefit from the education. In this discussion, my parents used terms like legal action, disability discrimination, and reasonable accommodations.
Backed into a corner, the minister had no choice but to assess my intellectual ability. My test results were so high that school officials determined the scores must have been a mistake. They assumed that my intellectual capacity would be as small as my stature. Grudgingly, they allowed me to attend the mainstream school with the proviso that my progress would be closely monitored. On my first day, we were told that if one parent complained that I spoiled the school, I was to be permanently excluded and placed in a special school or institution.
The principal and teachers went out of their way to make my education an unpleasant experience. They told the other students not to help me—I was to do everything for myself. When the school conducted emergency drills, my peers rushed to evacuate to the school's soccer grounds. The principal instructed staff not to assist me. I ran as fast as I could and was always the last to arrive.
In 1987, my family moved to Australia to give me and my sibling the opportunity to receive an education in a safe, compassionate, and inclusive environment. As a student with special needs, my entry into the Australian school system was fairly new, but the saving grace was a school principal who was open to new possibilities.
Then, in 1992, Australia enacted the Disability Discrimination Act. This opened doors for many students and people in the workforce who were not previously seen as entitled to an inclusive education and employment opportunities. I thrived in school. My year 6 teacher was very forward-thinking and made it possible for me to be included in all activities. Unlike other educators I had encountered, she challenged me to have a voice and to dream for my future. It was then that I decided I wanted to become a teacher.
In my final years of high school, I attended a career expo that allowed students to meet professionals from a variety of fields and discuss what we needed to study to prepare for university. I spoke with a lawyer, an interior designer, and an early childhood teacher and was quickly disregarded by these people. They said things like, "Oh no, you won't be able to do this because you're too short." But with the support of my family, I completed high school and enrolled in university.
During my four years at university, I worked hard to prove that I was capable of becoming a teacher. I remember being placed in a school for my practicum assignment and hearing whispers from staff members who wondered how I would manage the students.
Despite such doubts, I graduated with a bachelor's degree in early childhood education and have been teaching for 16 years. Today I am still only 3 feet, 3 inches tall. I have two master's degrees—one in education and another in counseling.
I choose to use my skills in classrooms that serve high-poverty populations. I love teaching students of all ages, in particular those who struggle to regulate their behaviors. I believe that my short stature encourages students to regard me as a non-threatening adult, and they often disclose matters of concern to me. These students see me as a person who is literally on their eye level and with whom they can be upfront about their feelings, struggles, and traumas. I never use my difference to manipulate students or to coerce them to do things for me, but I model for my students that helping others is what we can do all the time, not just for people who move, look, or sound different.
In my work, I've also learned that children are not afraid to ask upfront questions like "Why do you look different?" When my students ask why I perform simple tasks in a particular way, we often try to imitate differences in movement to make comparisons. For example, I show them how I lift myself onto a student chair and use a ruler to tap the light switch on or off. This becomes a way to explore how people may do things differently, even though we all have similar thoughts, dreams, and feelings.
Almost weekly, I'm asked by adults, "Are you still teaching?" On one occasion, I attended a conference on child trauma and had just gotten myself seated. A woman approached me and said, "I know you. I used to see you at university. What are you doing here today?" I explained that I was working on a master's degree and was looking forward to hearing the keynote speaker. She exclaimed, "I never thought you would make it—you know, finish university." It's as though some people expect individuals with disabilities to give up and fail, not having the ability to follow through.
In another instance, I went to a professional learning session, and a fellow attendee asked me about my role at my school at that time. I told her I served as an advanced skills teacher, which involved leading PLC groups and providing professional learning for staff. Her response was, "Really, are you sure?" The irony was that this session was held for teachers who were supporting students with disabilities.
Situations like these are examples of ableism. As Ramsey (2004) writes, "Most people go through life being judged for what they can do, whereas people with identified disabilities are usually first seen through a lens of what they cannot do" (p. 141).
On a professional level, I often wonder how to respond to colleagues who find it difficult to come to terms with my disability. Because teachers' past experiences and knowledge influence how they relate to people with disabilities (Carrington, 2000), I hope that working alongside me will reassure them that it's just as possible to be an included teacher as it is to be an included student, and that on some occasions, individuals with disabilities can be school leaders. I am continuing to demonstrate my proficiencies as a leader in my second year as acting assistant principal and literacy and numeracy coach.
I hope my example also sheds new light on students' career possibilities. I believe that when we ask young people what they want to be when they grow up, we're prompting them to envision themselves as members of the workforce and society. Do we regard career questions as relevant and aspirational for students with differences and disabilities? Can we visualize them in the workforce, making valuable contributions to the community? When we included students with disabilities in schools, did we anticipate that this would require us to include all students in employment conversations as well? How do we adjust perceptions so people understand that students with differences are employable? And did we ever think that including such students would also lead to including teachers with differences in school environments?
Engelbrecht and Green (2001) succinctly describe inclusion as a shared value that promotes a single system of education dedicated to ensuring that all learners are empowered to become caring, competent, and contributing citizens in an inclusive and diverse society. To that end, I want to demonstrate to children and adults that resilience and perseverance can get you places and that your circumstances don't define you. A vignette from my teaching experience illustrates how my 5- and 6-year-old students have embraced this ideal.
A few years ago, my teaching colleague and I loaded our class onto a bus bound for an indoor stadium where a multischool dance event was being held. The bus didn't have a wheelchair ramp, so I planned to drive my car while my colleague took the bus. I arrived at the stadium early and waited to meet my class. As I unloaded my motorized wheelchair from my car, I faced stares and whispers from unknown students.
When my students' bus arrived, they waved enthusiastically when they saw me waiting. They had never attended an event like this with so many other schools, so my colleague and I were worried they would be overwhelmed. Our students neatly filed off the bus and stood quietly in a line. They watched as students from other schools ran around, hitting one another with school bags and behaving in an unruly manner.
As we waited to enter the stadium, some older boys from another school made comments about me. My students looked distressed, and a few shook their heads in disbelief. Suddenly, one of my female students—who was often shy and reserved—stated in a loud, clear voice, "We don't say unkind words about people, and you are not being respectful. This is our teacher, Miss Venter. She is very short, but she is our teacher!"
In moments like these, I realize that I have seen progress in my lifetime. With positive role models and messages about inclusion, children—and adults—can learn to use disabilities not as triggers for discrimination, but rather as cause to celebrate differences.
Carrington, S. (2000). Accommodating the needs of diverse learners: The impact of teachers' beliefs on classroom practice. Unpublished doctoral thesis. University of Queensland—Brisbane.
Engelbrecht, P., & Green, L. (Eds). (2001). Promoting learner development: Preventing and working with barriers to learning. Pretoria, South Africa: Van Schaik Publishers.
Ramsey, P. G. (2004). Teaching and learning in a diverse world: Multicultural education for young children (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Alison Venter is acting assistant principal and literacy and numeracy coach at a K–10 school in Tasmania, Australia.
Copyright © 2017 by ASCD
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