- Born prematurely with serious medical issues, Helena Donato-Sapp has four learning disabilities she will carry with her for the rest of her life.
- A Black girl who was adopted by two gay fathers, she has many intersectional identities that she draws power from.
- She urged delegates to be that one caring adult for the lonely child, the underdog, and to know that language and words matter and can make a child feel whole rather than feel like a problem.
A superhero spoke today at the 2023 NEA Representative Assembly. Her name is Helena Donato-Sapp, a youth activist for disability rights and inclusion. She is a 14-year-old Black girl who was born with serious medical issues that caused learning disabilities she will carry throughout her life.
“But, let me be very clear here, these disabilities are only one part of my many identities,” she said. “I am Black. I am dark-skinned Black. I am a Black girl. I am adopted. I have gay fathers. We are a multiracial family. One of my gay dads is an immigrant. The other gay dad was raised in poverty. I am not just one thing. I am many things, and these multiple intersectional identities shape my world.”
Her identities give her power, she said, but they also “rain down bias and discrimination on me.”
One of the ways she feels discriminated against is because of her learning disabilities -- a visual processing disorder, a working memory disorder, dyscalculia, and ADHD.
IEPs go unmet without resources
When her learning disabilities were identified, she felt as though the school held them against her. Like many schools, she said, hers does not have enough teachers and resources, and it’s hard to have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) implemented.
It was especially hard early on as she and her fathers were figuring out the tough terrain of disability advocacy.
“Just like many of you sitting here today, my teacher had too many students and didn’t have the needed resources to provide me with the supports I needed for my multiple disabilities,” she said.
She understands her disabilities, she assured the delegates, because she has studied them extensively with her parents. She understands her IEP, and has ever since she was in third grade.
Every year, she and her dads make a one-page, cardstock accommodations sheet for each of her teachers telling them exactly what her strengths and needs are and how they can meet them.
“And it is all in my IEP. I know the Education Department code, I know the district policies, I know the school’s intentions, I know the federal laws. And as clear as we are, my unique, individual needs are still not fully met.”
She knows she’s not alone; she knows many kids across the country are not being served in accordance with the law. She also knows why.
“Educators need more time, resources, and supports to ensure that every student’s unique needs are met,” she said. “And that takes funding, not just the promise of funding, but collaboration time, training, and reasonable workloads.”
'My disability activism models pride'
As if it weren’t enough for the 14-year-old to have to fight for her education, she said she also faces bullying, isolation, and exclusion, too.
She led a school-wide anti-bullying campaign at her own school this year, which she said didn’t go over very well with her peers.
“But let me tell you, I am the kid who will not be put down or held down. I am the kid who will just show you what! You want students like me in your classroom,” said Donato-Sapp, who finished middle school with three years of straight A’s.
But the exclusion never stopped for her at school.
“I left middle school a few days ago and I have no good friendships that I will long for. The strange thing is that I think my peers wanted me to feel shame, but I am already clear at 14 that my work is about refusing shame for any of my identities,” she said.
“I have a strong armor of self-worth. And my disability activism is modeling that pride to all other students and all educators. I lift my head up high with pride in who I am.”
Donato-Sapp has faced discrimination against her Blackness, against her disabilities, against her girlhood, against her gay family, but realizes how lucky she is to have two parents who lift her up.
“But you and I both know that not every kid is as lucky as I am. And so, I stand before you and I beg you to look for the lonely child sitting by themselves at school, the child that no one picks for play or group work, the child that never chatters excitedly about a sleepover that weekend,” she asked the delegates. “Look for me in your school and in your classroom and be my champion. I am a prime example of a child that can soar and succeed if you champion me.
Language matters, words matter
“And to be clear, being a champion to me means confronting your own deficit ideology and seeing my assets, it means to lift up the underdogs, it means caring for the downtrodden, it means championing my work and my character. It means learning more about how to support the students with disabilities in your classroom.”
She reminded delegates that it takes just one caring adult to transform a child’s life, and she asked them to be that adult and that champion.
One of Donato-Sapp’s school champions was her fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Takii.
“She was the first teacher who loved me and my learning disabilities. And she stayed up at night thinking of ways to support me and make me successful,” she said. “One thing she did for me was to be sensitive to the way she talked about my learning disabilities.”
Before Mrs. Takii, teachers made Donato-Sapp feel like she had a problem body and mind, she said. The message she got was that she was lacking, that she was a deficit.
“But not in Mrs. Takii’s room. She smiled and simply said that I learned differently. It was the first time that anyone in school was careful and sensitive about the language they used to define me, and I am here to tell you it made all the difference.”
“Language matters,” she added. “Words matter. How we talk about disabilities matters deeply.”
Not only is she an activist for disability awareness, but for all public school students and educators.
She encouraged delegates to keep saying the word gay, keep teaching the truth of history, keep teaching person-to-person and heart-to-heart.
“Together, we can make schools what we know they can be,” she concluded. “We need champions, champions for people with disabilities, champions like each of you.
“My name is Helena Donato-Sapp and I believe that my disabilities are my superpowers!”