What I Want Future Teachers to Know About Students with Disabilities

What I Want Future Teachers to Know About Students with Disabilities

One of my favorite things about writing on disability is that it ignites conversations and sparks perspective shifts (both mine and others) in seemingly endless ways. Recently, I got an email from someone I connected with last year at a conference, and the questions she asked got my wheels turning. I knew I wanted to respond in a blog post. I hope that sharing my answers will in turn open a dialogue for other people to share their thoughts on the subject.

The email read:

“Since we met last year at the AUCD conference, I have completed my PhD and landed my first assistant professor job. I am writing because I would like your input on how to address vocabulary with my students. I am a certified ‘special’ education teacher. Textbooks for my courses have either ‘special’ or ‘exceptional’ in the titles. The laws and legislation include the same vocabulary. From your perspective, how can I address the ‘special’ vocabulary? What are the three (or more) main concepts/ideas/philosophies you want preservice teachers to know? What advice do you have for me as I prepare future educators? Thank you, Emily. I look forward to hearing from you.”

Tackling Terminology

“Special, “exceptional,” and other sugar-coated words like this are rampant in professional, legal, and academic spheres. It’s euphemistic, a way to avoid mention of disability, because disability is far too often perceived as a dirty word.

From my perspective, every child has unique needs in the classroom. And yet, students with disabilities are still differentiated and given labels for requiring certain adaptations or accommodations. The “special” students have extended time to take tests. The “exceptional” students must take adapted physical education. But doesn’t each student have different learning styles and different ways of getting things done? True, not all students have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to set forth specific accommodations, but just because the means may be different from a typical student, the end is the same. The test is done. The class is completed.

Moreover, in spite of attempts to avoid calling attention to disability, “special education” has taken on negative social connotations of its own. Unfortunately, though, there is no universally accepted alternative term. I’d suggest “adaptive education” as another option, because it has the most accurate definition: education that is modified to be suitable.

But since “special education” is the term we’ve got to work with, I feel it’s less critical to focus on a language shift, and more important to encourage a mentality shift. Educators should always remember that students who require various forms of special education are equal to all other students. A phrase does not define a whole person.

What Should Future Teachers Know?

This, then, leads to the first idea I’d want educators-in-training to consider. Students in special education programs are going to grow up. I know this sounds obvious to the point of almost being silly, but “special” can be the kind of thing that follows people throughout their lives. Students who have diverse academic needs still deserve to receive an education that both brings them to and meets their fullest potential.

Second, the best kind of education is inclusive education. I’m not entirely denouncing programs that are targeted for students with disabilities, but all students deserve the same opportunities. Segregating students with disabilities from their peers sends the message that differences are bad, and that separation is the norm, and this is an incredibly harmful line of thinking to promote.

Of course, in inclusive classrooms, differences between students of all abilities will be evident from time to time. In cases like these, I cannot stress enough the third thing I hope teachers will heed: please, please do not tokenize students or call them out in front of everyone. I can’t tell you how many times teachers called unwanted attention to my disability in unnecessary ways, all the way from kindergarten through college. For instance, teachers would say things like “Everyone stand up, but you don’t have to, Emily.” Everyone knew I use a wheelchair and it was obvious I couldn’t stand up, so why point it out? The best bet is to plan ahead to make an activity work for all of your students so it will run smoothly and you’ll avoid encountering accessibility obstacles.

Ways to Educate Educators-in-Training

All teachers start somewhere when it comes to learning about how to accommodate students with disabilities in the classroom. Those who educate future educators are in an incredible position to break the chain of discrimination and inequality, bringing acceptance of disability to all areas of society. I believe the key to ensuring that teachers are prepared is to expose them to an extensive variety of viewpoints on disability. Sure, there are standard textbooks geared specifically towards “special education,” but I sincerely urge going beyond them. Read pieces reflecting on educational experiences written by people who are actually disabled. Explain that there are multiple ways that the disability community chooses to identify themselves. Better yet, invite actual disabled people into your class to speak with future teachers and give insight into their experiences! (Hint, hint…I’m available for speaking engagements! 😉 )

Taking all of this into account, the most important piece of wisdom you can impart to future teachers is: if you’ve taught one student with a disability, then you’ve taught one student with a disability. All of the training, all of the textbooks, and all of the guest speakers in the world cannot ever encompass the full range of the disability experience, or the experience of teaching someone disabled. And this may sound intimidating. But when you really think about it, what this means is quite simple. Disabled students should be treated and taught like all other students, each who have their own personality, styles of learning, and strengths and weaknesses.

