Maples Collegiate teacher with dystonia breaking barriers, challenging students

It’s shortly after 9 a.m. on a school day. Stragglers slink into their seats in Room 135 at Maples Collegiate, and Sarah Anderson is attempting the impossible: getting sleepy teenagers to raise their hands during first period.

The Grade 10 teacher is searching for volunteers to share their morning quick-write poems.

In the absence of a keener, she lets her students sit with awkward silence until one of them hesitantly lifts his arm. The breakthrough leads to another.

During a mid-class interview, once the formal lesson is over and independent study underway, the rookie teacher says building relationships with students is proving to be a challenging, ongoing and time-intensive process.

For Anderson, it is also a necessary one to empower students — especially those who are members of underrepresented groups — to make decisions and speak up for themselves in English Language Arts and after graduation.

“It’s all about using your voice, and that’s the theme of my life,” she says, moments before politely asking a teenager to tuck in his seat so her wheelchair can squeeze behind him, allowing her to roam the room and check on her students’ progress.

Anderson became a certified teacher this year and, in doing so, checked off a bucket-list item that required countless hours of advocacy and finding workarounds to accommodate her physical disability.

The 23 year old, who has generalized dystonia — a neurological movement disorder that causes muscles to contract involuntarily — moves through Maples Collegiate in a wheelchair powered by tilting and tapping a built-in headrest.

The Winnipegger typically wears her hair in a high ponytail to avoid it getting staticky from steering.

“You put your best foot forward because people see the negative first. You gain this complex — I want to put my best self out there and look the best I can because that’s what I have control over,” she told the Free Press.

Dystonia Medical Research Foundation Canada estimates 50,000 people are living with the rare disorder, from coast to coast and, as a result, suffering varying degrees of pain from the slow and repetitive muscle movements and abnormal postures associated with it.

Anderson received a diagnosis as a preteen, after 12 years of living with the belief she had cerebral palsy.

Due to a number of complications during birth, she experienced brain damage and her left hand was clenched to her chest. Local doctors ran a series of tests and concluded she had a condition known to impact muscle movement and co-ordination.

She used a walker to get around as a toddler. Then her balance and overall physical abilities began to decline.

“By the time I was 12, I had pain in numerous parts of my body. I had tremors starting, and a lot of questions,” she said.

“Cerebral palsy doesn’t generally change very much.”

While Anderson’s peers were getting their babysitting certifications, she was bedridden and often unable to attend in-person instruction throughout her elementary years.

Teacher Jenny Hall recalled Anderson — a former student and now one of her colleagues — missed roughly half of all the instructional days in Grade 7. “But she was so determined not to fall behind.”

The two were in constant communication between grades 6 and 8. Anderson was in Hall’s class for three years, and during that period, she started writing frankly about her misdiagnosis and the everyday challenges of being a preteen girl with a physical disability.

“I remember going to her house and seeing her in the living room and she couldn’t sit up because of the pain she was in, so she was laying on her bed in the living room, working on her writing pieces and her narrative,” Hall said.

“She was typing everything with her toes.”

It took about a year for Anderson to receive an accurate diagnosis and find the right cocktail of medications to reduce her spasms and manage the related discomfort.

“Since Day 1, I was never able to do personal care on my own. I was never able to really do house chores. I still, to this day, don’t really write, which is an interesting fact: I’m an (English language arts) major who doesn’t physically write,” she said with a giggle on a recent school day.

Anderson, who accesses home-care support and takes public transit to work, uses her left hand for balance. Both of her arms have a limited range of motion.

Unpredictable muscle spasms make holding a pencil and traditional typing challenging in large doses.

And the frustrations of fixing voice-to-text transcription errors — on one particularly annoying occasion, seeing and having to repeatedly delete swear words she never uttered while working on an essay via iPad — prompted her to try something else.

“I decided to throw (my tablet) on the ground one day and get out my toes. I only really use one toe. My right big toe. I use it by leaning on my left foot. I put my right foot over my left foot and I type with one toe,” she said.

Over the last decade, Anderson has used her unconventional typing skills to complete assignments that earned her the distinction of valedictorian of West Kildonan Collegiate’s Class of 2018 and, more recently, a spot on the education dean’s honours list at the University of Winnipeg.

Syd Korsunksy said it’s her work ethic and impressive resumé, which includes rappelling from the top of a downtown skyscraper in her wheelchair to raise money for Manitoba Possible, that make Anderson “the most inspirational human being I’ve ever met in my life.”

Korsunsky admitted he was mistakenly skeptical when she told him and Hall, who were co-teaching ELA at Edmund Partridge Community School at the time, she wanted to follow in their footsteps. Anderson was keen on preaching their inquiry-based teaching philosophies, which she said gave her the confidence to use her own voice.

