My disabled brother inspired me to fight for equity in education

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When my older brother was in first grade, my mother received devastating news from her teachers that Alex, the best person I know, might never learn to read.

It was the worst news my parents had received since doctors first told them three years earlier that Alex had an intellectual disability and that he would never develop or learn at the same rate as his. peers. “I just wanted him to succeed,” my mother recalled recently. “How could Alex succeed if he couldn’t read?” He just couldn’t.

For me, Alex and my family are the reasons I was inspired to join Chalkbeat Tennessee. I want to dedicate my career to being accountable for equity in education and teachers, administrators and families who face inordinate hurdles but refuse to give up as they teach children facing myriad of challenges.

My mother did not give up. She worked tirelessly alongside his teachers to make sure he learned to read. Playing on one of Alex’s greatest strengths – an almost boring, almost photographic memory – she suggested using flashcards and other memorization techniques to introduce him to reading. Day and night, at school and at home, Alex’s teachers and our parents spent countless hours working with him.

When the teachers noticed that he could read but did not understand the content, she told them to stop timing him. Alex, being the competitive kid he was, was accelerating just to cross the finish line in time.

Fortunately, Alex’s teachers got it wrong. My brother, now 27, loves reading magazines and everything about Disney. He even imagines his own ideas for movies or TV shows on paper and pen.

Alex is just one example of many people with disabilities whose intellectual potential has been underestimated. Like Alex, they often succeed because of their families’ efforts to ensure that their child’s academic, social, and emotional needs are met in the classroom.

Photographs of Alex and Samantha West through the years.
Courtesy of Samantha West

As far back as I can remember, I knew my family was unlike most in our quiet suburb just north of St. Paul, Minnesota.

At the daycare and at the park at the end of our street, I noticed that the other kids often didn’t want to play with Alex. In elementary school and especially in middle school, I saw how cruel and insubstantial my classmates could be as they insulted her and joked about her disabilities behind her back. At the grocery store, I watched how even adult adults, double or triple my age, stopped to watch Alex and my family.

Back then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we didn’t often discuss these interactions with anyone else, and we certainly didn’t see articles about children like Alex in the news.

On the days I would come home crying after seeing someone abuse Alex, my mom would tell me that most others would never understand, and that was okay. We have always met – even though it seemed our society didn’t want to know or care about the pain these interactions were causing my family.

But I never liked it. Why wouldn’t people want to understand our experiences on some level, or at least treat us with kindness and empathy?

Fortunately, over the years journalists and activists have started to tell these stories. News organizations like Chalkbeat are dedicated to covering schools and how they serve children like my brother, who historically lack access to a quality education.

In turn, I began to talk about my family’s experiences. And that’s why I’m in Chalkbeat today. More than anything, I aspire to tell the stories of students like Alex and families like mine that haven’t been told for too long.

I know how isolated being the brother or sister of a person with a disability can be. I have seen the fierce battles that many parents have to fight to ensure that their child has what they need in class and elsewhere. I know it takes a village of family members, skilled educators and skilled professionals to raise any child, but especially those with a disability or other additional needs. I know the frustration of seeing schools fail for someone you love, and I know the satisfaction of seeing schools helping them thrive.

Samantha West of Chalkbeat poses for a photo with her brother Alex after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in May 2018.

Samantha West of Chalkbeat poses for a photo with her brother Alex after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in May 2018.
Courtesy of Samantha West

I’m happy to report that Alex is as successful as my mom expected. He cannot live independently, but he is now an adult with a part time job and lives happily at home with my parents. I am more grateful than ever to be his little sister. We no longer feel so alone, as our society has become more and more supportive and inclusive of people like Alex and families like ours.

But there is always more work to be done.

I’m excited to continue to dig into this essential pace here in Memphis. Already, in the month since I started covering education in this city, I have come to appreciate this community’s unwavering dedication to “reimagining” our public school system for all children.

From conversations about the importance of black male educators at the Memphis Education Fund’s fall conference to emotional discussions from activists about addressing gun violence and the trauma it causes to children following a recent school shooting, I have rarely seen such a beautiful, strong community-wide passion for education.

I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to be a part of it. But I need your help to make real change.

Readers from Chalkbeat Tennessee, Shelby County, and statewide tell me about your experiences with public education and how the school system is serving your children with disabilities and other needs. Email me at [email protected] or tweet me @BySamanthaWest. My lines are still open.



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