In this insightful podcast episode, Ameeta welcomes Michelle Steiner, a para-educator living with invisible disabilities such as dyscalculia and limited hand dexterity. Michelle shares her experiences, shedding light on the daily challenges and triumphs of navigating life with unseen obstacles.
•Education and Awareness: Michelle emphasises the need for increased education and awareness about invisible disabilities.
•Advocacy Through Writing: Michelle’s blog and articles reflect a commitment to breaking down misconceptions and fostering understanding.
•Supportive Environments: The Hidden Sunflower Program discussion highlights the importance of creating supportive environments for those with unseen challenges.•
Respect and Kindness: Michelle’s encounters stress the significance of treating everyone with respect and kindness, emphasising the impact of small gestures.
•Encouragement: The episode leaves listeners with a message of encouragement, emphasising that success may come unexpectedly, and strength lies in finding one’s unique way forward.
Welcome to today’s episode. Today I have an amazing guest, Michelle Steiner, who lives with an invisible disability. She has published articles in The Mighty, non-verbal learning project, The Reluctance Boonie, Calipina Collective, Imagine the World as one magazine and Word Gathering.
She has her photographs featured in Word Gathering and Independent and Work Ready. Michelle has worked as a para-educator in a school with students with disabilities. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two cats.
Welcome! Thank you, Michelle, again for being here today. I had a quick question. In your intro, you mentioned that you’re a para-educator. Could you let our audience know for those that don’t what a para-educator is?
Sure, a para-educator is someone who works from the school that helps the teacher and also helps the students that are in the classroom. A lot of times what I’ll end up doing is I’ll help some learners that just need the extra reinforcement on the on a lesson that the teacher has taught.
And I also get the opportunity to read tests and just any way that I can help the student to be successful.
Well, that’s fantastic. That’s such a beautiful role to be able to play in those students that really need that extra support. And that brings me to why you’re on the show today.
You have come on the show saying that you do have a disability and you mentioned that your disability is an invisible one. Do you want to elaborate a bit on that for us?
Sure. My disability is a learning disability. You can’t see my dyscalculia, the math disability and my struggle with math. I also have visual perception issues where I’m not able to drive and I also have limited hand dexterity.
And sometimes people can see that a little easier because sometimes the way I hold an object or things might fall out of my hands.
You’re so right. When you’re talking about the invisibility of certain disabilities, you know that you’ve got that, but other people don’t. Do you find that from a perception perspective with people that you come into contact with that that can be an issue or how does that present when you’re out there?
Definitely. That can be a real issue. Sometimes I’ll tell people, I have a learning disability, and people will look at me and say, well, you don’t look like you’re disabled. And they’re looking for the wheelchair or a cane or some kind of thing that could be visible, because that’s what a lot of people are familiar with, things that are visible rather than ones that are hidden.
And, you know, when we’re talking about disability, there’s definitely, you know, the physical ones that we can see, the invisible ones that you’re not enlightening us on. How would you go about trying to educate people about these invisible disabilities?
One of the things I do is I have a blog called Michelle’s Mission where I feature writing about my life with a learning disability, and I feature my photography, and I feel that’s a way to educate people.
I also recently had an article published on Public Source that about, I went on a trip to Florida to a Down Syndrome Convention this summer, and it was my first trip traveling solo.
And a lot of people cannot see some of the disabilities that I have, and I have difficulty with definitely transportation, I’m not able to drive. Also, processing directions, that can be hard, using an escalator, and just trying to be able to figure out where I’m going with that.
So one of the things we did before I went was I found out what resources were available, and one of them was a flight ambassador who was wonderful, that helped me out tremendously.
But also, they had the Hidden Sunflower Program. And what that is, is that’s a lanyard that you can wear, and it shows others that you have a hidden disability, and you just might need a little extra help, and might have that kind of compassion for that.
Do you find, you know, having a lanyard, having those types of programs out there, especially when you’re traveling, do you find that the average person out there knows enough about picking up on those signs?
Or is it more for staff within the transportation, and airports, and bus services, etc., that are aware of that?
It’s more staff, but also, it can be for people that know about the program, but that is the thing. It’s in a lot of different airports, and bus terminals, and subway stations, more so outside of the United States.
But a lot of people aren’t aware of the services. I can remember that there was another person that was traveling, and she had a child with a disability, and she didn’t know about the Hidden Sunflower Program, or even pre-boarding with the airline.
