Interview with Helen McCormack Laas

This month we interview a teacher, lecturer and mom who has a physical disability and is passionate about inclusive education.

Tell us about your background:

I have been involved in special needs education as a teacher since 1998 and am now a lecturer. I have two wonderful boys who keep me excessively busy. I taught children with physical disabilities, as well as a myriad of other disabilities at a special needs school before my accident. My mom and I were involved in a horrendous head-on motor vehicle accident in May 2007 which left me with polytrauma, multiple bone fractures and nerve damage from my skull to my toes. I am in permanent pain which I control with medication, therapy and support from my family and friends. I always joke that “I am screwed” as a result of all the operations and screws and plates that I now have. I used to make use of crutches and a manual wheelchair but have moved to using an electric wheelchair to gain more independence and prevent strain to my body.

Did you return to teaching?

Yes, I did and I found that I had to learn about my own limitations in order to push the boundaries. The children I worked with were wonderful and saw me as ‘one of them’ after my accident. School was a safe place where no one looked at me if I had a seizure in my leg, for example, rather the children would say, “Cool Miss, that happens to you too.” During my return I spoke to the children I taught about inclusive education and whether they would prefer to be living with and going to schools near their families and communities, as most were residing in the school hostel. Their positive response motivated me to leave teaching and move to Embury Institute for Teacher Education where I lecture inclusive education to undergraduate students.

How has the move to higher education been?

Other than experiencing barriers with the built environment, namely stairs, I am very happy. I now educate teachers on how to accommodate children with moderate and mild disabilities in mainstream schools. I teach them to move away from the level of disability to look at providing learners with appropriate levels of support. I have developed a Continued Professional Teacher Development Module in inclusive education which is lectured around KZN for now, also be available online early next year. We are hoping to reach teachers wherever they are. I am passionate about ‘practical creativity’ and believe there are 100 ways to eat a chocolate. If something is not working try using a different strategy with children you teach.