Special Education Q&A

A Teenager With Disabilities Implores Educators: ‘Be My Champion’

By Madeline Will — July 05, 2023 | Corrected: July 06, 2023 5 min read
Helena Donato-Sapp, age 14, speaks to thousands of National Education Association delegates about disability justice in the classroom on July 4, 2023.
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Corrected: A previous version of this article misspelled Helena’s last name. Her name is Helena Donato-Sapp.

Helena Donato-Sapp is a 14-year-old activist with a searing message for educators: Do more to be a champion for students with disabilities.

Helena has four learning disabilities—a visual processing disorder, a working memory disorder, dyscalculia, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder—that stem from her premature birth at 27 weeks. Because of those disabilities, as well as her experience growing up as a Black girl who was adopted by two fathers, Helena said she has felt discriminated against at school and has experienced bullying and exclusion from her classmates.

“I beg you to look for the lonely child sitting by themselves at school, the child that no one picks for play or group work,” Helena told educators at the National Education Association’s annual representative assembly here on July 4. “Look for me in your school and in your classroom and be my champion. Being a champion to me means confronting your own deficit ideology and seeing my assets. It means to lift up the underdogs.”

NEA President Becky Pringle had invited Helena to speak about disability rights and inclusion because, she said, “everyone needs to hear her ask you to be her champion.”

In her address, Helena called for educators to learn more about different learning disabilities and how best to empower students who have them.

Since the 3rd grade, Helena’s fathers have made a one-pager for each of her teachers that describes her instructional and testing accommodations, her goals for the school year, and her personal interests. (Helena is a big fan of Harry Styles.)

“As clear as we are, my unique individual needs are still not fully met,” Helena said.

Even so, Helena, who lives in California, recently finished middle school with three years of straight A’s. In addition to her own hard work, she credits her success to her parents’ advocacy and support—and the few teachers who believed in her.

For example, she said, one teacher told her that she just learns differently. That simple phrase was powerful, Helena said, adding that the language teachers use matters.

After all, she’s proud of who she is: “I believe my disabilities are my superpowers.”

Education Week spoke to Helena about her experience in school—both the good and the bad. (Because of her learning disabilities, and at her parents’ request, Helena received these questions in advance and wrote down her answers before reading them aloud to Education Week.)

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How can teachers better support students with disabilities?

It is important to learn about different disabilities—the basics, like learning not to be ableist [and] what ableism [discrimination against people with disabilities] sounds like and looks like in a classroom.

I’ll give you an example. I have had really tough experiences with collaborative group work. It isn’t because I don’t like group work—I am actually a very social learner. One of the problems is that I have a processing disorder and a working memory disorder, and that means that I take a little longer to process things. But my peers strongly believe that smart equals fast. Period.

They view me as dumb and have told me that to my face. So, guess what? When it is time to pick peers to do group work with, guess who is never chosen? Me. And then, on top of that, even when I am placed in a group to work, none of my peers will listen to me. They shut me out.

They are being ableist, but just as [bad] is that I am in a teacher’s classroom ... and it is going on right under their nose. After years of this, I am reluctant to participate. And guess what happens over and over again on my report card? The teacher says that I don’t participate well and rarely share in class and docks me for that.

I am talking about a single and commonly used teaching strategy—cooperative learning—and that one thing wreaks havoc on my learning all the time.

To be clear, teachers use hundreds of different strategies besides cooperative learning. I share this example because it shows how tough a common classroom is if teachers are not aware and nuanced about ableism and disabilities.

Have you had a teacher who was especially good at giving you the support you needed to be successful?

Yes! My favorite subject is science and my hardest teacher is my science teacher, Mrs. Warnick. She is tough. The work is hard. The pace is fast. The demands are heavy. And she is relentless in preparing us for high school science. She throws so much content at us that you just think it will be impossible to be able to handle it, but she helps us all the way.

One thing she does is that we have to keep the most organized science notebook in the world! Every single page is numbered, titled, and dated. There is a table of contents, and we have notebook checks all the time. Your science notebook has to be perfect. And that kind of attention to detail in organization helps a kid with disabilities like me in all kinds of amazing ways.

She gives a study guide for every test [and will] give it to me and my parents early because I need what we call a long runway because of my learning disabilities.

For the test, I get time-and-a-half. She lets me start the test early—like at lunch or recess or any free period I have. I can stay late, or she will read it to me out loud. I get to use my notes or my study guide. And I always joke that I think she would sing and dance that test to me if she thought it would help me. She literally does everything in her power to help me be successful.

How do you think educators can best support students to be leaders and advocates for causes they care about?

I will tell you about another of my best champions, my vice principal Mr. Perram. He is all about leadership. Last year, I pitched to him a full anti-bullying campaign for our school. I am the target of so much bullying—in the specific form of exclusion—and so I wanted my school to be safer for the kids coming up behind me. Mr. Perram took my pitch seriously and then he helped me lead and implement most of my anti-bullying program.

[Among other suggestions, Helena proposed that her school hold one anti-bullying event each semester, like a “no name calling” week and a “mix it up” day to encourage students to sit with someone new at lunch.]

You can kind of say that he held my hand at first, but in the end, I took on more and more leadership and had a team of other kids work with me to do several major anti-bullying events on our school campus.

Adults need to guide kids who want to lead, not control them. Let us make mistakes and figure it out. Be there to support us. We can do a lot more than you think we can.

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