The teacher-mentor noted there was no template for Anderson to follow, and numerous barriers in her way, from typical classroom templates to standard fire-drill evacuations.

“I couldn’t imagine how she could do this in a classroom. I don’t imagine it anymore. I see it,” said Korsunsky, who has been visiting Anderson’s classes to provide support throughout the current school year.

Anderson was determined to figure it out.

“I really, really had my heart set on teaching,” she said. “A number of things contributed to that. I think that one of them was the fact that school and academics were a point of pride for me, whereas many, many students at my age at that point were successful athletes.”

She credits her teachers for helping her find the words to share her life’s story and making room for it. She took up public speaking in 2015 and since then, has shared her lived experience and advocated against ableism to audiences across the province.

At the same time, Anderson said there was a glaring lack of representation on her school’s staffing rosters. It was equal parts challenging and motivating to never see a teacher with a physical disability at the front of her class, she said.

“I had only seen able-bodied teachers, so I would compare myself to those teachers,” she said, recalling one practicum placement situation during which she was struggling to turn the pages of a book while teaching a young student how to read one-on-one.

When her adviser came to check on them in the library, she assured the then-student teacher that she could ask the child to flip the pages, and reminded Anderson that what mattered most was her pedagogical expertise — not the modifications supporting its delivery.

Those words have stuck with Anderson, although she said it wasn’t easy to come to terms with students being able to do things she cannot, or feeling comfortable acknowledging that fact, by asking them to open doors and complete other basic tasks.

It’s common knowledge in the education field that a teacher’s first years on the job are their hardest.

Made-from-scratch lesson plans. Classroom-management chaos. Staff-room politics.

Being the sole educator in the Seven Oaks School Division who teaches in a wheelchair full time, Anderson is also simultaneously inventing workarounds in a high school built with 1980 accessibility standards in mind. Among them, she has tied a multicoloured scarf to her classroom’s door so she can grasp it to close the entryway with ease.

Her first-floor classroom is equipped with a height-adjustable desk with wheels, a cord to plug her iPad into a projector and a microphone to amplify her voice with clarity.

Upon meeting her high-schoolers in September, Anderson asked them to be diligent about tucking in their chairs. She also requested they be patient while she is taking attendance — a task she completes manually with her iPad — and understanding when it takes longer for her to provide them written feedback, compared to her colleagues.

“I hope that through learning about me, through seeing me do my job every day, that they are going to be more willing to see the humanity in the next person that they meet that is a part of the disability community,” she said.

“I know there’s students who appreciate the representation that I’ve fought to have in my life.”

She enlisted helpful colleagues to assist her with moving desks around in her classroom so she could access all student desks for one-on-one conferences and have enough space in one corner to do a 360-degree turn when need be.

The whir of her wheelchair is a constant in the background while students work on independent assignments; she zips around to check in with those battling writers’ block — a necessity as part of her encouraging teaching style that is centred around “choice, voice and agency.”

Anderson is the kind of teacher who makes inside jokes with students and giggles often to ease tension in the room.

“I’ve done this journey simply because I’m a woman who wants to have a meaningful career, and that’s not a lot to ask. I’m a woman who wants to make my own income and in that way, it’s really not that amazing — but I guess the part that is unique is I wanted to help others along the way,” she said.

Last year, the national unemployment rate among adults with disabilities was nearly double that of those without disabilities. The 2022 statistics are 6.9 per cent and 3.8 per cent, respectively.

Statistics Canada’s latest Labour Force Survey also indicates median hourly wages of adults with disabilities were 5.5 per cent less than those without disabilities.

Anderson said all of her accommodation requests were approved by a “community-minded” administrative team that is made up of allies. “(The people who hired me) could’ve easily said, ‘Wow, this person can’t even staple five pages together, how the heck are they going to teach?’”

Earlier this year, when a co-worker noticed she was having trouble holding her classroom keys without dropping them, that person offered to find a custom lanyard.

School leaders’ open-mindedness is essential to tackle the representation gap and help recruit more teachers with physical disabilities, as far as she’s concerned.

Post-secondary institutions also have a role to play in better supporting students like her, and they should start by ensuring teachers’ college career fairs are equitable and accessible so that all candidates have equal opportunities to meet recruiters, she said.

During her final-year “interview week” at U of W, only a certain number of students were introduced to employers to seek out substituting opportunities. Interested students were asked to line up outside the downtown student services office early in the morning on a designated day, until the line was cut off.

One administrator at Maples Collegiate said he’s started wondering how to attract applicants missing from the high school’s 100-teacher team because of a physical or invisible disability the school could find ways to accommodate.

“Sarah’s breaking down some barriers and challenging what I think — what students and us, for that matter, think — a teacher looks like,” vice-principal Mark Gilchrist said.

“But she’s also just a really good teacher who’s doing a good job.”

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press