And when they got on the plane, the plane was really full that day, and nobody would give up their seat, so she could sit with her child that had a visible disability.
And I was able to talk with her afterwards. I mean, I didn’t see what was happening on the plane, or I would have given up my seat, but later I got a chance to speak with her.
And I just thought, you know, I was able to tell her the resources, and she didn’t have a lanyard, but she was in pre-boarding with her and her son whenever it was time to come home.
So I think it’s giving a lot of that information about the programs. It’s training a lot of the staff, and it’s still a new program. They wanted me to take it off whenever I was going through security in one place.
And my flight ambassador even looked at me like, oh, why? And she said it’s a new program. But then a lot of the other airports, they were really familiar with it. So they understood if you had the badge that indicated that, that you might just need a little extra help.
And security said, hey, we’ll just screen it whenever you are done running through the x-ray. So yeah.
Yeah. And you know, you said about that training. And I think that that’s such an important element that really needs to be rolled out across every transport authority, as well as businesses out there too.
When you’re out there interacting in a store environment, I think from an employee perspective, those types of programs and being aware of those things can make a huge impact.
Oh, yeah, definitely. I think that’s really important for employees to know if somebody has that. And I think also how to help people because I think people want to help a lot of times, but they don’t know the maybe the right way.
I know this is a new concept for me with with a limited hand dexterity, but I was in a grocery store. Oftentimes my husband will help me. And but if it’s not busy, I’ll go in by myself and I have my own little system.
And it’s normal for me how I put things in the cart and how I unload them. And but I had someone that came up behind me and she started unloading my cart.
And I was like, oh, OK, that’s really nice. And I said, oh, well, thank you so much. And she said, oh, I like to help people when you look like you really need it.
And I think I just smiled and said, God bless you. But I think sometimes it’s it’s wanting to help, but not always knowing how how to do that. And also just not sometimes picking up on things that people might need help sometimes.
But I’ve helped out people in grocery stores, too. I can remember we would get some little petite senior citizens and they say, can you help me get this off the shelf? And I’m more than happy to help or open up a door for somebody, because I think that that’s just a common courtesy.
Absolutely. And what would your advice be to people that can see that somebody needs a bit of help, but they’re hesitant to do that because they don’t want to come across as taking over or making them feel bad?
Is there anything that you would recommend people do or say or how they broach that subject?
I would just ask the person as you would, anybody else, hey, do you need some help with that or all the stores, you know, something that do you need some little bit of help or do you need help reaching that?
I think that’s a good way or even like opening the door up for just somebody behind you if just recognizing that as a common courtesy to do that. I think that’s a big deal.
It’s just treating somebody, how you would treat somebody that how you’d want to be treated and how maybe you would treat a friend or somebody else and just asking somebody might, you know, might politely say, oh no thank you or I got this and I think we need to respect that.
And sometimes somebody might not always be polite with that too, but I think it’s just trying to go out there and just just trying to treat somebody how you want to be treated.
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think that that’s something we need to remind ourselves of each and every day more so now than ever before. You know, treat people how we would want to be treated.
In the mad rush that everybody’s in these days, we seem to forget and we have this tunnel vision of just going out there and doing what you need to do and forgetting that there’s a whole society around you.
There’s all these other people that you could be interacting with, whether it just be, you know, opening the door, like you said, or offering to help them get their groceries into their car.
Those little things can have, they’re small, but they have a huge impact on the person that’s receiving that. Exactly. Yeah. And Michelle, so, you know, you’ve done a lot of writing, you’ve got a lot of articles published.
How did you get into that journey of becoming published in all of these different formats?
Well, one of the first things, writing has always been really healing for me. And it was the first thing I could do that I excelled at. I can remember I was really frustrated.
I couldn’t do math. I couldn’t do a lot of things. And I wrote a story about a dinosaur when I was in second or third grade. And my dad read it and said that was pretty good.
And I can still remember we had some fifth graders that came into our kindergarten class and we were writing a story about something. And I just love sitting there with someone that was a little older and writing mad and she drew the pictures.
And so writing was always a part of my life. And once I found out I was good at that, that gave me a real boost of my self-esteem. And I just wrote a bunch of things.
