In January, I had one of the most amazing experiences in recent memory! I spoke about my panic disorder to a fifth grade class at my old grade school, Joseph Sears School. I was asked to speak by the Center for Independent Futures, an organization that works to help young adults with disabilities like myself become more independent.
I had conflicting feelings about speaking at my grade school due to several bad memories stemming from my time in there. I was treated poorly by some of the teachers when I was a child. When I attended Sears, I don’t think the staff knew how to deal with my panic disorder because at that time educational materials regarding mental illness were not widely available. As a child I felt labeled by my disabilities, when I wanted nothing more than to be known as just Sarah. Despite my reservations, I made the decision to speak at Sears. I hoped my words could change how kids with disabilities are treated.
The night before the presentation there were many thoughts running through my mind. I was excited to share my story, but I feared seeing old teachers that would make me feel uncomfortable. I was also worried about if I would be able to connect with my audience.
The morning of my presentation I was thinking, I am who I am and if they don’t accept me that is on them. The presentation was in the multipurpose room where I had been many times before when I was a student at Sears School. Being in that room made me feel like the misunderstood little girl who was defined by her panic disorder. But, I built up my confidence by repeatedly reminding myself that I was there as both a professional and advocate.
As the fifth grade class filed into to the room, I realized I knew some of the kids from when I was a teacher’s assistant at a local preschool. I began feeling apprehensive about sharing my challenges. I was scared to open up to them because they knew me from the past. But I realized how powerful it would be for them to learn that a former teacher of theirs has struggles just like anyone else does. Just as my confidence was beginning to resurge, I noticed a friendly face in the crowd, my former special education teacher. My teacher had always taken the time to understand where I was coming from when I was her student. Seeing her helped me remember that for every person in my past that didn’t understand me, there was someone who believed in my potential.
As I read my speech to the children and teachers, I saw something from the audience that I didn’t expect: respect, understanding, compassion, empathy and a genuine interest in my story! When I finished I heard the audience’s applause. What truly impacted me the most was the little eyes looking back at me, each trying to connect with me on a deeper level. It was in that moment I knew my panic disorder isn’t what defines me. Instead, it is my courage, my strengths and my ability to connect with others that makes me Sarah and not “Sarah with a disability.”