A young man with dark black hair in a wheelchair at a stately table having a meeting with a middle-aged woman with shoulder-length blonde hair and a blue blazer.

Why We Should Invest in Students of All Abilities

Teach For America's Dan Griffin didn't let a tragic accident stop him from achieving his dream of becoming a teacher. Read more about his inspiring journey to the classroom.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

ABOVE: Dan (right) with Dr. Jill Biden during his time working for her husband, Vice President Joe Biden.


“A teacher! Well, you can still teach in a wheelchair,” the ICU nurse exclaimed with encouragement when I told her what I had dreamed of becoming before my accident.

I was one of those students who loved school as a kid and, while I recognize it sounds cheesy, I felt safe and loved in this environment. Whether it was in the classroom, on the basketball court, writing stories for the newspaper, or participating in events and extracurricular activities, I was fully immersed in my high school community.

During my junior year at Illinois State University, however, school became challenging in an unforeseen way.

While working towards a bachelor's degree in history education, with hopes of teaching and coaching basketball at a local high school, I was involved in a car accident that severely injured my spinal cord and caused paralysis from my chest down. In an instant, I became a quadriplegic—and at the time, part of the 13 percent of students with physical impairments, emotional challenges, or learning disabilities nationwide.

With today being the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I’m very cognizant of the role a high-quality education played in my future success. Unfortunately, the challenges for others remain prevalent. Currently, only 17 percent of Americans with disabilities are employed.  While graduation rates are up and dropout rates have decreased by nearly half for students with disabilities over the last decade, they are still high, with only 68 percent earning a high school diploma and far fewer advancing to college.

When I reflect on the people and experiences that kept me going through the surgeries, hospital stays, and rehabilitation that physically prepared me to return to school, I can’t help but remember the ICU nurse who told me that I could still teach in a wheelchair.

She, like so many others in my life, helped me achieve the best way they knew how—with high expectations.

Luckily, so did my school. Given my recent quadriplegia, a student aide would assist in typing or writing my essay exams, and extra time would be provided for other tests.

The adjustment was tough at first. I began my senior year of college—my first since becoming paralyzed—unable to type more than a paragraph or write fast enough to keep pace in lectures. Without the school staff and student volunteers, I would have drowned in the workload. Eventually, I learned to both type and write; by the time I took my final exam, I had adapted.

I wasn’t alone, either. I met countless students of all kinds of abilities and backgrounds participating fully in courses, programs, and activities across campus. Many used adaptive equipment and individualized services as well as extended exam time accommodations, yet no one could deny we were college students equal in every way to our peers. Thanks to this support, I was able to graduate college with the help of accommodations made possible by my school’s Disability Concerns office.

Times have changed. It wasn’t that long ago that only 1 in 5 students with disabilities received a public education. Had my mother or father become disabled at a young age, they would have most likely been home-schooled or possibly institutionalized.

When it came time to enter the classroom as a teacher in 2007, my newfound grasp on diversity gave me a well-rounded perspective, but it didn't guarantee I’d succeed in leading the sixth grade ancient history classes I was assigned to student-teach. Like so many young people, I needed a role model and I found one in my cooperating teacher, Mrs. Ionas. She treated me like the capable, intelligent person I was and the professional I wanted to be.

Regardless of what education headlines might suggest, I know there are many more Mrs. Ionases welcoming diversity into their classrooms and putting students of all abilities on the path for success. During my time teaching, I met even more support staff, teachers and administrators working tirelessly to ensure a safe, enjoyable and worthwhile school environment for those of us who might look or learn differently.

I’ll probably never get the chance to tell that ICU nurse she was right, but today, as an employee for Teach For America, I’m painfully aware that too many students in our nation’s most rural communities and inner-city neighborhoods have never been told they could achieve their goals. Picturing yourself as a teacher, doctor, business executive, or simply a college graduate is difficult when so few in immediate proximity are relatable. Recognizing that my journey is far from common, I want to ensure other students are afforded the same opportunities from which I benefited.

My educational and professional experiences have taught me that when we invest in students of all abilities and make real efforts to understand our increasingly diverse population, the real-world possibilities for a young man like me can meet even the highest of expectations.


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