SPED Talks: Chris Ulmer of “Special Books by Special Kids” Talks Acceptance vs. Awareness

SPED Talks is an essay series dedicated to--like TED talks--sharing “ideas worth spreading” in the Special Education community. The topics, experiences, and points of view are all different, but the prompt for our writers--education professionals from all walks of life--is always the same: “What do you wish people understood about Special Education?”

Awareness "should not be our primary focus as advocates"

As many of us already know, acceptance and awareness are common themes in the classroom, but they are very different. Awareness is having the knowledge of a situation or fact, and acceptance typically means having an understanding and approval of a person, place or situation; recognizing conditions and flaws exist and embracing them anyway. While raising awareness is important and meaningful, it should not be our primary focus as advocates. Instead, we should focus on building acceptance in and out of the classroom. As a special education teacher, that’s exactly what I work to do.

I consider it my job to guide each of my students, so they can reach their full potential. (I promise you, my students are capable of great things.) This would be impossible if I only focused on building and raising awareness about student differences. I believe that educators and community leaders must band together to explore ways to help develop, educate and guide children with special needs, so they are prepared to fill respectable, salaried careers at an early age. However, in order for special needs students to reach their full potential, acceptance both in the classroom and outside of the classroom must exist.

sped talks chris ulmer

"Extraordinary mind and memory"

Contrary to popular belief, special needs students are not limited in many capacities. For instance, I have a student who, since age 8, is able to name all 50 states in alphabetical order along with each state’s capital. To top it off, he is able to name one to two landmarks in each state as well. This is proof of an extraordinary mind and memory. If he was trained at an early age, this child could be a resource for national security. He could be a memorable tour guide to ever grace Disney World. The possibilities are endless. To create these possibilities we must first accept. We must accept that some individuals will be different than us. We must accept that there are many lenses through which one can view the world.

Another student I have had for three years was born without his corpus callosum, the part of the brain connecting the two hemispheres. This disorder causes issues in concentration. Before he was my student, this child attended a local public school where his handwriting was illegible. This school created a “shield” which they believed would help him concentrate on academics. This shield encased the young boy in four walls. Administrators believed this would prevent him from talking to his classmates and losing focus. He was left feeling isolated and different. Shortly after the shield was introduced this student would return from school each day crying. He could sense that he was not accepted. After entering an accepting and supportive environment, the same child started writing legibly within months.

"My students deserve more."

Awareness is knowledge that a situation exists. It’s important to raise awareness for diseases, mental health, endangered species, any good cause. However, when it comes to students, students’ needs and different learning styles, awareness isn’t enough. My students deserve more than awareness. They need acceptance. We as teachers, administrators, parents and community members should help build it.

Chris Ulmer teaches at Mainspring Academy, a special needs private school in Jacksonville, FL. He has had the same students for three--now going on four--school years. He is also the founder of Special Books by Special Kids, an advocacy campaign for and by children with special needs.

Have a passion for special needs? Students need teachers like you! Learn more about becoming a special education teacher here.