Good Afternoon, my name is Haben Girma. I live with both vision and hearing loss, and have been deafblind since about age five. When my parents enrolled me in the Oakland Public School District in California, IDEA had been influencing the education of students with disabilities for nearly twenty years. My parents did not have any special knowledge of disability other than personal experiences. They wanted me to succeed, they knew I would succeed, but the big question was: how? How does a blind child learn math? How should braille be taught? Fortunately for us, Glenview Elementary understood that it was the school’s responsibility to employ teachers who held the answers to my parents’ questions. Completely oblivious to all these concerns was little me. I waltzed into first grade proudly carrying my Beauty and the Beast lunchbox. One of the treasures of IDEA is that it provides children with disabilities the luxury of just being students.
For example, the teachers for the blind at my elementary school never said to me, “You have to learn braille because you’re blind and if you don’t learn braille you’re going to be one of the seventy percent of blind people who are unemployed.” Not at all. My teachers took such a positive approach to teaching braille that I had the privilege of just being a kid—no worries about the meaning of disability and troubling statistics. For one hour each day, I left my mainstream classes to play a game of guess the dots. The dot game gradually got more challenging, and when I finally developed a love for reading braille, I had a wonderful supply of Nancy Drew mystery books. Not until my teenage years did I become aware of the stigma attached to braille, and I’m grateful to have had excellently trained teachers to teach me to love braille.
The support our special education teachers provided extended well beyond the classroom. Given that many community members doubt the abilities of children with disabilities, the power of special education teachers to remove these barriers is invaluable. I remember my dad wanted to put me in some kind of extracurricular activity like music or dance, but he was worried that your average piano teacher wouldn’t know how to work with a child with a disability. When my dad talked to our special education teacher, she recommended a dance studio and went out of her way to talk with the dance instructor about making sure I could fully participate. I loved the class, and today, I’m a member of the Harvard Ballroom Dance Team.