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South Valley Journal

Summit Academy special education teacher uses diagnosis to connect with students

Sep 02, 2020 03:53PM ● By Jet Burnham

The community raised nearly $30,000 to purchase Ravien Parsons, a teacher at Summit Academy Bluffdale Campus, a wheelchair-accessible van. (Photo courtesy of Ravien Parsons.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Ravien Parsons, a special education teacher at Summit Academy Bluffdale Campus, unexpectedly became a role model for students when she became a disabled person herself. Last winter, Parsons developed Stiff Person Syndrome, a rare progressive disease. She left for Christmas Break on her own two feet and returned in January in a wheelchair.

As a special education teacher working with students with mild to moderate impairments, autism and learning disabilities, Parsons often asks teachers to make accommodations for students. She studied disability laws and rights while earning her master’s degree in teaching with a specialization in special education. She often works with parents to help break down the negative connotations often associated with asking for accommodations for their children. So, she did not have a problem asking for accommodations for herself.

The Summit Academy staff was accommodating to her new situation.

“She doesn't have to try to explain why things are needed to me,” said Principal Diana Brantley, whose 27-year-old daughter also uses a power wheelchair. “I knew what she was going to need before she came to me.”

“My principal is amazing,” Parsons said. “When I showed up after the new year in a powerchair, she literally said ‘OK, let's go to your classroom, and let's see what we need to rearrange to make sure you can turn around. Let's see what we need to do to make things work for you.’”

Parsons was sharing a classroom with other teachers and had limited space to maneuver her wheelchair. Brantley promptly provided a Chromebook device for every student in the school so she could clear out the computer lab to provide a larger classroom for Parsons. She installed an automatic closing door for the classroom and provided wheelchair-friendly furniture.

Further adaptations were required for this fall. Like many teachers, Parsons’ health puts her at high risk for COVID-19 complications. She will be working in her empty classroom as the virtual teacher for the special needs students who’ve opted for online learning this fall.

“I'll be able to help other students, and my health won’t be severely affected, hopefully,” Parsons said.

Not everything has gone smoothly as Parsons has adapted to her new circumstances. She’s put a lot of dents in hallways while learning to maneuver her powerchair, and she has discovered that many stores and public places don’t have a lot of accommodations for wheelchair users.

After a particularly frustrating and embarrassing situation in which she got stuck in a hallway at a home improvement store, Parsons gained some empathy for her students who have dealt with these kinds of situations their whole lives.

“I can see where the frustration and some of the behaviors of my students may come from because they don't know how to handle those emotions,” she said. “They haven't been taught the skills or the coping mechanism to even recognize when they are feeling that way before it gets to that point.” 

She hopes she will be able to help her students learn how to work through those frustrations. She also strives to be an example of advocating for herself and for others. After her public meltdown, Parsons contacted the home improvement store—not to just complain but to offer possible solutions to the problem with their restroom.

Parsons hopes she can inspire students, especially those who feel limited by their disabilities.

“If they see me with a disability, but I'm still able to do things that they may or may not have thought were possible, then maybe that'll give them hope and perseverance to try things that they wouldn't have tried before,” she said.

Brantley is thrilled to have Parsons as an example to the students at Summit Academy.

“The children see her every day, and they have seen her face that storm,” she said. “That's how we teach children to face hard times; we model it. And that's how we teach children to become comfortable with disabilities, people who might look different, or somehow be different—even racial differences. How we overcome that is by living and growing and having experiences that tell us differences are just a part of life. Just living with your differences and experiencing that in childhood—that's how you end up with tolerant, loving, open-minded adults.”

This is Parsons’ second year teaching at Summit Academy.

“Out of all 10 years teaching, this has been the best environment, and I want to stay and be a part of that as long as I can,” she said.

As a newcomer to Utah (she moved here three years ago), she has been overwhelmed by the support of her new community. Families and staff at Summit Academy hosted two community yard sales this spring to raise money for her to be able to purchase a wheelchair-accessible van. Her hometown community in Louisiana held a cook-off event and collected donations for her as well. Together, the communities raised nearly $30,000.

“I have just been completely blown away by generosity and everything that we've gotten from both communities,” Parsons said. She said the van has given her independence and improved her quality of life.

Stiff Person Syndrome is a progressive disease, but Parsons’ passion for teaching keeps her getting out of bed each day.

“Some days are good; some days are not so much,” she said. “It's just one day at a time and trying to keep pushing myself, because I'm not going to give up. I still want to help kids, and I still want to be able to be productive.”