It comes down to this: All students are individuals. All students have differences. All students are human.

What I’ve Done Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Photo of Commissioner Janet LaBreck at podium with panel of disability activists seated at a table on a stage with royal blue curtains at the U.S. Department of Education - Words I Wheel By

From left to right: Commissioner Janet LaBreck, ASL Interpreter, Jaggar DeMarco, Emily Ladau, Casey Followay, Nia Lazarus, Natalia Rivera Morales

“Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act…” is a phrase that holds so much power for so many people. It is a phrase that captures the most personal of triumphs, a beginning of a sentence that can be finished in infinite ways. And yet it remains unfinished, serving as an open invitation for activists to renew their commitment to the fight for disability rights – a fight far from done.

Today, with the 25th anniversary of landmark legislation before us, I celebrate what I have done because of the ADA. I celebrate what I am doing right now, right here, in these moments because of the ADA. I celebrate where my future will take me because of the ADA.

I had the honor to share my experiences and perspectives – past, present, future – at an incredible ADA 25 hosted by the United States Department of Education. It was humbling for me, and empowering. But it was also a reminder of all we must continue to work towards so that by the 50th anniversary of the ADA, we will be having new conversations, marked by achievement of the progress we currently still dream to see.

Speaking at the Department of Education has added fuel to the fire that (in case you couldn’t tell) already burns within me to devote my life to true change for the disability community. And being surrounded by so many amazing advocates throughout the event, from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the wonderful panelists I spoke with, proves that none of us are ever alone in this fight.

But most importantly, this event has left me dedicated more strongly than ever to my core activism belief: if we want the world to be accessible to people with all disabilities, then we must make ideas, concepts, and the experiences of disability accessible to the world. Through my writing and speaking, this will always be what I aim to do.

Family in front of Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building - Words I Wheel By

In front of the Department of Education Building with my Uncle Jonathan, my Grandma Edie, (both of whom flew in long distances to join us!) my dad, my mom, and me.

I’m so unbelievably lucky and excited to be able to share some more insight into my work and my mission with you, through videos taken by my mom during the ADA event. You can find the playlist below. (The video was taken on an iPhone, so the quality isn’t the best, but the audio comes through loud and clear and I added captions.)

And after watching them, tell me: What have YOU done/are YOU doing/do YOU plan to do because of the ADA?

For more on the event and the speakers, visit Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Finding My Role: An Identity in Flux (Complete with Embarrassing Home Video)

Finding My Role: Identity in Flux - Words I Wheel By

I have this recurring dream (nightmare?) that I’ve been cast in a main role in a play, it’s opening night, and just as the curtains rise, I realize I don’t know any of my lines or choreography. I can’t figure out who to ask for help, where to move, or what I’m supposed to be doing. Then, I’ll either find myself cluelessly bumbling about the stage in front of a bewildered audience, or the dream will get hazy. I never get to find out how the show ended up, or if I managed to pull myself together. Instead, I just wake up.

Most of the time, I’m able to shrug off my dreams and go about my day, but whenever I have the show dream it stays with me, hanging heavy on my shoulders. It’s a pretty cliché dream, I know. I used to be convinced the dream was a sign that I was unprepared or had missed a deadline. I’d wake up disoriented and panicked, rushing straight for my calendar and email, frantically checking to see if something was wrong. Every time, my frenzy would be for nothing, and all would be well.

The dream recently happened again. I was wandering around backstage with no idea what to do or even what play I was supposed to be in. My body was thrown awake into its usual response of worry and a pounding heart. This time, instead of answering the panic, I sat with it. I stayed in bed and tried to figure out where this was really coming from.

I think I’ve finally figured it out.

It stems from a deep-seated insecurity I have – and one that I believe many of us share – that I just don’t know what I’m doing. Feeling like a fraud, having imposter syndrome…there are plenty of ways to describe it. And it’s really overpowering at times.

But I’ve been reminded lately that it hasn’t always been this way for me. In a family email thread the other day, my uncle reminisced about my first-ever “speaking gig.” My cousin invited tiny 8-year-old me and my mother to speak at a disability-themed event she coordinated for her high school. (These days, I do public speaking and my cousin is a stage manager. Life definitely knew where we were headed.) I don’t remember too much about the day, but my uncle told me “the entire room of noisy, bored, and disinterested students actually stopped talking and focused on you as you spoke.” I guess I was kind of a ham.

