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Dear Teacher: My Disabled Child Is Not Lazy

Dear Teacher: My Disabled Child Is Not Lazy

By Mir Kamin

There’s a lot of talk in the disability community about how we talk about it; person-first language, for example, tends to be a hot button in the autism community. Is my child autistic or is he a person with autism? Does it matter how I say it (some people say yes, absolutely, others say it’s personal preference)? For those of us parenting kids with disabilities, there is a constant push-pull happening in terms of what it’s “okay” to say. Is it okay to say that you love your child but hate their disability? Is it disrespectful or demeaning to say that? Again, opinions vary.

I am raising two fantastic human beings whom I love more than anything else on this planet. Both of them have disabilities, and because those disabilities are neurological and mental-health related, I am accustomed to a whole host of misconceptions about my children, their challenges, my parenting, and what other people assume we “should” be doing at any given time. This happens in real life and it happens online because I write about it. It happens with people we know and with strangers. It’s complicated and often messy, and I second-guess myself all the time, and I often wish I could take away some of the pain these challenges bring to my kids’ lives, because of course I wish life was a little easier than it often seems to be around here.

Here’s a handy and relatively non-threatening line I like to throw out there: Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There’s a reason some things are called invisible disabilities. And if pressed, sure, I’m happy to get into the science. Autistic brains are structurally different from their neurotypical counterparts, for one thing. For anyone who thinks prior difficulties are a “poor excuse” for current struggles, check it: childhood trauma changes brain structure, as does PTSD at any age, actually. While the specifics are nobody’s business unless my kids choose to share them, their brains are different. That’s just how it is.

My children are more than their disabilities, though. Our approach here is to emphasize that challenges are to be recognized and met with as much grace as possible, and they’re never an excuse to stop trying. I push them harder than anyone else—while doing my best to put appropriate supports in place and honor their limitations—and so, over time, I’ve grown used to judgments and misunderstandings, but I remain baffled by those who seem to believe anything that happens here is somehow related to laziness.

Today a teacher at my kids’ high school told one of my kids to “stop using your IEP as a crutch.” And let me be very clear: I don’t dislike this teacher (at least, I didn’t before I heard about this…). My kid doesn’t dislike this teacher. But that statement stung and, once shared with me, made me really think about how misunderstood kids like mine are going to be their entire lives, even by people who “should know better.”

I’m really, really angry right now (spoiler alert: strong language ahead). Here’s what I want to tell that teacher (and likely will, face to face, very soon):

1) People with broken legs use crutches because that’s the reasonable and appropriate way to compensate for their injuries. Students with disabilities are served under IEPs because that’s the reasonable and appropriate way to compensate for their differences. If you wouldn’t tell a kid with a broken leg to get rid of their crutches, you shouldn’t tell a kid with an IEP that it’s a crutch. I mean, unless you’re a complete asshole.

2) Just like those crutches for broken legs, IEPs exist to serve a specific purpose in light of specific needs. You can’t just get one for the heck of it, nor can you be afforded any accommodation at all without it being assessed and agreed upon as necessary.

3) IEPs are not, in fact, optional! Following them is federal law, regardless of your personal feelings about their necessity. Editorial comments are unneeded, unwanted, and just plain unkind.

4) My children, and all other people with disabilities, already have it harder than most. They already fight (unwarranted) feelings of shame for the ways in which they struggle. Don’t ever suggest to a human being in that situation that they aren’t trying hard enough. If you had any understanding of how hard they work every damn day to function so well that you can have the ignorant luxury of assuming they’re fine, you’d be mortified by your flippant comment.

5) For every kid who has a parent like me who’s going to crawl right up your butt when you make a misstep like this, there are a dozen more struggling kids whose parents either don’t know, don’t care, or have other life circumstances preventing them from advocating for their needs. Rather than being annoyed by being called out, maybe take a minute to truly reflect on not just your behavior, but your mindset. I assume you became a teacher because you care about education and the future of our country. News flash—disability exists whether you believe in it or not, and in larger numbers than you think. You have a responsibility to all of your students, not just the ones who work in a way you understand. Act like it.

Okay, then.

(I’m available for parties, but only if you want to clear ’em out, I guess.)

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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[…] dusted off my soap box for this one, because disability is not laziness, and teachers—of all people!—should know that. C’mon. It’s […]

jwg
Guest
jwg

Brilliant. Have you given any thought to actually sending it? I know it’s hard with high school kids who would die of embarrassment if you did anything publicly but maybe it needs to be read by all staff members. Or maybe you could just chop that one individual off at the knees.

