When students with disabilities are the teachers


Bernhard, Rosa and Elena

It is an honor to introduce Bernhard Walke as our guest blogger today. Mr. Walke is the ‎Associate Principal at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, and his wife Rosa teaches Spanish and English there, too. They are the proud Parents of 4-year-old Elena, who receives assistive technology services with a Tobii Dynavox Communicator at Easter Seals DuPage & the Fox Valley Region.

Elena: Our Golden Apple teacher

by Bernhard Walke

Our 4-year- old daughter watched with amused eyes as I oafishly threw groceries on to the conveyer belt and my wife delicately placed them into the grocery bag. Suddenly the teen cashier with dyed, electric-red hair interrupted our progress. “I’m sorry, I really don’t mean to be rude or mean,” she said. “But can I ask why your daughter is in a wheelchair?”

My wife responded with a warm smile. “She has quadriplegic cerebral palsy,” Rosa said. “Her body just doesn’t listen to her brain sometimes.”

“Oh, thanks. Sorry, I don’t want to be rude,” replied the cashier.

My daughter Elena’s cerebral palsy affects all four of her limbs. It prevents her from speaking the way we do, too, but the assistive technology team at Easter Seals DuPage & the Fox Valley Region is teaching her to use a voice communicator, and on her own she’s developed another way of communicating as well. She uses her eyes –and her smile.

After the cashier asked the question about our daughter’s wheelchair, Elena looked at the red-haired teenager with her big bright eyes and responded with muscles she can completely control on her own – her smile. As for me, I chimed in with my usual response. “It’s never rude to be curious and ask questions,” I said. “Thanks for asking and have a great weekend.”

As we were walking/rolling out to the car with our groceries, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my cousin Karin. Karin is a physiatrist, and she told me that when she was in medical school the professor always used to thank the “teacher”: the patient they were studying.

My cousin extended this idea to the fact that while Elena is fortunate to have many teachers in her life (her parents and three of her grandparents are in education), she is the best teacher in our family. Beyond Elena’s ready sense of humor and sly ability to convince her grandparents to occasionally let her play hooky from school, she has taught our family to have a sense of humor — even in the most stressful times.

One example: when Elena was in intensive care several years ago with a particularly bad case of pneumonia, a social worker asked a routine question from a list on a form. “Is Elena having any difficulty with stairs?”

Now, remember my telling you earlier that my daughter has quadriplegic cerebral palsy? That Elena’s cerebral palsy affects all four of her limbs? The social worker’s question might have made us indignant, but with Elena as our teacher, our response was uttered between stifled giggles. “Yeah, she’s terrible at them,” we said. “Actually, walking is kind of a struggle too. The list goes on and on.”

Elena also teaches determination and compassion. Not only to us, but to her classmates, too. When she and her classmate Dennis started Early Childhood at her local school district, he only walked three steps at a time. By the end of the year, Dennis was pushing Elena in either her wheelchair or stander all the way from the classroom to the exit every day — some 100 feet. Another young classmate had the job of helping her gather her things at the end of every day, collecting Elena’s backpack and coat before she left for home.

At a block party in our neighborhood, Elena effortlessly taught all the kids adaptation and inclusion. Instead of using a bike for the standard decorating activity and parade, all the kids pitched in and adorned her gait trainer with glitter, stickers, and streamers. Our 6-year-old neighbor Olivia proudly accompanied her through the streets. As Elena’s feet dragged and shuffled, she smiled brilliantly and let out squeals and giggles of delight audible to everyone on the block.

In our home, Elena has also taught us to ask for help. Rosa and I pride ourselves on our independence and ability to do things on our own, but Elena has shown us that it’s ok to ask for babysitting or just someone to entertain her for two hours.

It’s Labor Day weekend, and as many students and teachers begin the school year — and Elena starts her final year of Early Childhood — it’s refreshing to be reminded that educators often learn as much from their students as they learn from their teachers. Elena continues to teach us new daily lessons and enriches our lives with an expert blend of silliness and compassion.

Learn about our Friends Who Care free resources to teach kids acceptance and understanding in school, thanks to our partner Friendly’s.

Also learn about Easter Seals inclusive childcare for kids with and without disabilities.


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  1. This device lets my child speak with her eyes | Easter Seals Blog Says:

    […] Walke’s guest post earlier this month mentioned that their daughter Elena receives assistive technology services at Easter Seals DuPage […]

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