Mary Atchely, a junior special education major at Lee University, was first exposed to students with moderate to severe disabilities in an 8th grade P.E. class.
As a new student at the school looking for friends, she quickly bonded with the aide who would accompany these differently abled students to class. Through this friendship, her passion for special education began.
“I started playing basketball with one of the boys, his name’s Conrad,” said Atchley, “I was completely blown away by our ability to have conversations.”
Today, Atchley remembers her early relationships in P.E. class as the starting point for her chosen career path.
“That was how I first realized that I wanted to be a special-ed teacher, was playing with Conrad and realizing that there was so much more to him,” said Atchley.
As Mary moved into the high school level, her interactions with special education classes in her school system continued. Teachers reached out to her due to her previous experience and natural ability to befriend students with special needs.
“The more I hung out [in the special education classroom], the more they started trusting me with things,” Atchley remembered, “By my senior year, they asked me to work with one of the girls who wanted to be in band. I went to band practices with her, and the school actually paid me.”
Although it was technically a job, Atchley felt like this position was simply a way for her to get paid to be someone’s friend.
“It was crazy, because I loved her anyways,” she said.
In Mary’s high school, students were allowed to use blocks of time during their day to be assistants in other classrooms. Mary used this time to help out in the special education classroom. Mary recalled spending most of her free time there as well.
She said, “By my senior year, I basically spent more time there than anywhere else.”
When asked about the challenges of integrated classrooms, it took Mary a moment to come up with an answer.
Her response eventually came. She explained how the main challenges come from trying to get students without special needs to interact with those who do in a healthy and comfortable way.
“I can see where it would be really hard for some people,” said Atchley, “Because they don’t know how to talk to people with special needs, and so they don’t.”
But, she is optimistic about peoples’ abilities to treat all people with dignity and respect.
“It’s really important for people to just talk to them. Have a conversation with them. And then if you get to that point and realize that they can’t have the same kind of conversation that you want to have with them, then find a way to just talk to them, and talk to them like a normal person,” Atchley said.
She concluded these thoughts with tears in her eyes, “They’re the same as us. And in a lot of ways, they’re better than us.”