Monday, November 20, 2006

Thinking outside the box

The next Disability Blog Carnival will be hosted by Goldfish on Thursday, November 23. The theme for this carnival is "Different ways of going about things." I think this is a great theme, because we with disabilities learn something that everyone should know: you don't have to do something the way it's always been done.

I completed high school in six years. I studied two to four classes at a time making use of a variety of formats. Some classes, such as World History, English and Biology, I physically took at the school. Two afternoons a week, a tutor came to my house for one-on-one Spanish classes, allowing me to stretch out on the carpet and rest my body. Over the summers and during other “slow” times, my mom and I independently progressed through algebra and geometry. I completed lighter classes like health and consumer economics through correspondence courses. I took one semester of physics and one semester of chemistry online.

Why did I do things this way? How did this decision come about?

Through 14 years of raising triplets, each of us a unique individual, my parents had already learned to look at my needs and my goals as the first step in making this type of decision. We had already done elementary and junior high school in unique ways, so making careful decisions was nothing new to us.

Some goals for my high school years were: prepare for college by taking strong academic courses; continue with my singing and other hobbies, while exploring new interests; spend time with friends; strengthen my body with daily exercise; and let my body have the daily rest that it needs.

Our decision (actually, mainly my parents' decision in the early years) gave me the opportunity for success. I believe I am well prepared for college. Taking fewer classes at one time and spreading them over a longer number of years, allowed me to take some honors classes, including a philosophy class and Advanced Placement Spanish. I was able to complete math requirements, my most challenging subject area due to visual and conceptual difficulties, at my own pace and in a highly personalized way adapted to fit my learning style. An advantage of the online science classes was the opportunity to work in an interactive virtual lab. In the virtual lab, I got to weigh samples, fill test tubes, light a burner, and perform other tasks I am not physically able to do. (Unfortunately, the online chemistry class was highly disorganized and filled with errors, but that's another story.)

I continued my singing throughout high school. I really enjoyed taking voice lessons and singing at both my church and school. I sang in a few school musicals, but sadly and frustratingly, the school had difficulty accommodating my wheelchair, so I did not pursue this interest as much as I would have liked.

During high school, I had some fun times with friends, although like most students, I would have liked to have spent more time with them. The last two years were more challenging socially since my peers had already graduated.

When I would leave school after a partial day, both students and staff would frequently comment, "Oh, David! You're so lucky you get to go home." Little did they know, it was often difficult and painful for me to sit in my wheelchair for half a day, and I was going home to rest, recover, and do physical therapy exercises to strengthen my body.

My path through high school was an unconventional one. I still believe in my goals, but that didn't make life easy. I was juggling challenging academics, physical needs, hobbies, and a social life, while the obstacles of an inaccessible world, some people’s unsupportive attitudes, my pain, and my limited stamina often worked to sabotage my juggling act. At times, life was very stressful, and my time was always a precious resource.

My most difficult sacrifice was not graduating high school in four years with my peers. It was really tough watching my friends, many I had known for 12 years, start a new phase of their lives, all the while knowing that I would be returning to high school. So I wonder - was there any way that I could have met my goals while graduating in four years? I know I couldn't have taken a heavier academic load, and to cut my non-school interests, my social life, or my rest any further would have been unacceptable. So, I'm left wondering about the pull between my work on my body, which I did for several hours a day, versus graduating in four years. I don't know the answer to this question. Physical therapy has certainly improved my strength, stamina, and capabilities, and it has definitely reduced my pain. However, those benefits have come at a cost: the loss of time to meet my other goals and still graduate from high school in four years.

I am grateful to my parents for thinking “outside the box” and for teaching me how to make decisions. My parents have shown me some steps in how to make a decision: identify my values, priorities, and goals, then think of possible ways to make the goals happen. There are many tools in the toolbox to help make goals happen - brainstorming, seeing what others in a similar situation have done, and listening to what "experts" advise. It seems to me that in our society, many decisions are made for people with disabilities by simply doing what has always been done. Each of us needs to think for ourselves about our own individual goals, and then use our toolbox of tools to make the best decisions.


