I am a writer. Therefore, I must have a day job and my day job is teaching and assisting middle school students with learning and/or physical disabilities. The toughest part of my job is deciphering what certain students cannot learn as opposed to them acting "stupid" to avoid the lesson. Slowly, but surely, I'm figuring this out.
People with learning disabilities are far from stupid. Oh sure they might not grasp reading, language, math, and other subjects with the ease of a more average person, but they know when you're teasing them. Let me clarify the term "teasing" in this case. The students outside our classroom tease our students and call them "retards." Their intent is to make fun of them -- to put them down. Those of us who work with these students tease them to be silly and they know the difference. For example, the day after Halloween I had a spot surgically removed from my nose. When I returned to school I had a bandaid covering the open wound. The kids looked at me and asked, "What happened to you?"
Drawing on my writer's imagination I responded with an elaborate tale. "I was walking outside the school building and came across a witch who wrecked her broom last night and now she can't go back home until next Halloween. She was crying and when I asked if I could help her she whacked me in the face with her broom."
"Nunh uh!" They cried out with a grin on their faces.
"It's true!" I insisted with a straight face. "She's still out there!"
"She is not!" And they laughed at me.
We have fun in our classroom and when we tease the kids they know we're not making fun of them, but having fun with them. To be fair they tease us too. Today in computer class one of the girls was playing a numbers game featuring a genie and a monkey. When the monkey popped up on the screen she looked at me and said, "That's you." I pretended to be insulted.
"What!" I gasped. "That looks more like you." And we went back and forth for the rest of the class period, but something amazing happened. This girl typically sits there and won't participate, but because I went along with the monkey joke she kept playing. Mission accomplished.
We have bad days too. Sometimes one of the kids has a seizure. Other times an ill tempered student will fly into a rage. Working with disabled kids isn't an easy job, but it is rewarding. It's especially nice when after drilling simple math problems into their head they finally "get" it.
My teaching has made a small difference in their lives. One 13-year-old boy finally remembers the date of his birthday. He could never tell you that until I made up a calendar and marked his birthday. Every day I ask him, "When is your birthday?" After getting several days of "I don't know's." He can now tell me. For him that's progress.
I never thought of myself as a teacher and I still don't profess to be great at teaching. I can only hope I make a difference in their lives. To be honest I think I've learned more from them than what they've learned from me. People with disabilities are -- well, to put it quite simply -- people.
Whenever someone uses the term "normal" when it comes to people I like to ask them, "What's normal?" They never have an answer.