Students’ disabilities do not define them as a person

Life is different and sometimes difficult for disabled students at STA.

October 5, 2015

story by Audrey Carroll and Mary Hilliard; alternative coverage by Claire Molloy

Dear readers,

In order to fully understand what we’re going for in this issue’s centerspread, it’s important to first understand the process by which we decided to write this (or these) particular stories.

Disability is defined as  “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities”. Let’s break down the word disability: it literally means “not able”. So what makes someone disabled? I’m not able to sing or knit or fly, am I considered disabled? No, because I am still able to live a “normal” life. I buy into the idea that disability lies along a continuum. As social scientist Dr. Jim Taylor said, “it’s a matter of degree, not kind”. And most those labeled as “disabled” are able to lead normal lives as well: going to school, working, having a family. Stephen Hawking far surpassed any expectations for a normal life, even though he’s technically “disabled”. The list of things people can’t do or have trouble with should not be their defining quality.

For this particular centerspread, The Dart staff contemplated a variety of angles to take on the subject of disabilities. From extended test time to wheelchair accessibility, it took awhile to determine our final story. It is thanks to a highly articulate email from sophomore Louise Christianson that the story finally took shape.

“I don’t think of myself as handicapped any more than you think of yourself as not handicapped. My biggest wish is that everyone would understand that about me,” she said.

We then realized that everyone has something they have to deal with on a daily basis, whether it be physical, emotional or mental. In the end, we all have some form of disability, but that doesn’t make us disabled. Rather it makes us a stronger school as a whole because we each have different strengths and weaknesses. In the following story, The Dart explores the variety of “disabilities” St. Teresa’s students cope with daily and how each student is more than just a medical label.

Hannah Wells

Staring at her math test, senior Hannah Wells feels the familiar pang of anxiety as she hears her teacher call, “Five minutes left”.  

“My anxiety heightens when I have a test or something stress related in school,” Wells said. “During tests, I usually freeze up and begin forgetting everything I learned prior to the test, especially when time is limited.”

Wells was diagnosed sophomore year of high school with anxiety, although she had had anxiety since middle school. According to Wells, the stress of high school hit her the most sophomore year due to the overwhelming amount of work and deadlines to meet.

“I began to go to a therapist to find ways to control my anxiety and started taking Lexapro my sophomore year,” Wells said.  “I would randomly have a panic attack or I would cry with no explanation.  That is when my parents decided it would be best to take me to the doctor. Now, my emotions are more balanced than they were.”

According to Wells, STA has helped her situation through extended time on tests and teachers who are willing to meet one on one. Therapy and medication have also helped her cope with anxiety, however it still remains present and she still sometimes has anxiety attacks.

According to Wells, her anxiety attacks usually consists of heavy breathing or crying.

“None of my friends and family really know how to calm me down because it something you have to wait out” Wells said. “Luckily, my friends don’t think any less of me and they are always there to help me.”

Wells says she wishes she could “invalidate” the way anxiety makes her feel. She considers herself usually “extremely comfortable around anyone and everyone”. But her anxiety heightens in social situations when she thinks someone is mad at he  or when she enters an uncomfortable situation.

“Often times, I blame myself because anxiety makes me feel like I am doing everything wrong,” Wells said.

However, Wells does not consider her anxiety a disability.

“It is a part of me, but I don’t let it define me and take over my life,” she said. “I want people to notice my personality [instead of my anxiety] because I truly feel like my life is 98% joyful.  I enjoy making people happy and helping people to feel welcomed.”

Erin Burroughs

Senior Erin Burroughs has had dyslexia her entire life. The Mayo Clinic defines dyslexia as “a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words”. According to Burroughs, dyslexia affects the makeup of the brain and the connections that it is able to make. Burroughs describes herself as “severely dyslexic” and says that in school, it mostly affects her reading speed and her ability to understand math problems.

“The interesting thing about dyslexia is that some days I can perfectly understand things, but sometimes I can read something and it’s like it was written in a foreign language,” Burroughs said.

According to Burroughs, she was not always open about her dyslexia because she worried about making people uncomfortable. Then she realized the level of comfort she expressed often determined how other people would react.

“I realized that the more comfortable I was with discussing it, the more comfortable other were around me to ask questions,” Burroughs said. “I love explaining things to people, and I also know that when people ask questions it means that they are comfortable enough with me to know that I am open to the discussion.”

Dyslexia is not something that can be grown out of, but Burroughs says she has learned to cope with it. She often has to allot plenty of time for homework and ask teachers for extended time on tests.

“I have gotten very good at talking to teachers because I have to set up extended time and accommodations,” Burroughs said. “I always have to be prepared to look through all of my math problems for inverted numbers and I have trouble with word problems.”

Dyslexia is considered a learning disability but it can affect non-academic areas of life as well.

“Sometimes my speech is halted and weird, but I also have a really high pain tolerance, which apparently is associated with [dyslexia],” Burroughs said. “…Dyslexics are usually good with people, but also have trouble with depth perception, so there’s a wide range of effects.”

According to Burroughs, many people inaccurately assume that people with dyslexia are not smart or can not read.

“Many very smart people have been dyslexic, and it just goes to show that dyslexics can deal with the learning disability,” Burroughs said. “I also think that like with all disabilities, there should be an open conversation so that these misunderstandings are not carried on into further generations.”

In earlier years, Burroughs struggled to find help at school, but STA has been “excellent” in adapting to her specific needs.  According to Burroughs, the people are not only accepting but accommodating.