Natalia said...

The box photo at the beginning reminded me of this song that scared the crap out of me when I first heard it, and still does.

I think it was an ingenious way to solve the problem of school + other life and I commend you guys for figuring out such a solution. Lots of ppl -even without labels or disabilities- burn out during school and end up not getting out of it what they could just by trying to do too much at once.

Natalia said...

PS: I meant the 6-year plan was ingenious, not the "box-thinking".

David said...

What a creepy song! How true though. Thanks for sending it to me.

Steve Kuusisto said...


It took me five years to graduate from a four year college and while all my friends were going to Florida for spring break I stayed in the library while the snow fell outside just so I could finish my incomplete term paper. The funny thing is, taking that extra time allowed me to enjoy what I was learning more than a lot of my friends did. I guess that's why I'm still hanging around college!

Connie said...


There are many young people your age who don't even have goals. You rock! And clearly so do your parents...

Anonymous said...

Hey, David!

Enjoyed seeing you guys yesterday! Finally got a chance to catch up on reading some of your blog.

Honestly, I truly wish that everyone could give themselves permission to take their own time and their own direction through school. It's a shame that so many kids are shoved through, clueless and directionless, but with a diploma.

Even though your physical challenges seemed to motivate your decisions the most, in terms of taking the right amount of time through high school, I know many kids who aren't in a wheelchair, but struggle with academics for other reasons, who could so benefit from what, I think, has been named "slow schooling" - if I'm not mistaken.

We have so much to learn from people who make their own way! Be proud because the journey makes you who you are and brings you to where you are!! :)

With love,
Lee xoxo

David said...

Thanks, Lee.
It does seem like many people would benefit from slowing down their schooling. I hear that in Canada, 5 years to finish high school is pretty common, and that there is not a big emphasis on what year one graduates.

Nico Echols said...

It took me about 8 years to finish high school, because people didn't really think that I had all the independent living skills to be able to make it on my own. I'm here at UIS now, aren't I?
My freshman year "again" in college hasn't always been so easy. I have encountered many obstacles- from trying to receive help from ORS for getting a personal assistant and help with paying for adaptive equipment to getting my academic advisors to realize that I had originally been taking too many classes this semester.
I am now finishing only one class this fall semester, which is a big load off of my back. When I attended Roosevelt University, I was actually taking two or three classes- not a full course load. Here, unfortunately, the Office of Disability Services thought that I'd be able to handle taking a full boat load of classes- now that I am actually living on a college campus.
Not so! My advisors and I realized this, and we actually devised a plan to take care of it- once and for all. Next semester, I'll only be taking two classes, versus a full load.

I'll let you know how it goes.


Nico Echols said...

I really wish that I had a similar experience in high school. I, unfortunately, took full course loads all throughout high school, and endurred many nights struggling with homework-mainly math, science, English, and history because of my visual impairment. Really, those were some tough years I'm glad I no longer have to go through.
WAIT~~~AAARGHHHHHH! College is starting out the same way. . . in the beginning of the semester, anyway. I mean, I started life here at UIS taking four courses- a full load. That was a mistake that neither me nor my academic advisors cought in time. Up until about a week and a half to two weeks ago, I struggled through trying so desparately to keep up with four classes- three of which had homework assigned in nearly every class meeting.
The main reason things started out this way is because, upon applying to UIS, I spoke to Kim Eutherford from the Office of Disability Services, here at UIS. She suggested that I take three or four classes this semester; however, I tried to explain. . . when I first met her, that I'm entitled to taking a reduced course load because of my documented disability.
So, I have pretty much ended this (my first) semester as a transfer freshman with withdrawing from three courses and only taking one course. Next semester, I will only be taking two courses, so I won't have to worry about trying to keep up with so much coursework every week. This, I strongly feel, should have been the case from the very beginning of my time here at UIS.

Anonymous said...

Re, school and boxes:

Someone here posted a link to a song about a child who learned to see all flowers only as red and green. Here's another poem on the same theme, and it's just as "creepy" sad and powerful: