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A Bit of a Disability

By Ellie Braun-Haley

When I first began working with individuals who have disabilities I was already working for a college teaching dance, jazz, ballet and creative movement. It all started when I received a phone call from a lady who was looking for a private dance tutor to work with a young girl with mental disabilities. She said that the young woman seemed to really love music. I agreed to do it.

I soon realized that one-on-one classes really depleted the energy of both teacher and student. I rang up the guardian of my student and commented that this would work better in a group setting. Within a day, she called back to say, "Okay, I have three more students for you!" In a short time, I had thirty teens and adults up to the age of 40, all with mental disabilities. It was virgin territory for me. I was a dance instructor with no experience in working with people who had disabilities. It was I who was feeling handicapped.

I approached a colleague at the college and asked him if I should sign up for one of his classes to learn more about mental disabilities. He said, "No, I wouldn't do that if I were you. If you come to my classes I am going to tell you all the things these people can not do. But if you go forward and attempt to teach them what you know, in your own area of expertise, with an expectation for them to do it, many of them will succeed. "

Since he was the expert, I decided to take his advice. I soon came to realize that my students were just people. They had their own personalities, skills and abilities. Each person was unique, just like my regular dance students. I had students who learned quickly and others who had the two left feet. To each class I took with me my love of dancing and music.

When I didn't succeed at getting something across with one approach, I searched for a new approach. Sometimes all it took was making a comparison with something familiar. That was the case with Sara, who spent more time looking at her feet than anywhere in the room. I spent the first three classes just getting Sara to trust me. She loved the music we were working with yet she often seemed frozen onto one spot on the floor. On one occasion I had demonstrated the movement of an arm and Sara looked up at me quite puzzled.

"Sara, the movement is like a propeller on a small airplane." I told her.

Sara knew airplanes and as she connected the idea of a propeller with her arms she looked at me and slowly a grin started. She became eager to continue and no longer was she riveted to that one spot. Sara began to really dance after that.

The students found pleasure in seeing others succeed. They cheered one another with each small success so that each new move learned was a victory for all of us. I think we all felt the emotion of Stuart's success.

Stuart loved music. He was spirited and enthusiastic from his first day but putting two moves together frustrated Stuart because as hard as he tried, things seemed to get confused between his feet and his desire. Stuart would repeat the dance steps out loud with me as if his feet would be more encouraged by the sound of his voice. The first time Stuart tasted success was a special moment for everyone. "I did it, I did it, I did it," he repeated over and over, rejoicing to himself and all his classmates. With tears in his eyes and a huge leap in the air, Stuart provided a Kodak moment for everyone.

Michael was one student who reminded me that we all learn differently. He had been in one of my classes for a year and a half. He was a constant problem. He never participated and he never spoke to me once in all that time. I just allowed him space. On this one occasion I had been teaching a partner dance to the class. We had worked on it many weeks and that day I said my usual, "Okay, everybody choose a partner." I was startled to see Michael suddenly in front of me his arms outstretched to me. I said, "Michael, you want to dance with me?"

Not only did Michael speak to me and respond with the word yes, he knew every move. During all that time Michael had been learning, on the sidelines, in his own way.

My students taught me patience. I learned that sometimes one small achievement is really a most wondrous feat. With Andrew I learned that things are not always as they seem.

Andrew also took a long time to learn things. The pathways in his brain do not always lead him to the same conclusions as others. He did not communicate with me verbally. He never gave me eye contact nor did he give me any indication that he knew I was alive. He seemed to have little understanding that he was in a class and that there were expectations. He sat a lot and nodded his head, making humming noises.

When it came to Andrew I felt like a failure as a teacher. I searched for ways to reach him, to see some indication that he was receiving the instruction or that he liked something about the class. I didn't think I was succeeding.

One day Andrew's parents met me shopping downtown and told me that they were so grateful that I was teaching the class at the college. They said that my class was the high point of their son's week. I was confused. How on earth could they tell that Andrew liked the class? I wondered if they were merely being courteous.

A week later, a blizzard held me up and I was later than usual pulling into the school parking lot. As I stepped out, I noticed Andrew and his worker also getting out of a car.

For the first time I saw the ebullience in Andrew's face. His body language told me of his excitement. Finally I could see what his parents saw - an animated Andrew! He ran toward the building in anticipation of his class. Because Andrew didn’t generally display his emotions in the same way as others I had jumped to a conclusion that I was failing him as a teacher.

I'm so glad no one told me years earlier that my students could not learn more and would never learn to dance. Because of my colleagues advice I never gave up believing that I could reach Sara and Michael and Stuart and Andrew and all the others who have come since. In accepting that first challenge many years ago I opened a door into a new world. Bringing the joys of dance and movement to my students has blessed my life beyond measure.