Rhianon Elan Gutierrez is a Boston-based storyteller working at the intersection of media, education, and cultural inclusion. She infuses film, multimedia design, disability culture, and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to create active, inclusive, and flexible learning spaces that support the needs and interests of variable learners. We were lucky to have her as one of our volunteers earlier this year! Follow her on Twitter @rhianonelan.
“She belongs in a school for people like her,” he said.
She inquired: “What do you mean, people like her? A person with brown hair? A female? What?”
“You know what I mean.” He persisted.
“No, I don’t. Tell me.” My mother was insistent.
The teacher motioned to his ears.
As a special education teacher and mother of two children with disabilities, my mother has been my strongest advocate. When people and places said that her children (biological and in the classroom) could not do something, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She actively resisted the labels that the system and other individuals imposed on us.
It is partly because of her and my grandmother’s resilience that I, in my adulthood, am a strong advocate for myself and others. My mother and grandmother provided a supportive base for me to succeed as a learner in the classroom and elsewhere by making sure that I had access to a quality education and resources that supported me in processing, expressing, and comprehending content. My strong foundation has enabled me to move forward on my own and build my own knowledge, interests, and strategies. I am a person who loves to learn.
I consider myself to be a storyteller and lifelong learner. This has led me to pursue a career path that combines my three passions: media, education, and cultural inclusion. I am always looking to build my knowledge and use it to support others in their own learning processes. I have a fine arts degree from a top film school and a graduate degree from a top education program.
Despite my credentials, I consider myself to be an expert in one thing only: the lived experience of disability. It colors how I view the world and how I approach the act of learning.
When people say that you cannot do something, or if you say that you cannot do something, rather than say, “Ok. I can’t.” Ask: “Why?” How does it make you feel to learn about something, and why do you feel this way? We are each different in how we learn and express, but we also shape contexts in which we learn. When we are aware of our own potential, we can move forward in shaping contexts in which we can learn about ourselves, others, and the world.
I have the privilege of being both a learner and an educator. From elementary school to college, I used captioning when possible to assist me in understanding what was going on in the classroom. This participation was important in keeping me engaged with my peers.
Before and during film school, I often encountered content that was not captioned. Sometimes, the teachers would tell me to do something else or watch it later and, many times, I did. Oftentimes, they were not informed about accessibility from the start. They learned more about it because of me. Those who struggled to change their practices used language such as: “I couldn’t afford it,” “Never mind,” “You didn’t hear it anyway,” “I’ll tell you later,” or “It doesn’t matter.”
As far as I’m concerned, it matters. You’re missing out on a learning experience. When you are framed as the problem, your learning experience is compromised. When you are framed as the catalyst for change, the environment can and should be transformed into one that is inclusive for many.
My experiences have led me to learn more about ways to support students to be a part of the learning process from the start. They should be receiving and using supportive language throughout this process.
In my teaching practice, I recently encountered a teacher who repeatedly showed me what their students could not do. I thought about my mother’s actions and supportive words, my own experiences, and the experiences of my brother, who has an intellectual disability. I spoke up. Just because someone believes that you cannot do something does not mean that you cannot do it. We can actually learn quite a lot from those moments in which we have little support, little resources, or other barriers. We can become strategic and self-motivated to succeed because of these challenges.
Your experiences can and do shape you in powerful ways that fuel your drive and determination. I personally love a challenge. I fuel others’ and my own negativity into passion to create more inclusive and supportive learning environments in which every learner is valued.
Recently, a risk taker I know once said to me: “You jumped off the diving board. And you swam.” And to that, I said: “I felt supported and prepared, which made all the difference.”