Katarina
Guest
Katarina

It makes me really glad that you are being a squeaky wheel here. As a former Special Education teacher, I can tell you that the Gen Ed teachers rarely had much instruction on Special Education needs, even though they certainly taught lots of kids with IEPs. Some are just don’t have the knowledge and some are plain jerks. (Sad story – I had a student who, after lots of encouragement to advocate for himself, nicely asked a teacher to write on the blackboard in print because he was a struggling reader and cursive was hard for him to read. Jerk… Read more »

Lucinda
Guest
Lucinda

This 1000 times.  I used to teach English at the secondary level and the training we were given for disabilities was pathetic.  Classroom support was minimal.  Many times I was lucky to get a copy of the IEP.  Yet, I had a higher than average number of students on IEP’s for two reasons.  1) I taught a core subject.  They all had to take it. 2) I worked my ass off to understand the kids and meet them where they were.  Nonetheless, I failed the kids regularly due to my lack of knowledge and was frequently very frustrated. I’m not… Read more »

Sara
Guest
Sara

What that teacher is missing is that the kids are so successful because the IEP allows them to be. The crutches allow the kid to get to class in the same way an IEP puts kids on a level playing field. I’m horrified that someone in education said that to a kid. Shame on them.

Jen
Guest
Jen

Mir, I’ve been following your blog since forever, back when you were a single parent and I was childless. Now I’m a single parent of a boy child on the spectrum. You, your family, sharing your life with us on the internet, you’ve helped me in so many ways! You’ve helped me be a better parent. I’m not just ego stroking here, I’m busy printing this out for future reference (my ragey Mama bear moments are rather less eloquent than yours lol). But I HAD to say this, sincerely and whole heartedly – I’m so proud of you! Which sounds… Read more »

Isabel Kallman
Admin

+1,000,000

Jill
Guest
Jill

As the only Special Education teacher in a school for Regular Education (a preschool, but still a school) I now share this with them: Child 1 has a scrape on her knee. The teacher gives her a bandage. Child 2 has an arm cut off. The teacher gives her a bandage. Child 3 had an alien climb out of her head. The teacher gives her a bandage…. No one thinks this is right/fair, but it IS equal. We need to treat children differently in order to be fair. Identical/equal is not the same as fair. (And I make up new… Read more »

Brenda
Guest
Brenda

I’m just over here waving my hankie in the air and muttering “C’mon!” in agreement. I struggle so much as an adult with figuring out when I’m truly being lazy and when it’s just honestly too much and I need to give myself a break. Accepting that self-care is not being selfish was a big deal for me.

Alison
Guest
Alison

Thank goodness for in tune, articulate and prepared to fight parents like you. Because, sadly, many of the kids who need IEPs have parents who struggled at school and still struggle to understand the system their child is in – and are too overwhelmed or in awe of teachers to question statements like this one.

Tenessa
Guest

As ever, your experiences and thoughts and expressions, are as a ballast to me, a parent of kids with “invisible disabilities”. It is always comforting to know that I’m not the only one experiencing these types of things, and forever second-guessing myself with every decision. Thank for writing about it all. I am absolutely sure you and your kids will look back and will be incredibly grateful to your strength in the face of it all (however not strong you felt at the time). Yours is a necessary voice and I appreciate it.

Jodie
Guest
Jodie

Also your rights as a parent and HOW to advocate are pretty opaque or at least can be when presented to you.  I was in special education for a number of years which has come in handy over the years, but without it I wouldn’t know about half the advocation tricks and legal responsibilities the school bears.

Jodie
Guest
Jodie

Sorry wrong post to respond to

Danielle
Guest
Danielle

My child is newly diagnosed, so I may need to borrow your strength.

Kim
Guest
Kim

well, you know I love and appreciate you and think your hair is pretty, but *thank you*. As someone who was diagnosed at 48, I can tell you I’ve spent my entire life believing I am inadequate and lazy. Worse, you know how we all fall back on our patterns when we’re under stress? I know I’ve done that with both my girls. I circle around, I apologize, and we try to do better. ADD is a difficult and frustrating disability to live with, whether it’s your own or a loved one’s. But yeah, teachers shouldn’t be kicking crutches out… Read more »

Berni
Guest
Berni

I teach science at the secondary level. I also am a mom to a couple of aspies. I adamantly believe that having children with disabilities makes me a better teacher. I teach 157 students, I have to keep up with 20+ IEP’s, plus many 504’s. It’s my job to do that, and I don’t complain. I attend at least 4 IEP meetings a month. Yet when my little guy needed an IEP, you bet that I pushed like no one’s business!! His teacher was probably sick of me, but I’m my children’s advocate. I will always fight for what my… Read more »

Kathryn
Guest
Kathryn

Mir, please post a follow-up to this. I’d love to know if the teacher came to accept that he/she was wrong, or if they persist in this kind of thinking. My mom was a special needs assistant, and I’ve been involved in the school system for a long time, and from what I can tell the teachers who can actually admit they were wrong and did something harmful to a kid are few and far between.