And I can remember I started hanging out with some older people in a writing group when I was a teenager. And this was really important because I was getting bullied a lot at my home school and I didn’t really have a connection.
So I reached out into the community, found some teenagers, and then eventually transitioned into an adult writing group. And we’re still friends 30 years later, hanging out about, yeah, every, you know, about once a month we meet with writing and part of our lives.
And I can remember I had a friend that told me that I should really write about having a learning disability. And I told her, no, that’s really too personal for me. And I think I wrote some bad poetry and some other things that I would not want to have anyone read today, but, but that encouraged that whenever I got that courage years later to write about my struggle with opening up locks with limited hand dexterity, and I got it published on the mighty and I had other people say, that’s my story.
Or I know someone that’s like that. And that just gave me that encouragement to write more stories and get more things published on there, and it led me to other publishing opportunities of talking about my life with a learning disability.
And then I started my own blog called Michelle’s mission about three years ago. And I just blogged about life with having a disability. And I also combined my love of photography on there as well.
I’ve also had three of my stories published in an anthology over the summer about, you know, rediscovering my story and just some things about life with a disability. And that’s available for purchase on Amazon.
And I just definitely love to be out there and just explaining life with a disability, but also helping out other people as well.
Yeah, yeah. And that’s so important because like you said, when you told your story on the resonating with that, seeing themselves portrayed in your own journey and your story. And I think that, again, that’s an amazing way for us to be able to realize that we can have an impact, a positive impact in helping other people realize that they’re not alone in their journey, even though I know that at times it can feel really lonely and isolating.
And you might think you’re the only person going through this, but to be able to read something or connect with you through your blogs or speaking to you, you know, having contact like that and knowing that there are other people out there that you can reach to can have a huge positive influence in those darker times.
Definitely. I feel that, you know, my goals are to encourage, empower, and to educate people with and without learning disabilities.
Fantastic. And Michelle, what’s next for you?
Well, I definitely want to keep up with the blog. That’s definitely that. And I would also love to eventually write books about learning disabilities, especially children’s books, because I feel like that there’s not a whole lot of information on dyscalculia.
True. Well, we’ll definitely have to look out for that one when you get published with it.
Talking about your future, let’s just reflect back on what advice you would give your younger self.
The advice I would give my younger self is that things get better because I can remember being in that dark pit when I was really young of despair and thinking that it was never going to get me any easier and my life wasn’t going to work out with having a learning disability.
And if I just didn’t have it, everything would be perfect. And the thing that really I found is that it has having a disability has helped me and has also given me the chance to help other people as well.
Yeah, absolutely. Wise advice for your younger self, for sure. And lastly, I wanted to ask you about strategies that you use that help you with your disability.
One of the things that I use is advocacy is really big. I have to advocate for myself. At my job, all the kids know that I cannot help out with math. And I have to be really honest with the employer that I work with that please do not give me a math class.
And I can’t help them in that way. I can cue them. I can reinforce that, but that’s not a way I can do. But what I can do is I’m able to be able to help out in an English class, a lot of reading.
I’m really good with that. I also, I’m unable to drive. So I live in a central location where we have things that are nearby, even though it’s a small town. I have a great support system.
My husband is able to take me to work and I have a great coworker that can pick me up and take me home at the end of the day. So that is also helpful.
I also will use my phone as a tip calculator so I can figure out how much I have to tip somebody. And I have things in our house, like I can’t read an analog clock.
So I have my Fitbit so I can read a digital clock. And we have things like a jar opener, like with my hands, because I struggle with that to help and an electric can opener.
So there’s a lot of things I do to help myself.
Yeah. And you know, those things, those tools today, we’re so lucky because there are so many tools like that, that are available to us. For if you were talking to a group of people or to our audience, and if there are people that have an invisible disability, what would be your advice to them?
My advice for them would be to know what they want to do, and to be able to find a way to do it and to seek the support services that are out there to be able to help you achieve that goal.
Yeah, I love that. And you know, and it shouldn’t stop you. There’s support and there’s always ways. So thank you for sharing that, Michelle. Before we leave, was there any last words of wisdom that you’d like to share with our audience?
I just like to encourage people, as you’ve said, that there’s a way to do that and to be able to find that way. And the success may not come in the package that you expect it, but sometimes it comes in something even better. Yeah.
Beautiful. Thank you so much. The perfect way to end.