Friday, April 27, 2012

Love, See, Teach!

Last night I was forwarded some information about a breaking news story.  A 10 year old boy with autism was being bullied in his classroom by his teachers.  You can read the story or watch the video here:  In response, the boy’s father, Stuart Chaifetz, made  a YouTube video (  expressing his opinions, calling for a public apology, and hoping this incident will start a wide-spread conversation about bullying.  His video already has over 3 million views; his Facebook page ( has over 35,000 “likes.”

Mr. Chaifetz, I am sorry as a public educator and as a person with a disability that your son was treated like this in a classroom.  As I thought about your story today, I am reminded of what I am called to do as a teacher.  Here are my professional and personal priorities, in this order:

1.       I am called to love my students.  Bell Hooks, contributor to the book The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education writes, “So think first about how you can love your students.  Do this even before you think about how you’re going to teach them.  Think:  How can I love these [students]…that I see in the classroom?  What practice of compassion can I bring to the moment that is so fine-tuned that I can accomplish in one day that which might ordinarily take weeks, months or years to do?” (p. 125, 1999).

2.       I am called to see my students.  Sometimes students feel neglected and excluded from their peers and the social community that exists within the school environment.  As teachers, I believe we are obligated to see our students, perceive their needs, and assure them that they are valuable, precious members of the human race.  Everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard.

3.       I am called to teach my students.  Tax payers give sacrificially to support the local school system.  I must teach the children in my community to the best of my ability—not just because I am paid to do it, but also because I am strongly convicted of the value of investing my life fully into the next generation.  If we want to raise children to become compassionate and competent, we must model this behavior ourselves. 


Glazer, S. (Ed).  (1999).  The heart of learning: Spirituality in education.  New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Inc.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Rock Star Parking

My friend looked at me and said, “Jenny, we’re going downtown this weekend.  I’ll drive, but since you’re coming with us, I was wondering if you could bring your….[insert awkward pause and silence]…”

“Rock Star permit?”  I offer.

Exhale.  Sigh of relief.  “Yes!”  She smiled. “Your Rock Star parking permit!"

Recently I had a friend text me this picture.  I posted it on Facebook on Sunday with the caption, “To be honest, this is how I wish the accessible parking spaces were actually labeled!,” and quickly received over 20 “likes.”  Thanks peeps. I often feel weird about the fact that I own and use a Handicapped Parking Permit.  It gets especially awkward when I’m attending an event for young adults or kids—the blue and white zone is usually empty and my beautiful Honda Civic sits there all alone.  I feel like EVERYONE knows I’ve arrived and where I’ve parked.   I’ve definitely gotten stares while parking at grocery stores.  I think people are expecting to see a little old lady, but instead see a smiling young woman.  What’s up with that?  Here’s the deal…

The main reason that I have a Rock Star parking permit is that I fall often.  This is primarily a concern in the winter, but I even fell yesterday walking on familiar territory.  Walking shorter distances can reduce the chances that I’ll have an incident.  

The other compounding issue is that I tend to fall more frequently when my arms are full.  Parking close to the door allows me to easily bring a cart close to my trunk to load or unload items.  It’s much easier to do this at work and around town if my car is in the front row.  

You might not notice, but my depth perception is slightly skewed due to my cerebral palsy.  Parking has always been a bit of a challenge for me, but is a skill where I have seen some improvement.  When I first began driving, I used to take up multiple parking spots because I had a hard time aligning my vehicle in the allotted space.  Rock Star parking spaces tend to be much wider and have an access isle.  It’s a sweet feature.  

Finally, I lose track of things and I get lost easily.  Sure, I can’t find my keys, misplace my cell phone, and have made a few wrong turns, but I also lose track of big things too.  While walking one afternoon in my neighborhood where I have lived for four years, I wasn’t certain what side of the road my house was on, or how exactly I could get home.  I got lost this year in my one-level elementary school where I have worked every day since 2008.  I can’t find my car in a parking lot unless I think REALLY HARD about where it is located.  Parking in a designated area puts my mind at ease. 

In the end, I have found having a Rock Star parking permit has made my life a little easier and surely has prevented injuries.  But, in truth, I wouldn’t park there if I didn’t have a need.  I’d rather blend in.  Then again, that’s another reason why it should be called “Rock Star parking.”  They’re especially reserved spots for those who are willing to stand out and make their mark on the world. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Bridging the Gap

I recently had the opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with a friend of mine who also lives with a disability.  As we were talking, I realized something very unique was taking place…we actually could relate to one another’s experiences.  I found it refreshing, nourishing even to find someone else who could really understand on a personal level what it is like to struggle with a physical disability.  Then I began to wonder:  Why was this experience so rare?  On the reverse, why is so challenging to articulate my experiences to people who have able bodies in a way that resonates?  

How do we bridge the gap?

Living with a disability is not a largely shared experience.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just over 18% of Americans report having a disability.  Only about 2% of the populations of those who have disabilities fall into my age range of 25-44.  (No wonder it’s hard to find someone to talk to!)  You can read the full report here:  

Living with a disability often affects people in profound ways that are evolving and difficult to describe.  I find that I often have to spend hours in deep thought over my life’s experiences before I can come up with a simile or a metaphor that effectively communicates my thoughts, feelings, and experiences of living with cerebral palsy.  Part of the challenge, I believe, is that having a disability can affect multiple areas of your life, be deeply personal, and continually evolving—even if your symptoms remain unchanged.  As a child, I was mainly concerned with fitting in with my friends, managing fatigue, and learning how to drive.  I struggled with my self-esteem and was looking for my niche in the world.  As a young woman, I have many friends and a driver’s license.  I am finding an increasing sense of identity in my profession.  I still struggle with my self-esteem from time to time (Let’s be honest, who doesn’t?), but I find myself wondering more about the possibilities and challenges of marriage and family.  I imagine my focus will shift again as I continue to age.

So much of the struggle of living with a physical disability is internal.  As I was talking with my friend, it struck me that perhaps the biggest challenges we will face in life will not be physical—they will be emotional and spiritual.  It’s not so much about struggling to walk up and down stairs, needing to ask for help to accomplish everyday tasks, or facing disappointing physical limitations as much as it is the person you become in the midst of the challenges you face.  These trials can produce in people qualities that are not always easily seen: shame, anger, discouragement, humility, courage, perseverance, hope.

Questions to Consider:
For those of you who have able bodies: What do you find most challenging to understand about the experience of living with a disability? 
For those of you who live with a disability:  What do you find the most challenging about relating to others about your experiences?
For everyone:  How can we bridge the gap?

For fun:  This movie clip was about the best scene I could think of which illustrates what it's like to be misunderstood.  Gotta love Milton!

Stumbo Family Story