As a young girl, one of my main goals in life was to be taught in a regular classroom. I longed for it, and grew jealous of my brother and sister who were in a regular classroom. I didn’t feel challenged enough academically in a physically handicapped classroom. Yes, that is what they were called back in the 1980s — PH for physically handicapped.
I used to daydream about many things I wanted in my life. I couldn’t go out to play like other children, so I would allow my mind to take flight. I had so many ideas and hopes for the future, such as a career and having a family. I understood that having cerebral palsy would make achievements more difficult, but it wouldn’t make them impossible. If society would let go of discrimination, life would be so much easier for those who have disabilities.
Luckily, I had three or four special education teachers who believed in me. They began to fight for me and listened to my goals. They pushed me academically, so I could have an easy transition into a mainstream classroom. They also understood that I had the intelligence and resilience to withstand being included, when inclusion was hardly an option.
One afternoon, my special education teacher had me eat lunch in the classroom and to watch a film. I forget the name of it, but it was about a woman in her thirties (I think) talking about what her life was like with cerebral palsy. I wish I could remember what she said in the movie, but I do remember the gist — overcoming stereotypes and discrimination. She had an excellent sense of humor and understanding of who she was.
After the movie ended, my teacher asked what I thought. I don’t remember what I said, but I will never forget what she told me. She said, “Jessica, you are a trailblazer and an example for many. What you are doing will not be easy, but it will make the road easier for those behind you for years to come.” I thought I knew what she meant at the time, but as I reached each goal, I understood the magnitude in her words.
Not too long after that conversation, I became fully mainstreamed into regular education. I recently watched an episode of Speechless, where teachers didn’t expect the main character who has cerebral palsy to do the same work as everyone else. They were giving him high grades that he didn’t earn. He let his teachers give him those high grades, and didn’t apply himself. I couldn’t relate at all. Teachers, especially in the beginning of being included, gave me the same work as everyone else, because they wanted me to fail. I didn’t fail because I felt pride in my work, and didn’t want special treatment or attention.
As I went through my life, I held my teacher’s words near and true to my heart. Being the first to be included wasn’t easy. Earning the respect from teachers who doubted my ability, and trying to form friendships were tiring tasks. But it made me smile to know I was making things a little easier for someone else.
Everything I seemed to want to do in life met with some kind of resistance. Becoming a teacher, wife, mother of two, and public speaker has required an extra push-back on society telling me “no.” I thank my teacher for explaining that I’m a trailblazer, because when I feel so emotionally drained from proving myself, I smile. I feel happiness in knowing that I am making life a bit easier for those who come after me. And that makes everything even more worthwhile.
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