Alyssa
Guest
Alyssa

I have a question that I’m sure will be incredibly unpopular. I think it’s great that IEPs and special accommodations are available for kids in elementary/middle/high schools, but that is not necessarily true in college and certainly not true in the workplace. Most of our careers won’t be impacted by having a broken leg or using physical crutches, but will be impacted by having a brain that works differently. I work in science research, and I see many people whose careers are limited because they freeze when put on the spot (by government people doling out grants, etc.). So it… Read more »

Catherine
Guest
Catherine

I am with Alyssa.  I have one child with an IEP in place and another I am beginning the process with but I constantly wonder how they will eventually fare as adults without such accommodations from society at large.
I know they need the additional support now, but I also know they will need to learn to support themselves long term and am at a loss on how to facilitate that. 

Beth Denton
Guest
Beth Denton

As an adult with ADHD, I won’t sugar coat it for you. This process is HARD. Colleges seem to treat accommodations like an extremely limited fast food menu… “You can have extended time on exams, test in quiet settings… oh, you don’t need those, take them anyway. You need your laptop to produce neat, organized schoolwork in a timely fashion? Too bad, we don’t do that.” (Ironically, I have a special education degree, and that was also the word from the professors).  I think that two most important needs in terms of skills for adulthood are self-advocacy (asking for what… Read more »

MR
Guest
MR

I’m glad that you are going to address this with the teacher. I’m not sure when everyone started thinking of crutches as bad things. They are there to help when you need it, but not something you want to continue using once you don’t need it, because once you don’t need them, they actually make life harder. I think people have somehow switched it that people who use crutches are purely lazy. But anyone who has done that has obviously never been on actual crutches with an injured foot/knee/leg. Crutches are EXHAUSTING. Anyway, I’m probably being too literal here. My… Read more »

Jamie
Guest
Jamie

Amen!!! My precious little snowflakes are “normal” but have plenty of friends with challenges, physically and mentally. I will stand up for any of these kids as needed, and when appropriate. Thank you for the example you live.

Kat
Guest
Kat

I completely agree, however, the questions I would ask would be these: 1) what part of the IEP was the teacher referring to?  the entire IEP that as you mentioned is supposed to help “level the playing field”  (I would hope no teacher would suggest this.)  Let’s say it was… 2) was it an out dated accommodation or goal that has been mastered, and my child wasn’t performing to their ability because they have something they don’t need and then if yes, 3) show me the data that my child doesn’t need this and let’s take it to a meeting… Read more »

Sassy Apple
Guest

My hope is the teacher is young with a very narrow view of the world, and you will open his/her eyes to think about something differently.

My other hope is you tell this teacher if you ever hear of him/her making statements of a demeaning and hurtful nature again, you will be contacting the principal IMMEDIATELY.

As a teacher myself, I can tell you sometimes we are powerless to right the wrongs of a co-worker, but we LOVE a parent advocate who has ‘scorched Earth’ power & knowledge.

Meri
Guest
Meri

Re: accommodations in the workplace – there’s a reason why we have the ADA in the US. Reasonable accommodations are just that, and go beyond what I ever expected. http://www.eeoc.gov/ has lots of useful information. I’m currently working with my state’s vocational rehab program to find a job that can accommodate my multiple disabilities and I’m going to apply through their office, disclosing that I have some sort of disability, because I want it up front that I need accommodations. The voc. rehab office has told me that govt agencies and contractors are supposed to hire a certain % of… Read more »

dad
Guest
dad

Jen is not the only one that is proud of you.

Beth Denton
Guest
Beth Denton

Having been both a special education teacher AND a general education teacher, I suspect I know why the teacher was so frustrated that they said such a crappy thing. Gen ed teachers are incredibly unsupported when it comes to working with students with special needs. They’re not trained for it, their classes are suddenly up to 1/3 full of students who are more than two years below grade level, and their careers are now on the line (thanks NCLB!) if they aren’t address the grade-level standards. Even though my degree is in special education and I have taught special education,… Read more »