Why is it so hard to request accommodations?

As the school year winds down, many teachers start looking ahead to next year. Will they be in the same classroom, they wonder? Or will the school decide to move them? Will they follow the same students to the next grade? Will they be given a completely different assignment?

As an itinerant related service provider (specifically, a hearing teacher*), I have a caseload of schools. I travel from school to school all day, seeing one or two students in each one.

Since I’m not school-based, I don’t wonder about classrooms and grade levels. Instead, I wonder about which schools I will end up with.

Each year, all of the hearing teachers in each borough of New York City meet in June to reorganize our caseloads. We take into account what we know about how numbers at each school will change for the following year, and we consider which schools are close to each other, or easy to travel between, whether on foot, or via public transit.

And then, after we reorganize, we have The Pick. (Insert dramatic music here.) That’s the day when we choose our caseloads. We each receive a list of caseloads. And then, one by one, we call out our choices. We choose in order of seniority: the person who’s been a hearing teacher in our district for the longest gets first choice. The most recent hire gets stuck with whichever caseload is left.

As for me, I’m somewhere in the middle. I get choices, but plenty of people pick before me.

And this year, things have gotten more complicated.

This year, my body has something to say about which caseload I should pick.

I’ve always had problems with my knees. I can remember my knees aching back when I was in elementary school. I did physical therapy for my knees for the first time when I was in high school.** Since then, I have done physical therapy for my knees three more times. In between rounds of PT, I go to the gym to continue doing the exercises I learned there. The more regularly I go to the gym, the more time will pass before I end up back in PT. (Yes, that’s right. I go to the gym so I won’t be in pain. Not sure anything else could possibly motivate me to work out.)

My most recent round of PT was back in the fall, and it definitely helped. I went from limping everywhere, and struggling with even the shallowest of inclines to being able to walk without limping, and without constant pain.

Unfortunately, this last round of PT didn’t help as much as I would have liked. My knee pain lessened, and it certainly became less constant, but did not completely go away.

My orthopedist told me that my knee pain is something I might just have to live with. He advised that I limit stair climbing, and I have tried my best to do so. He also acknowledged that, in a place like New York City, it’s incredibly difficult to get by without climbing any stairs.***

Right now, I’m really lucky. My caseload is in a neighborhood where virtually all of the schools are either new enough or tall enough that they have elevators. In fact, every school on my caseload has one. So do most of the subway stations I use to get between schools during my workday.

But the subway stop by my apartment doesn’t have one. Nor does the subway stop by the gym. And the gym itself is mostly located on the second floor. The gym has a chair lift, but no elevator. And in one of my schools, I climb a flight of stairs because they haven’t given me an elevator key. And sometimes, subway elevators break down.

And recently, I became even more aware of just how much my knees can (or can’t) handle.

I live on the third floor of an apartment building that has an elevator. At the moment, however, the one elevator we have is in the middle of a modernization**** process that will likely take about two months in total. And, now that I’m climbing at least two extra flights of stairs each day, I’m beginning to notice a difference.

And now, as I face that fact, and as I think ahead to The Pick, which is only a month away, I am faced with a question:

If even two extra flights of stairs per day leave me in pain, what will happen if I get a different caseload next year? What if I am forced to choose schools that don’t have elevators?

The answer isn’t pretty. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, given enough schools that involve climbing stairs, I will be forced to stop working before the school year ends. That’s how bad my knees will get. I don’t know this for certain, but I can infer.

And thus, I find myself considering something I’ve never had to consider before: asking for accommodations.

I’m currently trying to figure out whether I can informally ask my supervisor to save my current caseload for me, or whether I need to go through official channels.

And going through official channels means using official language. It means declaring that I have a disability.

And that leave me wondering: Do I really?

I mean, I don’t think of myself as having one. After all, I don’t use mobility devices to get around. And I can climb a few flights of stairs every day and be fine. If the elevator is out, I don’t get stuck on the subway platform. I grumble or grimace and climb up the stairs.

I don’t want to appropriate a term that doesn’t rightfully belong to me.

But then, I find myself wondering: Does it?

Where is the line drawn between able bodied and disabled? Who decides what constitutes a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”?*****

Is there such a thing as being neither? Such a thing as being both? Is partially able-bodied even a thing? Or mostly able-bodied? Can a person be just a little bit disabled? Or is it like pregnancy, where you are, or you aren’t?

And if I don’t count as disabled, then can I legally ask for an accommodation? Do I have the legal right to not be in pain while doing my job? What if everyone else has knee pain too, and they all just keep it to themselves?

After all, I only know what my own body feels like, not anyone else’s.

And maybe that’s part of the problem. I don’t generally think of my knee problems as a disability, but maybe that’s because I’ve lived with them for most of my life. I don’t know what it’s like to have knees that can easily handle five flights of stairs in a row. I don’t know what it’s like to be able to run for a bus without worrying about causing myself pain, let alone what it might feel like to run just for exercise.

And yet. I don’t use a wheelchair or a walker or a cane. I can climb the stairs to my third floor apartment when the elevator isn’t working. I can take the subway without worrying about whether a stop is accessible, or whether the elevator might be out of service. On rare occasion, I can even climb to the top of a tower to enjoy a panoramic view, so long as my knees are in a good mood when I start, and so long as I take my time.

But now, here I am, trying to figure out how to ask for accommodations. Trying to figure out how to explain myself in a way that is accurate and true. Trying to justify my need for a caseload that only includes schools with elevators.

Trying to figure out how law intersects with self-identity, and with societal perceptions.

Still trying. Don’t have answers. That’s where I’m at right now.

 

———–

*Referred to as a Teacher of the Deaf in many other school districts.

**My parents, who are rather smart, realized this would be a good idea before I went on a summer trip to Israel. They knew the trip would involve a lot of hiking.

***Yes, I know people do. It’s not impossible. But it’s definitely hard.

****In this case, a fancy word for replacement

*****Quote from the ADA website.

 

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