The music began to play as the curtains unfolded, exposing a dark and unfamiliar stage. I walked carefully in a panic, hoping I could find my spot, but I was frozen, and unable to define my surroundings. As my peers danced around me, one student approached and grabbed my hand. I became attached to her for the rest of that dance. Moments flashed in my mind of being accused of being lazy, and not paying attention.
However, this was not anywhere near the case. The problem was not laziness on my part but instead a lack of empathy and accommodation from the dance teacher for those with visual impairments.
Visual impairment covers a broad spectrum of disorders, some more common than others. At 6 months old, I was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called Leber congenital amaurosis, a severe lack of vision that classifies me as legally blind. I am able to read print enlarged on a laptop, and I have functional vision in light-heavy environments. However, the world was not designed for vision like mine, and I need extra assistance with tasks relating to mobility and visual information, like traveling through unfamiliar or crowded spaces and identifying people.
At the age of 9, I attended a weekly dance class. It was clear that I was struggling, and the teacher knew that I had a visual impairment. I had asked her several times to place me in the front, but I remained in the back. Learning the dance was nearly impossible with the view I had, and any steps I learned came from the kindness of the students around me. On one occasion, as I tried my hardest to do the steps, a student told the instructor I was obviously struggling. The teacher told the whole class not to mind me because I was not paying attention. This comment hurt, and was one of the many reasons I did not succeed in the class.
This story is one of many situations I have dealt with regularly as a visually impaired student.
Eye contact is part of the many social interactions that a visually impaired person is not able to pick up on, unintentionally separating that person from the rest. Once, I needed to find a partner in science class. A student looked at me and smiled, but I had no clue this occurred and ended up joining another group. Later, I received a text message from my friend who was worried I was angry. I explained that I was not, and that I simply would need the information in a way that was not visual, such as planning to work together or walking up to one another.
Another common misconception is that some people tend to think of autism when they think of having trouble with social cues. Like the eye contact example, visual impairment is not an inability to understand social cues, but rather the need for visual information to be explained. Although there are people with visual impairments who also have autism, not all people do. I also don’t have an intellectual disability, but I have run into numerous situations in which I was treated as if I did. A lot of times that I go out, people will talk to the person with me, as if I was not able to answer. Every time this happens, I get frustrated by the lack of education on disability.
I have noticed that the education system has quite a few flaws and gaps in its teachings. In health class we are taught about topics like mental illness, sex education, and other information pertaining to our bodies. Although this is a great start, it does not educate students about physical disabilities. Schools need lesson plans surrounding physical disability, similar to our units on mental illness, that teach about physical problems such as blindness, deafness, and being in a wheelchair. Students must learn how to successfully interact with those who are different and that it really isn’t scary.
Public school systems offer special education programs to help those in need of academic support. However, while most students with physical disabilities do not have learning or behavioral challenges, those kids end up getting lumped into the same special education system. Most of 7th grade, I sat in the back of the room doing my homework quietly because I did not have trouble with the same material as my special education classmates. What I needed was to review visual class material and have someone help me plan ahead to ensure my time at school could run as smoothly as possible. As the years went by, my parents and teachers addressed the issue so that the teacher could also meet my individual needs. At this point in my life, my individualized education program reflects more of my needs.
Looking back on my experience at dance class, I know that I did not deserve such treatment. If I was a dance teacher with a visually impaired student, I would have placed the student in the front. I also would have had a private conversation with the student and the student’s family to ensure that I could help them to the best of my ability. I would plan ahead and approach the child with questions or concerns. It does not matter what differences students have, because they still deserve equal respect and accommodations in order to help them succeed in any setting—with or without the tutu.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as When Empathy Goes Missing, Opportunities Can Fall Short