Cean Richard Colcord is a doctoral student pursuing a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in Special Education. He is also a university teaching and research assistant and a current special education teacher in the Isaac school district. He received concurrent Bachelor’s degrees in special education and human communication and a Master’s degree in educational technology from Arizona State University. His research examines the use of educational technology in special education and the ways in which it can be used to improve access, adequacy, and equity in special education. He is also interested in the stories and voices of children with disabilities, the shielded identities of children with disabilities in online classrooms, school-wide positive behavior supports, and pre-service special education teacher preparation. Mr. Colcord was selected as the 2011-2012 Robert Rutherford Fellow in Special Education and is a member of the American Educational Research Association, Council for Exceptional Children, and the Arizona Technology in Education Alliance. In 2011, Mr. Colcord was selected as a Rodel Exemplary Teacher for his record of extraordinary student achievement in high-poverty schools.
One night around 3:00 am, I woke up to what appeared to be a flashlight beaming in through my bedroom window. I laid silently as thoughts began floating to consciousness trying to make sense of the light, when I heard our backdoor creaking under the force of something prying at it. As a twelve year old boy living with my mother, stepfather, and my brother in a under resourced neighborhood in downtown Phoenix I suddenly understood someone was trying to break into our apartment.
I ran quietly into the living room where my parents were sleeping. I placed my mouth close to my stepfather’s ear and in a rush whispered, “Someone’s trying to break in.” He jumped up and went toward the back door, and I trailed behind him. Together we chased the burglar away. A dark shadow disappeared into the night.
I returned to bed and laid there with my heart beating quickly as my thoughts worked through what had just happened. My thoughts and my heart beat eventually slowed down as sleep began creeping back over my body, when I suddenly heard a loud POP.
I sat up, looked at my brother, and I fell off the bed onto the floor. Through a fog I recall my stepfather running into my room and him and my brother repeatedly trying to pick me back up.
After three weeks in the hospital, I woke up bathed in my mother’s tears. Accompanied by relentless hugs and kisses, my mom eventually explained that I had been shot by the burglar. My head was cleanly shaven, and dark stiches zigzagged across the left side of my head. Unfortunately, that bullet affected more than my appearance. I had difficulty with my vision, my fine and gross motor skills, and I struggled to concentrate and maintain interactions and communications when intermingling with other people. I had lost many of the skills that I had once possessed. In the weeks, months, and even years to follow, it seemed that I had become someone completely different from the person I once was. The night of the burglary was a defining moment in my life. A one-inch object, that I could close my fist around, had made me a person with disabilities in one fleeting moment.
I somehow managed to make it through sixth grade in spite of missing half of the school year. Before my accident I felt normal, like everyone else. I was able to be myself and fit in with my peers. Somehow I felt like my accident had pushed me over an imaginary threshold that separated normality and disability. When I returned to school for seventh grade I felt like a frail and physically awkward middle school student. Recognizing that this new me wouldn’t make me everyone’s first choice as a friend, I quickly learned the art of flying under the radar by trying to hide my disability. As a matter of fact, I felt like the more I could hide my disability, the more I could pass as normal. I found that being quiet and still allowed me to blend into social situations. I often daydreamed of not having all of my physical and socially awkward imperfections and of being able to fit in with the complicated social circles of typical middle school boys, but it was clear that I was bound to a trajectory that loomed just outside of the normal social order. As I invested time and energy into glossing over my disability and trying to seem normal, I began to wonder what normal really meant.
I made great academic and physical improvements in seventh grade, but in spite of my attempts to fly under the radar my teacher soon realized that I had difficulty with grade level academic work. Soon, teachers and psychologists were tossing around words like “let’s evaluate him,” “he is different,” and “what happened to him” and they were all trying to figure out where I should be placed. I continued trying to copy the mannerisms of the other students as they interacted and played. Yet, I was physically and mentally different from the rest of the children in my school. My vision was impaired and I suffered from expressive and receptive language delays, muscle deterioration, memory loss, and my fine motor skills were impaired. However, I was fortunate that I had a teacher who believed that I was capable of succeeding in his class. I had a teacher who pushed me and held me accountable. I had a teacher who knew that I was different but that I could still learn. I liked my teacher and I took pride in my work, even if I was more than a year behind everyone else in my classroom. He offered to tutor me three times a week in the morning and, more importantly, he helped me take a big step in my experience with my disability.
After talking to me first, my teacher openly discussed my situation with the students in our classroom. He explained that I had been injured and that the injury had left me with physical and academic problems that should last for just a short while. For the first time I had been pushed away from my normality/disability threshold. I was Cean, a student with disabilities, pushed out into the open. Although I was so fearful of that exposure, it was liberating to be supported in being able to just be myself.
However, after being in the school for just a couple of months, my stepfather was arrested and my mother, brother and I were forced to move to back to a rough area of downtown Phoenix. We moved a lot that school year and I was in and out of school three or more times a year until I enrolled in high school. I had many good teachers help me along the way, but I resorted to my chameleon strategy of trying to hide my disabilities. The insecurities of adolescence and wanting to blend in with the crowd are far behind me, yet my struggle with confidently walking away from that threshold are still a part of my life.
My head injury and resulting disability impacted my life profoundly, yet I have invested a lot of time and energy trying to make this impact less noticeable. Most of my friends in high school never knew about my disability much less the accident that caused it. Today I am a special education teacher and a full time doctoral student pursuing my Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in Special Education. Many of my closest friends and colleagues are still unaware of this part of me because I still struggle to talk about it.
Since my childhood, since the night of the burglary, all I wanted was to fit in and belong. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to conform. Consequently I lived my life trying to appear normal and yet wondering if someone would see my disability. Hiding my disability has caused more tension than relief. I struggled for years with the tension of feeling like I couldn’t be myself if I wanted to fit in, and yet I reflected on that fleeting time in seventh grade when with my teacher’s support I was able to be me, differences and all, in a safe and supportive space.
I am in a place in my life now where, for the most part, I no longer care who knows about my disability. However, I still periodically find myself slipping into old habits of thought regarding my disability and catch myself frowning on that part of my identity. Sometimes I even catch myself being cautious so that no one will suspect that I have a disability. These thoughts resurface during the most mundane moments—misspelling a word, forgetting something that I was supposed to do, or for having an awkward social interaction with a friend or colleague. At times I still think that people will see my disability as a sign of weakness or as a lack of ability, but the more I think about it, the more I understand that everyone has these experiences.
My experience as a person with disabilities has taught me two very important lessons. First, I learned that crossing over that threshold between normality and disability isn’t a linear journey—a one-time hurdle, but rather a space I will find myself in continuously throughout my life. Often times in response to social circumstances. I have chosen to accept that and yet be forgiving of myself during the moments that bring this battle back to my consciousness. Second, I know that normal does not exist. I was in pursuit of something that was socially constructed by those around me. That threshold between normality and disability becomes much less defined and much more blurred the more I think about normality as a social construction. I have accepted that there is not a line between normality and disability—there are beliefs. Although those beliefs are heavily defined by society, I too can push back and disrupt that illusion of a concrete line. Through my daily practices as a person with disabilities, as a doctoral student, and as an educator I blur and push those lines everyday.
**The opinions of our guest bloggers don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Equity Alliance at ASU, but they do raise important questions about issues of power, privilege, education, opportunity. We invite participation and the exchange of ideas with these blogs.