The room was crowded with chatty fourth-graders. I rolled in my power chair, between the rows of seats from the door at the rear to the front of the classroom, careful not to crush small feet. Though I was six decades older than they were, I was intimidated. I tried to make everyone, particularly me, more comfortable:
“How was your weekend?” I asked as I made my way.
I was invited to speak to the class by Halle Katz, a program facilitator with Gateways, a nonprofit devoted to building inclusion in Jewish education. She asked me questions — about my childhood, the evolution of my disability (multiple sclerosis), what I’m good at, how I think people should treat those who have a disability. Then it was time for the kids to ask questions. I told them I was an open book, “You can ask me anything at all.”
“Were you scared when you got multiple sclerosis?”
I was. But now I feel proud of myself for how I’ve dealt with it.
“Do people bully you?”
Sometimes. Mostly because when I can’t get in somewhere, I feel I’ve been treated terribly.
“Do you drive? How do you do that?”
I’ll show you!
“Do your legs hurt?”
“Do you ever go on airplanes?”
Yes, I have to transfer from my wheelchair to one of those skinny aisle chairs you may have seen wheelchair users use to get on the plane.
“What makes your power wheelchair move? Can it make you stand up?”
A battery. And, no, but some people have chairs that can.
“Do you do any sports?”
Yes, swimming and kayaking.
“You said we shouldn’t leave people out, but what if they can’t play basketball and we want to?”
Let’s talk about that.
And then one last student shared something that reminded me of why I do this: “I have a disability too, but you can’t see it,” he said. “I feel really bad about it.”
I told him that I’m sorry he’s dealing with that. I also told him that I have learned that most people are dealing with challenges — some like mine, that are visible, and others, like his, that are not — so he’s not alone. We aren’t alone.
When question time was over, the teacher released the kids to the parking lot, where I showed them my accessible van. I was surrounded by exclamations of “oh cool!” as I pushed the remote, making the sliding doors open and the ramp come down. I let anyone who wanted to, try it. Then they all watched me roll up the ramp, transfer to the driver’s seat, close the ramp and sliding doors, and, using the hand controls, drive away.
Through Gateways, I’ve spoken with numerous fourth-grade classes. These conversations are so liberating for me and I think for the children. We are speaking honestly and openly about my life with a disability and my feelings about it, and the kids have the chance to speak about themselves and their own challenges. They are free to ask all of the questions that are no doubt on their minds whenever they see someone in a wheelchair. And these discussions allow them to think about how they can include, and not be afraid of, people who may seem different from them.
Conversations like these can’t help but lead to greater freedom for people with disabilities — freedom to live our lives without restriction.
There is much talk lately about how some discussions in US classrooms should be restricted, and that children should not be exposed to topics that make them feel uncomfortable or to people who appear different from them.
My discussions with the fourth-graders may make them feel a little bit uncomfortable in the moment — or maybe not. But by the time our conversations end, they leave knowing a lot more about people like me, and because of that are more comfortable with other people who look like me. Having these conversations with people at a young age serves to normalize disabilities and to educate them that challenges should be included and accommodated. Only then will people with disabilities, and others too often excluded, be able to live without barriers and be truly free.
Schools everywhere should offer a chance for this sort of honest dialogue. Freedom requires more, not less, opportunities for people to have open conversations with those who may be different from themselves.
Carol Steinberg is an attorney and disability activist.