Not Graduating Early


My sophomore year of high school, especially the second semester, was awful. Over half of my teachers did not provide me with the accommodations in my IEP, due to a lack of resources and the difficulties that came with integrating assistive technology into the classroom. One of my teachers frequently reminded me how they wish I wasn’t in their class, another teacher would say isn’t their problem I don’t receive accessible materials, and the support staff would tell me to go away, or tell me I just need to continue to self-advocate, and everything will be better. The only class I felt included in was band, which had always been a safe space for me. I only felt included in one out of my five classes.

I was told one day that there was something I could do, something all of the staff members agreed would be a wonderful thing. I could take five more classes, and then graduate the next year, one year early, receiving a general/standard diploma instead of the advanced diploma I had been working towards. Or, I could take two more classes and graduate with a modified IEP diploma the next semester. Alternatively, I could get a GED now and graduate at the end of the semester. Basically, they decided they wanted to get rid of me.

Because I had been in an educational environment where my disability was considered an inconvenience to everyone around me, I started seriously thinking about this. I’d been given pamphlets about these options, but I couldn’t see them, so I put them in my backpack. I researched the GED, put together a mock class schedule for the next year, and told my parents all about the ideas I had been presented. They were horrified that this had even been presented to me as an option.

My family started to consider moving to a neighboring school district, which had a full virtual high school program and would provide better opportunities for me and my brother. It would involve selling our house and leaving the community we had lived in for twelve years, but it was the only way I was going to graduate. My parents started doing research, and made an appointment with a guidance counselor at what would eventually be my new high school.

My mom and I went to meet with this guidance counselor, and my head was full of the information I had been given. When the guidance counselor went to ask me about scheduling, I repeated what all of the other staff at my old school had said:

“I’m five credits from graduating, I could graduate a year early if I don’t take band and choose a standard diploma!”

“No, you’re not doing that.” The guidance counselor immediately said, very matter-of-factly. 

“You’re nothing special, it’s not like you’re a genius.  No college would take you.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  You are a very smart girl, I know you will be successful here, and you will get an advanced diploma.  Now tell me, are you interested in AP Language and Composition? How about statistics?  I remember you said you are a band kid, the director here is adorable and everyone just loves him.”

By the end of the meeting, the guidance counselor had created a mock schedule for me, with two AP classes, math, science, video production, and a Microsoft certification class. I even had band in there, the advanced band class. My guidance counselor told me I was going to have a better experience than I had in my old school district, and if things didn’t work out, I could always be switched into virtual classes.

The thoughts about graduating early completely left my head after I met my new band director, and they told me how excited they were that I was going to be joining them. The cool thing was, they were a former student of my old band director, and I was told they are “a way cooler version of them.” They said they would be happy to help me whenever needed, and I left the school that day feeling much more positive.

I don’t want to think about what would have happened if I gave up, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t. My new high school was far from perfect, but I was able to graduate in 2015 with a 3.8 GPA and advanced diploma, something I never would have been able to do in my old school district. My guidance counselor, case manager, band director, and technology teacher all helped support me and continue to encourage me, even to this day, to continue advocating for myself. I’m now entering my third year of college in a highly competitive program, and thriving. I could have very easily been one of the many students who fall through the cracks and believe they are not worthy of receiving education, but luckily that wasn’t me.

If you relate to any of my experiences right now, dear reader, let me just tell you that you belong, and you are worthy of receiving a free, appropriate public education. I know it may seem like there are staff members who hate you, but please continue to stay in school and do your best with the circumstances given. College is a completely different experience than high school, I promise.

How Do People With Low Vision…Graduate From High School?

As the school year comes to a close, many seniors are working on preparing for graduation and ensuring everything goes smoothly. My family widely joked that they were surprised I was graduating, because I had faced so many challenges in school because of my disability and chronic illness. My brother also thought I would somehow fall so spectacularly when getting my diploma, that I would become a viral video. Luckily, my graduation went smoothly, even though I had an awful migraine the entire time. Here are my tips on how to make sure that graduation isn’t memorable for bad reasons. For reference, my graduation ceremony took place indoors, at a college, and I did not use a blindness cane or other mobility aids.

Share concerns with teachers

I remember being extremely worried that I would trip and fall off the stage while walking to get my diploma, or that I would fall down the stairs shortly after receiving it. I shared these concerns with a trusted teacher who was going to be helping with graduation, and they were able to warn me about the location of potential obstacles on the stage, as well as appoint a human guide to help me down the stairs.

When entering, keep your eyes down

As we walked into the ceremony, I kept my eyes down and searching for obstacles, as well as avoiding the onslaught of flashing lights that was all around me. A member of my friend’s family remarked that it looked like I was crying, to which someone else said “she’s not crying because she’s graduating, it’s because this entire room is like a giant migraine trigger.” ┬áThis wasn’t noticeable on the graduation film.

Request no photography

Since I get migraines from flashing lights, I requested that the photographer, who was taking pictures of each student as they received their diploma, please skip taking photos of me. It really helped with making sure I didn’t fall off the stage either. ┬áMy teacher and principal helped enforce this and kept reminding the photographer prior to graduation about not taking pictures.

Have someone else move the tassel

At some graduations, the tassel on the cap is moved to the other side while the student is on the stage, while at others it is moved after all other students had received their diplomas. For those who are supposed to move their tassel on the stage and are unable to do so, ask someone, such as the principal, to move it for you. This is especially helpful for students who may have a broken arm, have their hands full with a blindness cane or guide dog, or that are very paranoid about knocking off their glasses.

When tossing the caps

At the end of graduation, everyone throws their caps in the air to celebrate being done with school, and done with the ceremony. I didn’t throw my cap in the air, and instead chose to duck and make sure I didn’t get hit in the face. Also, there was tons of camera flashes going off at that moment, so the idea of opening my eyes was not appealing at all.

I didn’t attend any of the extra graduation events that my school put on, such as the baccalaureate celebration, because I had only attended that school for two years and didn’t know a lot of my fellow students. Plus, there would be more flashing lights. I’m fortunate that no one could tell that I had low vision or that I was in chronic pain as I walked across the stage to receive my diploma. Most importantly, I’m glad that I didn’t end up as some viral video because I had tripped over thin air.