“I love the atmosphere and the idea that everyone around me wants to learn, and appreciates the process because school has not been very easy,” Burroughs said. “Being at St. Teresa’s, I truly feel that I can be accepted, and that people can see me with the dyslexia and all, and understand that part of me.”

As a whole, Burroughs recognizes that while dyslexia has created some challenges, it has also shaped her worldview and interactions with others.

“I want people to acknowledge that I do have dyslexia, but realize that it does not limit me, and that I am comfortable with who I am,” Burroughs said. “While dyslexia has made some aspects of school extremely difficult, I also know that it is part of who I am… You can’t take the good without the bad, and I don’t think I would choose to get rid of the ‘bad’ anyways because it has helped me to come out of my shell, have meaningful discussions, and see the world in a different way.”

photos by Kat Mediavilla

Louise Christianson

Sophomore Louise Christianson has spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when a baby is in the womb and the spinal column does not close all of the way. According to the Spina Bifida Association, about eight babies born in the United States every day have Spina Bifida or a similar birth defect of the brain and spine. As a result of her Spina Bifida, Christianson uses a wheelchair.

According to Christianson, certain aspects of STA have been helpful in terms of transportation, such as the elevators and ramps in the Music and Arts building and Donnelly Hall. Christianson’s schedule usually involves “switching between buildings, one after another.” Teachers are accommodating as well, sometimes allowing her to leave a few minutes early to get to her next class on time. One of the more difficult areas to get to is “the gym definitely because they don’t even have an elevator”. To go to assemblies and other gatherings in the gym, she has to loop around Goppert and enter by the sports field.

Although it affects her day to day life, Christianson does not define herself by her Spina Bifida.

“My physical state is not something that affects my thinking any more than it affects…anyone else’s thinking who is not ‘handicapped’,” she said.

According to Christianson, everyone has something they personally have to deal with every day, “and mine happens to be my Spinal Bifida”.

“We are all different, because all of us are truly unique in our own ways…” Christianson said in an email. “Even though my Spina Bifida is visible, some of the things that other people deal with in everyday life may not be visible…But these things shouldn’t be what define us.”

Emma Winfrey

In fifth grade, junior Emma Winfrey woke up in the middle of the night to extreme pain in her lower left abdomen and was rushed to the Children’s Mercy ER.  Her life became full of “medical tests, fear, medicines, worry, and some very nasty, ‘chronic’ pain,” and after three years of testing Winfrey was diagnosed with Eosinophilic Gastroenteritis, Eosinophilic Esophagitis, Eosinophilic Gastritis, and Eosinophilic Duodenitis  within her stomach, esophagus and intestines.

According to Winfrey, she has been dealing with pain daily since November 2012. Along with pain in these specific areas, Winfrey also suffers from Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), in which she experiences dizziness and disorientation after a drastic drop in blood pressure. “As a swimmer, (POTS) poses the most problems after a long practice or a long event where I am prone in the water,” Winfrey said.

During her sophomore year, Emma Winfrey started noticing strange changes in her pain.

“Extreme pain, swelling and other symptoms cropped up in unrelated places for no apparent reason,” Winfrey said. “I had uncontrollable tremors in my hand or legs. My chest seized like I was having a heart attack.  My senses were overwhelmed by bright light, loud noises, and simple, everyday things that had never bothered me before. My ribs or clavicle would swell as if broken. I would lose my eyesight.  My neck would go limp and I couldn’t lift my head.”

These symptoms resulted in yet another diagnosis, Amplified Musculoskeletal Pain Syndrome (AMPS). For Winfrey, the Amplified Pain is constant and affects her chest, abdomen and GI tract. The pain has caused her to miss a significant amount of school. According to Winfrey, her condition is much more than just your average run-of-the-mill “tummy ache.”

I missed class occasionally freshman year, but by sophomore year, I missed about a six weeks consecutively,” Winfrey said. “I missed the first couple weeks of [junior year] to spend all day in rehab: six to seven hours of intense exercise therapy, desensitization, music and art therapy, and stress management.”

Most of her summer consisted of making up schoolwork she missed and taking her finals, according to Winfrey. On top of all this makeup work, Winfrey was also attending several appointments. Dealing with her pain, stress, and pain from stress was, and still can be, very overwhelming for her, according to Winfrey. However, she says she could not have gotten through everything successfully without the support of her teachers and friends.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have passionate, caring teachers who rallied for me and were available to me and my family over the summer,” Winfrey said. “The commitment of everyone at St. Teresa’s, plus the technology, made my experience much more manageable than I would expect anyone with a similar situation at another school might have. Everyone has been so understanding, supportive, and helpful in the makeup process, forgiving me from smaller assignments and tutoring me in the things I just couldn’t grasp.

According to Winfrey, the toughest thing about missing class is not so much the makeup work but rather the lack of social interaction with other teens.

“Stress comes from pain, but also from missing out on a normal teenage life,” Winfrey said.  “I have spent years being so scared for my future, and feeling alone with my pain.  I have missed spending time with friends. I have missed parties, and special events, and opportunities to meet new people. I have missed learning and simply being at STA.  I feel the need to make up lost time, despite any pain or anxiety that may creep back in.”

Winfrey says it is hard for many teenagers to grasp the actual difficulty of dealing with chronic pain and/or illness, either from lack of experience or lack of interest in the topic. But reaching out to those who need help and confronting the fear of health problems can be very beneficial, according to Winfrey.

“Health problems, whether obvious or invisible, scare teenagers,” Winfrey said. “We take our health for granted.  If you know someone is fighting a battle, reach out to them. The visits and notes from friends, my swimming family and my Advisory made a huge difference in my recovery.”

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