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Disabled Teacher Instructs First-Graders About Disability

There’s a direct frankness to the way 6-year-olds see the world that would be easy to mistake for rudeness.

But Daija Coleman knows better.

On her first day as a first-grade teacher, Coleman knew her Jardine Elementary School students would be curious about their disabled teacher.

Why was she in a wheelchair? Because her legs don’t work quite like theirs.

Why did they always have to take the big ramp connecting the school’s first and second floors? Same reason — the stairs may be a bit impractical for a wheelchair.

What did all the buttons on her chair do? The buttons let their teacher adjust the chair up, down and every which way, so she can teach them better.

And that was that.

Coleman was born with cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair her entire life, so she’s used to questions. In fact, she appreciates them, because she gets to share a little bit about herself and her experiences with people who want to get to know that part of her. Specifically, she can teach her students about disability.

“Adults won’t ask the same way, because they’re afraid or don’t want to be rude, but a first-grader will tell you anything, no matter if you want to hear about it or not,” she joked. “Sometimes they’ll tell me about their turtles, and I don’t even know how we get there.”

But in embarking on her first-year as a teacher, she’s excited about the impact she’ll have on students. Not only will they be learning to read, but they’ll be growing up to be more understanding, empathetic individuals.

Daija Coleman always knew she wanted to be a teacher

School work was always in Coleman’s mind, even from a young age. Her mother and aunt are curriculum directors in other Kansas districts.

When she came to Washburn University, she briefly considered a career in social work. But that semester, she got involved at Jardine Elementary through the Communities in Schools program. A teacher told her she’d be a phenomenal educator, and she returned to her original plan.

Throughout her undergraduate career, Coleman kept volunteering at Jardine Elementary. When it came time to do her literacy practicum and her student teaching, she was lucky enough to be placed at Jardine.

Jardine Elementary Principal Angela Pomeroy said Coleman had become such an integral part of the school, even just as a volunteer, that students began seeing her like a staff member.

As Coleman got ready to graduate in spring 2022, Pomeroy was worried the school may lose out on keeping her, since she didn’t yet have any openings for Coleman. Luckily, there was enough first-grade enrollment that Pomeroy was able to add another section. Her first thought for that position was Coleman.

Coleman and Pomeroy noted that while students in wheelchairs may be common in schools, few have a disabled teacher or adult staff in wheelchairs.

“I’m the first person I know who is like me and who also teaches in a classroom,” Coleman said. “I know they’re out there, and I know we have a range of employees with disabilities just in this district. I just haven’t met them.

“So I’m my own role model in the sense of figuring out how to navigate these challenges that my colleagues might not necessarily have and figuring out how to overcome those to still teach effectively.”

After that initial round of questions on the first day of school, Coleman then turned her attention to teaching students how they could help her be the best teacher she could be for them.

Before the school year, Pomeroy had visited with Coleman to figure out how to best support her and adapt her classroom to her needs. The room has less furniture than other similar classrooms. Its location on the first floor makes transitions to spaces like the cafeteria, gym and library easier.

The district is also working on adding automatic buttons to a few of the school’s doors, to make entry and exit easier for Coleman.

In the classroom, Coleman taught the students about making sure their chairs are always pushed in and why they’ll mostly use the school’s wheelchair ramp instead of the stairs to get up to the second floor.

Teaching with a disability is also teaching about it

There was a time in her life that it would have been harder for Coleman to ask for help, but it comes naturally to her now. In high school, she attended the Kansas Youth Empowerment Academy. There, she learned that being independent doesn’t necessarily mean doing everything on her own.

At Washburn, Coleman’s capstone project raised awareness on the inaccessibility of the university’s historic Carnegie Hall, where many of her classes were located. Her project led to university efforts to address campus accessibility, including the relocation of education classes elsewhere on campus.

In everything, Coleman has learned to be honest with herself about her limitations and to voice that honesty.

“It’s about coming to terms with the fact that I can’t do everything the way my peers are able to do it, but it’s also knowing that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask for support,” Coleman said.

But Coleman sees that as a bonus, as well. By her presence and requests for help, she’s helping her students and colleagues learn to take others’ needs into account. She’s also bringing awareness as a disabled teacher to what teaching with a disability can be like.

“Accessibility isn’t something people think about until they have to think about it,” Coleman said. “My whole life, I’ve had to think ahead to how I’ll do things, but not everyone has. That’s something I also appreciate about my job — the ability to spread that kind of awareness and approach to thinking.”

Beyond a few quirks of getting around the classroom, much everything else about her class is the same. Coleman has a big focus on getting her students ready to read. It can take a lot of energy, since 6-year-olds easily lose focus if a teacher can’t sell their lessons well.

But its all worth it for Coleman because she’s laying a foundation of learning and understanding for her students.

“I get to share a piece of me with the rest of the world,” Coleman said. “My ‘why’ for teaching is to make an impact on the rest of the world, and I’ve always wanted to help people.

“Whatever positive impact I make on these kids, they’ll go and spread that, and it just becomes a butterfly effect.”

Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at ‪785-289-5325‬. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.

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