I contacted our local United Cerebral Palsy organization and asked if they knew of anyone with CP using a communication device, willing to come into a classroom and share with us. Shortly thereafter, I received an email from Jennifer saying she'd be happy to.
Having initially scheduled the visit at the end of our read aloud, I was about five weeks out and didn't tell my students until the final week. I was so very excited, but also very nervous. I had never met anyone with CP who was non-verbal and used a communication device. I've been around a variety of children with differing disabilities, but not too many adults. Questions swirled through my head: How would the students react? Would there be too much down-time? Would the students not want to listen for a long time? Would their questions be appropriate? Would I be respectful towards her disability without taking over too much?
I prepared my students by sharing with them that Jennifer is going to be a lot like the Melody in the story but she is her own person and different in many ways as well. I had them write some possible questions in their Writer's Notebooks. Throughout our read aloud, we talked about how we all have disabilities and how to use "People first" language ("People First" language is when you acknowledge the person first and not the disability when referring to others. i.e. not the "Cerebral Palsy child" but the "child with Cerebral Palsy" or not the "wheelchair kid" but the "kid that uses a wheelchair."). We shared about feelings, interpretations, and "What would you do if's?" many of the events in the book occurred.
My fears were quieted the moment I walked to the office to greet her. There she was, with her huge contagious smile and I was instantly put at ease. Right then and there I realized this was a learning experience for all of us at the same time.
As she rolled into the classroom the students collectively seemed to hold their breath. It was so quiet, as if the air was removed from the room, no one moved, no one blinked. And then, for the twenty five minutes Jennifer pressed her device, with her prewritten speech, and the class listened. We were in awe! I watched through my teary eyes as she joked, smiled, and told of her journey from then until now.
It was awe-inspiring for us to witness this communication, the same one we take for granted in our quick-paced society. Every. single. thought.
I've never experienced anything like this in my eighteen years of teaching. Thank you Jennifer for all of the lessons you taught us from the first to the last moment!