My introduction to kids with disabilities occurred while I worked in a Kazakhstan camp for children with cerebral palsy and their mothers. I had started a Masters in Special Education at Ball State before I returned to Kazakhstan for the third time. I was assigned a student who appeared to have a seizure disorder and CP. This was a boy whose mother dared not hope her son could learn. I trained her to help her son read and communicate through visual aids and picture exchanges. I gave him the building blocks for reading: letter identification, word recognition, the importance of paying attention. I had to adapt English literacy tests into Kazakh, a Turkish language with a Cyrillic alphabet. I had to find Kazakh words that rhymed, words that duplicated the tests from the United States. My student didn’t learn to read while I tutored him. But I taught his mother how difficult it was for her son to be himself. How difficult it was to color inside the lines of a picture of a dog. How difficult it was for him to copy letters. Together, she and I came to appreciate the importance and necessity of patience for the incremental nature of growth. Gripping a pencil posed such challenges for him that his concentration was diverted to the physical demands of holding something in his hands. The challenges of performing those common tasks so easily taken for granted. Before I left, his mother believed her son could communicate with her. She believed he would read and learn.
Leaving the Fish Bowl
At the beginning of last year, a new student was enrolled in our school. She used a wheelchair for mobility and was deaf-blind. However, when I met her, I noticed she engaged with her environment. That she smiled in recognition of the people who spoke with her. I felt concerned about her inability to communicate her wants and needs, despite the clear preferences she showed. She spent entire mornings without getting a drink because she was unable to ask, at times no one thought to ask her if she was thirsty. That spring I started to build communication skills. I showed her a Pediasure bottle and a water bottle so she could look at the object she wanted. Soon she demonstrated she could recognize 3 inch pictures of items. Then she began reaching for pictures of the choices she wished to make. We kept her in my program this year hoping she will be able to operate a voice output communication system next spring. She reminds me of the main character in Sharon Draper’s “Out of Her Mind,” the novel with the goldfish leaping out of its fishbowl on the cover. The ability to communicate with others opens doors that were previously closed. Fuels the leap into infinite possibilities.
The Ray of Hope
I had been in Kazakhstan three times. During my last trip, I started The Ray of Hope Club for children with disabilities and their families. We provided equipment and training for children to receive physical therapy. I provided educational opportunities for kids with physical or cognitive disabilities. There were boarding schools for kids with visible or mental disabilities. For kids with crossed eyes or cleft palettes. On my first two trips to Kazakhstan, I worked with five orphanages where Interlink Resources provided humanitarian aid, underwear and socks. As the conditions in Kazakhstan improved over time, we built water towers and provided life skills training. Started having birthday parties.
John spoke 84 words with a communication device. Spent the seventh grade sleeping, screaming or kicking. As an eighth grader he asked for another drink with a voice from his device after a few taps on the screen. I taught his life skills class, lessons on grocery shopping and cooking. Kept alert for teachable moments. I believe everyone can learn. The first week of school, John showed me he could expand his vocabulary 84 words at a time as I tinkered with the settings on his device. By expanding his vocabulary, he showed me a passion for words and communication. And a particular passion for science.
With a science teacher’s help, I seated John in a seventh grade science class. I taught his classmates why he covered his ears against loud, unexpected noises. John taught them how to use his communication device. They always greeted him when he arrived for class and said goodbye when he left early for lunch. John adjusted to the sounds and distractions of science class in order to learn about mammals and space and tectonic plates. When he returned to my special ed. class, he asked for sensory breaks. Favored a green neoprene sleeve. The “green thing” he called it. I helped him get a job shelving books in the middle school library. Sometimes he stopped to read the new releases. Sometimes he read the dictionary. That spring the class took its annual field trip to King’s Island for Science Day. I shadowed John on the excursion. Served as his mother hen to keep the promise I made to his father. John rode the Log Ride four times before I lost count, laughing and giggling through the splash and cold of a 60 degree spring day. We dried off at a first aid station, warmed ourselves before the bus trip back to Muncie. I offered him sensory breaks throughout the day. Brushings or the chance to wear a compression vest. He chose what he needed. He said yes or no. I let him laugh and wonder with his peers. Encouraged him to follow his interests in roller coaster thrills. He slept all the way home.
At the end of the year, we practiced the recognition ceremony once. Before all his classmates and their parents, John crossed the stage to receive his certificate by himself, laughing as he approached the MC. He was so proud of the independence he had grown into, proud of the words that had grown within him.
When I was seven-years old, I moved back to the U. S. from Kenya where my parents had led a team of medical professionals in a rural clinic. As a first grader I knew multiplication facts. I could read Frog and Toad and understand the Little House on the Prairie books my father read to me. But I didn’t know about St. Patrick. About the invincibility of wearing green. Didn’t understand why my classmates pinched me while teasing , “You’re not wearing green.” I still don’t like St. Patrick’s Day and all those February 17 shenanigans. But like the meaning of red hexagonal stop signs, I learned about shamrocks and Irish saints. And I stuck a green sticker on my blouse to stop the pinchers.
Every person has a gift, the ability to learn.
Sara Coggins moved back to Muncie in 2014 and began teaching special education at Southside Middle School in the fall of 2015. She received recognition as the Muncie Community School Teacher of the Year for the 2016-2017 school year. Sara is committed to being a part of revitalizing Muncie, including the Old West End where she lives.
Michael Brockley is a 68-year old retired school psychologist. He still works part-time in rural northeast Indiana. He has had poem in several Muncie Facing Project publications and will have other poems appearing soon in 3Elements Review, Tattoo Highway and Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan.
This story originally appeared in Facing Teaching, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.