Self-Advocacy in the Classroom

"Sandy do you want to tell your teachers some things that would help you hear better?" I think I was in the sixth or seventh grade. My speech therapist that I'd been working with since the first grade had prepped me for this part of the conversation. It was early in the school year and we were gathered around a table going over my IEP plan.

In the beginning my speech therapist and I worked on pronouncing my own name. The "S" at the beginning of "Sandy" was pretty much silent to me until I was about 8 or so. "Hi, my name is Thandy" is how I would introduce myself to others as a kid. We also worked on endings of words that had a "t", "-ed", "-s" or the one I hated most: "-its." She helped me learn how to carry my sentences all the way through when I spoke aloud, reminding me to not drop off at the end, and we worked on my lisp (a word I had trouble pronouncing until well into high school); she taught me about adverbs, and compound words; we practiced lip reading, and ASL. I didn't consider her to be just my speech therapist, she taught me language and how it can be used, how it benefits all of us, and all of its little tricks and secrets. But the most important thing I learned from Mrs. B was how to advocate for myself.

I know that my hearing-loss isn't something that I touch upon much in this blog, but its something that O.I. affects and also, of course, affects my day-to-day life. In school I was usually not only the only one in a wheelchair, but also the only kid with a hearing-impairment (at least that I knew of). I wore hearing-aids and an FM system in school beginning with first grade till the 12th grade, and even today I will OCCASIONALLY wear one hearing-aid. (It depends on my mood, do I want to listen to the ENTIRE world today?) Having a hearing-impairment can negatively influence a student's learning experience in very obvious ways, but just as with any other disability learning to work WITH the impairment is the key to success. I think that my weekly sessions with my speech therapist, and our focus on language.. actually had a lot to do with my fluency and comfort with the English language in general. It's one of those old lessons in practice makes perfect, but in this case it helped that the student loves the subject of English and writing to begin with.
Mrs. B was the rare teacher who was able to seamlessly show her student how learning language will also help you overcome challenges. When we were practicing lip reading she taught me about context clues, and how even though certain words LOOK the same on the lips, the context of phrases will help you decipher what is being said. This helped a lot when I took my college entrance exams and had to fill in missing vocabulary from sentences -- context clues! It was a skill I had been learning since the 3rd grade! Or as we were going over phrases she would tell me about ways to make it easier for me,
"How did you get that phrase so quickly?!" She proclaimed in mock disbelief.
"Because you were facing me, and I was looking at you." This quickly became not just the right answer for her little games, but also the key to my success in the regular classroom as well.

I learned how to address teachers who would talk while writing on the board, their backs facing the classroom. And although I was able to pick-up 80% of what was being said through the FM system, I never felt confident unless I am able to lipread as well. This is true even to this day. I get frustrated when people scream at me from afar, or when friends will whisper things in a movie theater. Even if I DO hear what is being said, I get frustrated because my natural instinct is to say "I can't see you, and if I can't see you then I can't hear you."
Having an FM system also means that I pick-up on ALL the background noise in a classroom. Every squeak of a chair against the floor, every soft rumble of the heater in the background, every hum of the lights in the ceiling, every single side chatter of conversation between students.. the list is endless! Being able to address my peers in a confident and cool manner about lowering their voices, or stop tapping your pencil! Was also an infinitely important tool that Mrs. B armed with.

I'm a firm believer that the more a student is able to advocate for his or her needs in the classroom, the better learner she or he will become. And in many instances this requires a certain level of comfort with the disability or learning difference that the student may have! So in the end, this is all the more reason that our educators and parents learn to form learning communities that foster inclusiveness and acceptance. The easier it is for students to speak-up for themselves, the stronger they becomes as individuals and the better prepared they are for the world OUT THERE!

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