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Disabled teachers overcome hurdles

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PITTSBURGH — Like many teachers, Amy Bittner and Lisa Lester spent the last days of summer readying their classrooms at Clairton Elementary School for the new school year. They have put up calendars, posters and alphabet charts on the freshly painted walls and wiped a summer's worth of dust off bookshelves.

But the women's most critical preseason chore is arranging the furniture.

Bittner and Lester teach from wheelchairs, and they must make plenty of room to maneuver around pupils' desks and chairs.

"With us, space is always an issue," said Bittner, 28, a first- and second-grade learning support teacher.

Utah educators and specialists with disabilities understand. "A classroom full of desks is hard to negotiate," said computer maintenance specialist Grant Carter, who has used a wheelchair since a January 2000 skiing accident. Carter works at Eastwood, Canyon Rim and Rosecrest elementaries in Granite District.

Other less-visible disabilities also present obstacles for teachers.

Richard Lewis, a school social worker for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Pittsburg since 1982, is completely deaf in his left ear and profoundly deaf in his right. Heavily reliant on lip reading, he's careful to arrange rooms to his advantage by placing his groups at tables or in circles so he can always see the face of the person with whom he's talking. He avoids rooms with carpeting, bad lighting, or noisy air-conditioning or heating systems.

Clearly, all these educators face challenges in managing a classroom. But they say they don't let disabilities get in the way of doing their jobs.

"I had one principal say I didn't command respect because I wasn't standing," said Bennett, who contracted polio as an infant during an epidemic in Costa Rica. "It's hard to get past people's mental blocks that you can't teach something or manage children. I have a family, I raise children, I took care of my home, I didn't need any special help. I think people just don't realize people with disabilities can accomplish things. We want to contribute to society, and not just sit there by a window."

Despite a nationwide shortage of teachers, schools of education haven't exactly gone out of their way to woo disabled students, Seward said, even though those teachers best understand the challenges children with disabilities face in the classroom. The shortage also may have something to do with money. The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees as long as they can perform the essential functions of the job. And those adjustments can cost money.

Still, some people with physical handicaps also may avoid seeking a challenging career such as teaching, because, as Lewis said, "they're told what they can't do instead of what they can do." As a youngster, the Jefferson Hills native dreamed of becoming a teacher or a police officer. When she was 11, doctors discovered a tumor inside her spinal cord. Surgery left her dependent on a walker.

Bittner said a high school geometry teacher openly made fun of her in class. A physical therapist suggested she find herself "a nice little desk job."

But Bittner earned an education degree from California University of Pennsylvania. She was one of just a handful of disabled students in the program. Lester initially planned a future in business and earned a degree in international marketing from Seton Hill College. Upon entering the work force, though, she said she found ability wasn't enough. "You also had to have a certain look, a presence."

Born with a form of muscular dystrophy, a disease marked by progressive wasting of muscles, Lester, who navigates around Clairton Elementary in a motorized wheelchair, can't walk without a walker and has difficulty writing.

"So I didn't fit the profile," she said.

So she enrolled at Slippery Rock University and earned a master's degree in special education. She was hired by Clairton, her alma mater, in 1993, the year the district began an inclusion program. She currently teaches third- and fourth-grade learning support classes.

Like Bittner, part of Lester's reason for becoming a special education teacher was her own unhappy school experience. Unaccustomed to dealing with disabled students, teachers either ignored her or couldn't hide their discomfort, she said.

High school was equally difficult for Lewis, 54, who hid the severity of his hearing impairment for fear of being ostracized as the only disabled person in a graduating class of 520. He wasn't allowed to play football. He didn't find out President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated until he got home from school because he didn't hear the announcement over the loudspeaker and no one thought to pull him aside and give him the news. A sympathetic vice principal, however, saw something in Lewis that his teachers had missed. He paid for a hearing exam, which led to Lewis' getting a hearing aid, which led to his going to college and entering social work. Today, the educators make a concerted effort to be very candid about their lives. Lewis encourages youths to look in his ear at the hearing aid, and Bittner leads guided tours of the "Robovan," her modified minivan. And they all gladly answer questions about their disabilities, no matter how personal or embarrassing.

Lester's pupils, for example, were amazed when she had her second child about two years ago. Bittner's wanted to know how she showered. Bennett's have wondered how she sleeps or puts on pajamas. Sometimes, she shows them how she transfers from her wheelchair to a regular chair or car.

Openness, they say, helps dispel myths about the disabled, and it also builds respect. "Kids are no problem," Bennett said. "They accept you for the way you are and love you for the way you treat and respect them." Because of the teachers' disabilities, their schools have had to make certain adjustments. Lewis' volume-control phone, for example, amplifies phone conversations so loudly that he needs a private office. Lester and Bittner need a little more time for bathroom breaks and both teachers occasionally require help hanging things up. In addition, Lester had to have a lever-type doorknob put on her classroom door because she couldn't grasp the regular round model.

But by and large, accommodations are few, and the teachers wave off any extra attention. There are advantages, such as Bittner's and Lewis' being on eye level with their small charges and the opportunities of all three to encourage students to meet challenges in their own lives.

Contributing: Jennifer Toomer-Cook