Anything But Handicapped

I wanted to share a story about one of my students.  Mark was born with Spina bifida, and had nerve damage which affected his ability to walk.  He traversed from place to place in a wheel chair (when we were outside) or with crutches, inside.  He was the only handicapped person in our school and working with him was a learning experience for both myself and my students.

Our school was a bit unusual to begin with as we didn’t have the traditional grades that most US schools had, we had Forms which are akin to grades but varied in the higher levels to include more than one grade.  In order to move up to the next Form, one had to complete a series of graduation requirements.

These requirements included gaining academic, practical and physical skills.  Once a student completed their graduating requirements they were allowed to move up into the next Form.  Students graduated at any time during the year and on Fridays, we had weekly assemblies announcing the graduates since the last meeting.  Parents and friends were invited, flowers and certificates were given and if they wanted to, the kids were allowed to give a speech.

At the time that Mark became my student, I was running a combination Form 1 and 2 class (second and third grade).  There were some immediate learning experiences such as traveling with wheelchairs on our weekly field trips, especially fun when the trip didn’t include wheelchair accessibility and I had to carry him up a set of stairs.  For the most part, he went on the majority of our trips and only stayed behind when we went hiking or camping.

The students had no problem incorporating their play to include him because Mark didn’t play the victim when it came to physical challenges.  Mark had a goal of being able to walk and he was pretty determined about it.  No one ever told him otherwise.

One of the biggest challenges in dealing with handicapped children is being able to identify the different activities that the handicap struggle with…are they struggling because they can’t physically do it or are they struggling because it is difficult for them and they have to push through that barrier in learning?  In Mark’s case, handwriting was an activity he struggled through (as did many other children) that did not involve being handicapped and he was expected to achieve the second grade requirement of “mastered printing”, essentially…consistently “perfect” printing.  Just like any child pushing through something difficult, he would complain, say it’s hard and he can’t do it.  But in the end…he did.

But physical activities where quite different.  I don’t think I ever heard him say, “I can’t” .  When we played kickball, he would throw the ball and another player on the team ran for him and he would play short stop when outfield.  In soccer, he was the goalie.  Obvious inabilities were waived such as the running and bike riding requirements. It had been my intention to waive the gymnastics requirements as well, but Mark showed me that many of these could be done as well.  He surprised everyone by doing a headstand, a requirement that challenged most of the others.  He especially enjoyed swimming as it was the one time that he could be free of his limitations.

In the classroom, he would either use his crutches to move about or the edge of a counter or desk to scooch along. One day during math (a subject he liked a lot) he completed a page and was bringing it to my desk…except he forgot his crutches and there were no tables around him.  He had started walking from the far end of the course room.

It was a moment when I wanted to jump up and scream Halleluiah…but I knew better.  The look on Mark’s face was one of a student turning in a math page, the fact that he was walking on his own hadn’t even crossed his mind.  I tried to act normal, business as usual but I couldn’t help but watch him out of the corner of me eye as he progressed across the room.  I also noticed that one by one, others started watching him…unbeknownst to Mark.  The room quickly became quiet…pin drop quiet.  He arrived at my desk and handed me his paper and the students spontaneously started clapping and cheering.  Slightly startled, he looked at them and said, “What?”  They were so excited saying,”You walked, Mark!”  He slyly smiled and said, “Yeah” and returned to his desk.

It was the first and only time I saw him walk but that moment made a huge impact on the other students when they faced their own challenges in meeting graduation requirements…they would just think of Mark walking across the room and carry on with what they were doing, without a word of complaint.  He showed them that attitude has a lot to do with ability.