A couple years later, at age 10, I got it in my head to write a song for the Girl Scout talent show, which I oh-so-creatively titled “I’m A Girl.” We interrupt this blog post to share an old school home video of this as proof that it actually happened and because my mother (editor-in-chief of the song) thought it would be funny to publicly embarrass myself with this. It’s not captioned, but lyrics can be found here: I’m A Girl.

(A true feminist anthem, if I do say so myself. 😉 ) I remember purposefully waddling with my walker on to the stage, not particularly caring what people thought. I just wanted to sing. Hell if I’d ever do something like that now.


I did everything with relatively reckless abandon when I was younger, like most kids. I try to call up how I felt back then – that self-assuredness and confidence – but the more I embrace adulthood, the more inhibitions and insecurities appear. I think a lot of this has to do with part of my identity being in flux. I’m still referred to as a “youth” or “young person,” and somewhat still think of myself that way. My mom still calls me a “budding” entrepreneur. People have said I’m an “emerging leader.” Yet, people are also quick to tell me I’m mature and mistake me for being much older than I actually am. So I get confused sometimes. I laugh to myself and think that if I actively tried to assert my adulthood, it would come across to people as the equivalent of a little kid stomping her feet and loudly insisting she’s “all grown up” and should be allowed to do whatever she wants. But if I try to assert my youth, then I just feel about a hundred years old. The struggle is real.

And then there’s internalized stigma surrounding disability. Far too much of society chooses not to take disabled people seriously, and that’s a big pain when my goal is to reach beyond the disability community into the mainstream. I mean, I talk and write about disability as someone who is ACTUALLY disabled and encounter non-disabled people who tell me I have no clue what I’m talking about. It’s delightful.

So, back to my dream, which is what started this episode of Self-Reflection with Emily. When my fears come out to play in the middle of the night, there’s not much I can do about it. During the day, though, I can fight back the best way I know how: taking myself seriously. (Not too seriously, though. That’s boring.) And how I perceive myself is what matters most. Because when you own what you do, other people will, too.

Meet the Jeans with a Secret Identity – Sweatpants from ABL Denim

Meet the Jeans with a Secret Identity - Sweapants from ABLDenim - Words I Wheel By

“How do you put your pants on?”

To this day, that remains one of the strangest questions I’ve ever been asked. The question in and of itself isn’t strange, but the context of it made the moment pretty weird. I was in high school and I had stayed late that day for a club meeting. While we were waiting for our adviser, a guy (who I actually might have thought was cute) just spat out the question as though it was perfectly normal conversation.

I was taken aback, but I decided to sass him a bit. “Just like everyone else. Why? Want a demonstration?” He could tell I wasn’t amused, so he dropped it.

Truth be told, though, I doubt I put on pants just like everyone else. Pants are kind of a pain. But due to the minor fact that I’m required to be fully dressed in public, I do a little seated left-right-wiggle-shimmy-shake dance routine and make it happen.

Because of this, I’m constantly on a mission to find a pair of pants that makes the perfect dance partner. Recently, ABL Denim jeans gave me the opportunity to choose a pair of their pants for review, and promptly swept me off my wheels.

ABL Denim makes jeans specifically to accommodate people with various disabilities, including wheelchair users and people who have certain sensory preferences. I originally chose to try their A Jean Premium, but I found the denim material to be a bit too stiff for me. Certainly, this won’t be the case for everyone and the A Jean is incredibly well made. I just happen to struggle with even the slightest stiffness in fabric. So, I asked ABL Denim if I could try their Denim Sweatpant instead and they happily obliged.

Seriously, how have I lived without these pants for so long? I know I sound like I’m being overdramatic, but the ABL Denim sweatpants are so comfortable and easy to get on that I can’t stop wearing them.

The fabric is soft and breathable, just like an old, broken-in pair of sweats, but they look exactly like any other classic pair of jeans you’d buy as a wardrobe staple. No one has detected that they have a secret identity.

Wearing the ABLDenim Sweatpant

I opted for the pants to be straight-leg rather than cuffed with elastic at the end, so it makes it even easier to get them on and off. The pants also have an elastic waist with a sturdy drawstring that makes it less of an ordeal to pull them up. I actually happen to prefer pants that don’t have zippers or buttons, because when you sit down all day, these can start to dig into the bottom of your stomach. And the drawstring is a great alternative for people like me, because I have dexterity issues at times and would consider myself a bit button-challenged.

