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Against all odds: Educating disabled students in a pandemic

We had our first week of virtual learning this week. My amazing co-teacher and our dedicated support staff and I all worked tirelessly during the two weeks leading up to it (in between attending a zillion mandatory zoom meetings of course). We were as ready as we could be but still, we worried. Could we create something that was accessible and relevant for our students, some who don't use verbal speech, who lack the motor skills to click a mouse, who process information differently and have executive functioning challenges?

We weren't sure. We dropped off chromebooks and sensory boxes and posted the information for our upcoming week of school on every platform we could think of (instagram, Facebook, texting, emails, anything to meet our students and their families where they were at) and then we waited to see what would happen. If I'm being honest, my expectations were low and I was resigned to the idea of teaching to a blank screen all day. I know firsthand how hard it is to facilitate online learning with a disabled child, and I knew our students and their families probably have challenges outside of school that they are dealing with also. Given the situation, my hopes weren't very high.

I shouldn't have worried.

I was blown away, and so uplifted, by the examples that I saw of resiliency this week. Just one example after another of our little community of teens with disabilities, their parents and our educational team coming together to salvage what we could out of this experience.

This week I worked with a student who lost his mother over the summer. He and his sisters have been through so much recently and yet they were in good spirits. The teenage sisters acted as patient instructional aids for their brother, whose independent movement is very limited. He showed up on every single zoom call all week, independent movement be damned, and used his best skill, his voice, to interrupt my teaching with hilarious comments every chance he got, big ole forehead pressed firmly against the iPad camera the whole time.

This week I met one of my freshmen who is learning on his own at home while mom and dad work hard to provide for their family. His can-do spirit was inspiring, and nothing seemed capable of dimming his bright, beaming smile: not spotty wifi or glitchy zoom links or assignments that were hard for him to access independently. Even today (Friday, a day where we don't have live class) he was still up at the crack of dawn, texting me exuberantly to let me know that he was completing his independent work for that day. No one is around to help this 14 year old with a disability access an education. He's doing it because he desperately WANTS to learn.

This week I met a young man who has autism, like our youngest son. He was poised and eager, sitting ramrod straight in front of the camera with his glasses and a huge smile on his face. I felt overcome listening to him confidently introduce himself, watching him shoo his mom away so that he could independently navigate the inclusive art class I co-teach. This young man showed up, with his beautifully unique brain and rocked online learning. It felt like getting to see into the future.

This week, I commiserated with moms who were nearly in tears, moms who were tired, moms who are coordinating food pickups and 6 different school schedules, moms who are working from home or working nights and still finding time to facilitate online learning, moms who have never used google anything and now have to navigate slides and pages and docs and classroom in order to help their child. We complained together, problem solved over instagram and FaceTime and google duo, and got it done.

This week I heard from a student who is living in a shelter for families, during a pandemic. There were several bomb threats at their shelter this week, and they had to leave the shelter and be outside all day while it was resolved. They didn't tell me that to complain, they just wanted me to know that they'd be watching the zoom recordings since they couldn't make it to the live sessions. Today he turned in his weekly assignments early, despite having such a crazy, scary week, despite his family not even having a home to call their own right now. They're still showing up.

I have a student who rolls his wheelchair to the local elementary school and back every day, over sidewalk cracks, in rain or shine, to get the school cafeteria meals for the 9 total kids in his family, and he still managed to do an amazing job showing up for school and completing his assignments this week, AND pick up everyone's food. His internet was out all day on Thursday but he texted with us back and forth, and found a way, and got it done.

The human spirit and its instinct to not quit always amazes me.

My 5th grade son's class had some sweet zoom sessions this week. I sat on the floor with him and smiled, seeing families like ours reflected back at me on the screen. Wheelchair trays piled high with fidget toys to keep kids engaged in front of the screen and crazy arms waving wildly in the air almost clipping the computer. Younger typically developing siblings eagerly helping older nonverbal siblings respond to the questions. My son's best friend gave a monologue about his favorite character (Sonic) while Julian squealed and cocked his ear toward the computer, joyful at the sound of his voice. Parents with eyes like mine, tired and a little shell shocked but quietly determined, sitting shoulder to shoulder with their unique child, ready to do what's necessary to keep some semblance of structure and normalcy for their kid.

Those faces on the other side of the computer screen kept me going this week. They kept me going through tearful moments of frustration when my internet crashed or the new paperwork requirements overwhelmed me. They kept me going through the somber grief of hearing that one of our freshmen would never join us for remote learning because he passed away due to complications related to his disability. Those faces are why I do this job.

I know virtual learning is hard, impossible even at times, and that many of us are feeling challenged and tempted to complain. But let's not complain too hard (saying that for myself as much as anybody). We can do hard things.

Thankful for an amazing first week. It wasn't perfect by a long shot, but we showed up and tried our very best. Looking forward to improving our students' virtual experience a little bit more each week.

P.S. If you like posts about teaching within the disabled community and want to read more about it you can check out my friend Chris's blog

P.P.S. If you want to support the family of our student who passed, check out their GoFundMe

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