A disability shouldn’t be a handicap

We need to ensure special needs students have a chance to succeed

“EXCUSE ME, DO you need that parking space? Because my 85-year-old mother does.”

My sister, Maria, and I turned our heads to see a middle-aged woman scowling at us moments after we pulled into a handicapped parking space, at the front entrance of our local mall.

Outraged, I said, “As a matter of fact, we do need this space. My sister had a stroke and has a placard to park here.” My sister offered to move the car, but it was only after she left the front seat that the woman apologized.

When she was 10 months old, Maria suffered a stroke. She had a hole in her heart that caused a blood clot, which later resulted in a brain injury and dystonia on the right side of her body. My experience growing up with her showed me the obstacles people with disabilities need to overcome on a daily basis that a non-disabled person could not imagine.

Despite these barriers, Maria persevered in high school and college, and now does incredible work reducing industrial waste to benefit the environment. She inspired me to pursue special education and support the many Marias who are out in the world fighting to be acknowledged and seen.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has urged Congress to take a closer look at the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and just last week, rescinded guidance documents that laid out the rights of students with disabilities. Denying people with disabilities the basic fundamental right of a free and appropriate education is unconstitutional. The IDEA funding ensures that there is a more objective way of determining what students need to be successful at school. Allowing this conversation to become subjective could cause student services to be determined by a possibly biased individual or prevent students from getting the basic services that they deserve.

Each day as I walk into my classroom, I face students with very different disabilities than my sister’s. The label of Specific Learning Disability, ADHD, and processing disorder become a face, a name, a student. My work is challenging and I’m hyper aware that it is more difficult for these students to succeed. Across the United States, only 63 percent of students with disabilities graduated from high school, a full 20 percent lower than the national average.  The drop-out rate of students with disabilities is nearly double that of their non-disabled peers. I keep these statistics in mind when I sit down and work with my students.

After seeing my sister’s physical disability, this woman apologized, but what would happen if Maria had no visible symptoms? How would she have been treated then? When I reflect on this experience, I think about the students I serve every day in my classroom. Most of them have disabilities that cause them difficulty in their schoolwork or the social sphere.

My first year of teaching, I had a student named Erica. She struggled severely with reading comprehension and writing. As a new fifth-grader in our school, Erica was reading at a second-grade level. For an hour each day, she received guided reading on her level and was consistently pulled into a small group to remediate strategies in class. She worked incredibly hard throughout the year, and by the end, she had made two and half years of reading growth. She continues to grapple with her disability as a successful seventh-grader. For Erica, catching up wasn’t easy and she still needs to put in more effort than her non-disabled peers.

I would like to say that this was the only time my sister was challenged for parking in a handicapped parking space, but it wasn’t. She is now 29 and there have been many instances when people have accused her of “stealing her handicapped placard from her grandmother” or told her that she “doesn’t really need the parking space as much as others.”

Meet the Author
Disability is a broad term and conditions are not always visible to the eye. Cutting back on IDEA funding would have long-lasting detrimental effects on students who already need to overcome so many barriers to achievement.  Instead we should fully support large-scale policies like IDEA, that ensure all students are getting what they need to thrive and be successful, regardless of their disability or what school they attend.

Kayla Scholl is a fifth-grade teacher at KIPP Academy Lynn in Lynn, Massachusetts, and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.