One thing that’s really important to note about the denim sweatpants is that you may need to get them hemmed. I’m short, and definitely had to have the pants resized. I decided to bring them to a local tailor, but if you’re good with getting accurate measurements or know someone who is, you can send your measurements along with your order and ABL Denim provides the additional service of hemming the pants prior to delivery.

After putting my pants to the test, I’m in love. Although they’re considered “adaptive” clothing, they’re completely wearable for people of any ability level, wheelchair-user or not. They’re absolutely worth the investment, comparable in price and quality to other major brands of jeans. And if you’re a jeans-and-cute-shirt kind of girl like me, they’ll become your go-to pair of pants.

If you’ve decided you must have your own pair of jeans from ABL Denim right this second, just visit ABLDenim.com. And because it’s your lucky day, you can use the discount code WordsIWheelBy10 while placing your order and get 10% off! Once you have the chance to try them out, let me know if you love your pair as much as I do! If you’re feeling in the mood to channel your inner-model, tweet a picture of you wearing your new jeans to @emily_ladau and to @abldenim. We’d love to see you showing off!

Wearing the ABLDenim Sweatpant

Disclosure: The ABL Denim Sweatpant was provided to me free of charge for review. All opinions are my own. If you use the discount code WordsIWheelBy10 to make a purchase from the ABL Denim website, I will receive a small commission from the sale. Thank you!

ABL Denim Discount Code

Charge Your Cell Phone with a…Wheelchair?

You know the feeling when your cell phone is about to take its last breath and you still have most of your day ahead of you? If you’re anything like me, it’s probably a mix of slight panic with a bit of frustration. Of course, you can carry around your charger, but that requires you to drop everything and find a place to plug it in. You could also carry around a backup battery pack, but those are about as useful as a doorstop if you don’t remember to charge it before you leave your house.

So, what’s a power wheelchair user to do? You can either spend your day phone-less and worrying, or you can get yourself a USB charger that plugs right into your chair.

Yes, you read that right. You can actually charge your cell phone by plugging it right into the part of your powerchair where you usually plug in your chair charger.

Cripple Concepts USB Charger plugged into my powerchair joystick

I was as excited as a kid let loose in a toy store when I discovered something like this exists. I learned about it from a chance meeting with a lovely wheelchair user named Josh, the creator of the chargers and owner of a company called Cripple Concepts. “Love it or hate it,” he told me, “people remember the name.”

I found myself drawn to the charger immediately. I wanted to try it out, but had a few concerns. Would I be stuck and unable to drive my chair around while I charged my phone? Would it drain my powerchair battery or damage the chair somehow? Luckily, the answers to these questions is no. I plugged my USB cable into the charger, inserted the plug into my phone, and plugged the charging device into my chair. My phone battery immediately started to charge. Then, I turned my chair on and started to ride around. The charger doesn’t affect the ability to drive your chair, and it has an internal fuse to protect the wheelchair electronics.

If this sounds too good to be true, it’s not. Josh was kind enough to give me a charger to keep and review, and I’ve put it to the test several times to make sure it truly works before sharing it with all of you. And, it definitely does work! Now, whenever I spend a long day out and notice my cell phone battery dying, I simply connect the USB charger and continue about my day. It has become a mainstay in my purse and it’s a total godsend.

Cripple Concepts USB Charger plugged into my powerchair joystick

Having a way to keep my cell charged makes me feel much safer, in case something might happen while I’m out and about.

For those curious about the more technical aspects of the chargers, here are the key specs Josh provided:

  • 24V input
  • 2.1A and 1.0A USB ports for charging and powering most phones and tablets, as well as USB powered lights, fans, etc
  • Measures approximately 3″ x 2.5″
  • Connector positioned to point ports in direction requested by customer
  • 3-D printed ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) housing

Remember, you must have a USB cable to connect your phone to the charging device, but this is pretty simple because you can just use the one that comes with your phone.

If you’re a powerchair user or know someone who is, I can’t recommend the Cripple Concepts USB charger enough. It’s a total must have for me and it’s by far one of my favorite adaptive items. If you want one of your own, you can buy it on the Cripple Concepts website.

Do you have one already? Or are you planning on getting one now? I’d love to hear how it works out for you!

Disclosure: The USB charger was provided to me free of charge for review. All opinions are my own.