Special Education

Q&A with Caitlin Hernandez, Part Two

By Christina A. Samuels — July 17, 2008 5 min read
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This picture shows actor Mark Hamill congratulating Caitlin, the first-prize winner in her grade category at the Braille Challenge, along with second-place winner Michael Chang, a high school senior from California, and third-place winner Albano Berberi of Massachusetts, who will enroll in Wheaton College in the fall.

It occurred to me after posting the first part of my Q&A session with Caitlin that some readers may be curious how she has been composing her responses:

I guess it's kind of a multi-step process, but it's second nature to me now. If someone has written a long email that I want to read in Braille, or one that I want to respond to very extensively, I copy it onto a CompactFlash card and read it on my BrailleNote. I compose and edit much better if I can "see what I'm doing," so to speak. I love the PC, but I'm a Braille reader and writer at heart, and it shows. The BrailleNote is a notetaker with a refreshable Braille display, a Braille keyboard for input, and speech output. On the BrailleNote, I read, responded to and edited the questions in Braille, then had the BrailleNote translate it into text, and sent it back in an e-mail. Usually, though, I respond to all e-mail on my PC. My PC has a screen reader called Window-Eyes which enables me to use the keyboard to navigate with speech reading aloud as I type. I also surf the web, instant message with my friends, and use LiveJournal and Facebook this way, so that I can keep in touch with my friends and the latest web trends.

The only changes I’ve made to Caitlin’s responses is to compress them slightly and make some minor stylistic changes. Now, back to the questions:

You’ve said that when you started your sophomore year in high school, you started participating in your individualized education program meetings. What was that experience like?

I dreaded IEP meetings from the beginning. Sure, I knew that they were important and that they were about my future. But what kind of kid wants to sit with her parents and her teachers and even administrators and have her academic record, goals, successes and shortcomings analyzed? I know I sure didn’t, especially since my friends often tell me that, when I’m embarrassed, my face resembles a tomato and I look like I’m on the verge of tears. Not exactly the kind of reputation I’d like to cultivate. But as I drew nearer and nearer to college, I sucked it up and attended, because I wanted to make my own decisions and play a part in shaping my future. The IEP meetings were always very informative and positive, but they were still a little daunting, even after I became accustomed to them.

What would you like teachers to keep in mind if they have students with disabilities in their classes? What can they do to be more sensitive?

My ground rules: (1) Don’t treat her any differently than any other student. If you’re in the habit of reading papers out loud, don’t hesitate to read hers just because she has a disability and you don’t want to draw “even more attention to her.” Similarly, if you’re in the habit of criticizing everyone’s work, criticize hers just like you would anyone else’s. She’ll feel worse if you pick on everyone’s but hers, and her friends will think that her disability excludes her from receiving negative feedback. Remember, she’s just like any other student.

(2) Be organized. Talk to your students and find out what they need from you. Do your best to be there for them in any way they need without laying it on too thickly. Being able to talk to your student and learn his needs is the key.

(3) Be accommodating, but don’t baby her along. If you were late handing an assignment in to be prepared for her, give her extra time to complete it. But if she pulls the “I didn’t have time to do it...I was busy” stunt, then impose the same treatment that you would for any of your other charges. No special privileges just because she has a disability; after all, how will she learn if everyone babies her along?

(4) Let him make his own decisions. Don’t force him to sit with the table full of smart kids instead of his friends, just because you feel that the smart kids will pick up his slack. Don’t hang around him when your class goes on a field trip just because you’re worried that he’ll need your guidance. Certainly offer your assistance, but don’t be offended if he declines. Most kids will ask for help if and when they need it, and when you’re a teen, it’s not cool for the teacher to be making a fuss over you while you’re trying to socialize with your friends.

(5) Communicate! It’s great when teachers check in now and then, just to make sure the student has everything she needs. Of course, doing this after class or in an email is always preferable. Don’t interrupt lectures to ask if she wants something clarified. Ask her later, or wait for her to come to you with questions.

(6) Be helpful! Being descriptive, clear and precise will assist all your students, not just those with disabilities. Asking if anyone has questions, describing an image or presentation in words as well as showing graphs or pictures, and reminding the class as a whole that the homework is listed on the board will benefit all of your students. Remember, there are many different kinds of learners, and expressing ideas in multiple ways is often very helpful.

I’d like to ask the same question about IEP meetings. You mentioned that sometimes they could be a little nerve-wracking! Is there a way that school administrators can make them better? Because a lot of students don’t even choose to participate.

I know that when I was young, I just thought that IEP meetings consisted of everybody sitting down and droning on and on about what I was bad at and needed to work on. Students need to be told that their IEP meetings are helpful in planning their future. The meeting is a tool that will enable them to be successful students and people later in life, and their input is valued and essential. I always made my parents promise not to embarrass me (they didn’t always listen, though,) and I found it helpful to talk separately with my [teacher for the visually impaired] afterward to evaluate how the meeting had gone. Let’s face it: I can’t always be completely honest with tons of people in one room, especially when I’m still reeling from being the center of so much attention. Not being a person who reacts well to criticism, I always found the meetings to be pretty emotionally draining. Remember that a disabled student’s friends rarely have IEP meetings, so he probably won’t have anyone with whom he can commiserate.

Keeping the meeting informal, positive and upbeat is always a plus. Being super-serious and not cracking a joke will just make her more nervous. I also think that, though assessing grades and prior events is important, the meetings should be focused more on improvement and the future than on negative issues and the past.

You mentioned that you were interested in going into education yourself. What would you like to teach, and what draws you to that profession?

I have always loved reading and writing. For this reason, I will be attending the University of California at Santa Cruz, where I will be majoring in English literature with an emphasis in creative writing. I hope to be a middle school English teacher someday. I love teenagers, and for that reason, I have often thought of becoming a therapist for young people...but teaching is really my calling. The idea of influencing young people, introducing them to literature and getting to know them through their writing has always excited me. I’d also love to be an author, but, of course, that’s a big dream. However, I’ve already written two novels (young adult fiction), and I’m hard at work on my third. I plan to begin sending my first book, which I’ve been editing for almost a year, to publishers soon. Cross your fingers for me!

I thank Caitlin so much for these thoughtful responses. I hope to include more direct interviews with students in my blog over the coming year.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.