Editor’s note: This guest essay is part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Read more columns by local students here.
Twelve years ago, I stood in the doorway of my house in Nepal with an empty backpack on my shoulders and a burning desire to go to school. Every day, just before he left the house, I would cling to my brother’s legs, begging to go with him, and every day, I would get the same harsh answer, “No!”
Finally, I began wondering why others could go to school and I couldn’t. That’s when my family explained to me that I was blind. Not only were students with disabilities not accepted in Nepali culture, but there were also no accommodations that would allow me to succeed at a school there.
When I was 4, we moved to the United States, and two years later, I finally got my wish: I enrolled in Hazelwood Elementary, a public school in the Edmonds School District and the only school in Washington with a program for people with visual impairments.
The culture of curiosity and inclusivity I found at Hazelwood gave me the confidence to show my teachers and peers that I am just as capable as anyone else. Hazelwood taught me everyone needs a community without preconceived notions of what someone can or can’t do. We all have the ability to make a difference in each other’s lives.
If all schools actively work toward an open-minded and inclusive culture where curiosity is welcomed and support is provided when needed, then people of all abilities will shine.
The school community at Hazelwood worked deliberately to build empathy, something other schools could learn from. Every year the visually impaired students gave a presentation to their sighted classmates, teaching them to read and write in Braille and having them guide a blindfolded friend around the school. Doing these presentations alleviated the mysteries around living without vision and helped to build a culture of curiosity. It showed my peers that they could interact with me just as they did with one another.
With the help of Hazelwood’s resource program and staff, my education flourished. I spent my first year there in the vision resource room, where I was taught to read and write in Braille, a six-dot code that can be read by touch.
As the years went by, I spent most of my time in my general education classes, only occasionally being pulled out to work on my orientation and mobility, fine motor skills and computer abilities.
The year that stands out to me most is the fifth grade, when things started getting challenging. I would not have gotten through that year without the support of my general-education teacher, Adah Masaoka. She was always willing to listen, adapt to my needs and challenge me.
“Sometimes, when there’s a student with disabilities, people kind of let them slide because they have disabilities,” she told me. “But I tried really hard to correct you on every single mistake that you made so you could improve.”
Masaoka and I also had invaluable conversations about accessibility and inclusion. When we came across an iPad app that would not work with the screen reader, she encouraged me to contact its developers. When I needed her to adapt an assignment, she worked hard to make sure the adaptation didn’t diminish the intended challenge.
Throughout my time at Hazelwood, the message from the staff and my peers was clear: “There isn’t anything you can’t do.”
Soon, I started to believe them, and have taken that confidence through middle and high school, where, as the only visually impaired student in the schools, I’ve tried to help foster the culture I found at Hazelwood.
As I take on academically challenging classes, I face common roadblocks like inaccessible websites, unreadable PDF documents and unnavigable tables. Staying silent isn’t an option. With the self-advocacy skills I learned at Hazelwood, I’ve worked with my teachers to make every assignment as accessible as possible.
However, I would never be where I am today without the friendship, dedication and support from my teachers and peers. So, if you are a student and see someone who is different from you, step out of your comfort zone and get to know them. If you are a teacher or administrator, find ways to create an inclusive culture where everyone is accepted and valued.
Above all, don’t be afraid to communicate with people who are different from you. Ask questions, keep an open mind and do your best to make sure the voices of all people are heard.
If you or a colleague has a student with any sort of disability and are looking for some resources, here are some great ones.