In the fall of 2017, special education educator Jamilah F. Bashir attended a writer’s workshop and brainstormed ideas for a story about her sister, Aasiyah, who has an intellectual disability.
“I immediately thought about my sister, primarily our relationship as siblings. You always hear from parents and guardians of children with exceptionalities, but not the siblings. The siblings are affected just as much as the parents/guardians,” said Jamilah, a special education teacher in Pennsylvania.
Growing up, Jamilah often felt responsible for her younger sister and also shared moments of frustration, and later, deep admiration for her sibling.
She felt the best way to share her sibling’s story was through a book that would document their journey together and share some of the reasons why Aasiyah inspired her to find herself as an educator.
What later culminated through various brainstorming sessions was “Because of H.E.R,” a book where Jamilah discussed the impact her sister had on her life, and the many challenges and moments that strengthened the bond between sisters. In doing so, Jamilah hopes to inspire many others who share similar experiences and challenges caring for sibling(s) with disabilities.
Jamilah shares that her career as a special education teacher was first ignited by her little sister, Aasiyah. Growing up with a sibling with a disability inspired her to pursue education and advocate for the needs of exceptional children.
“Growing up with my sister made me more conscious of the education of exceptional children, especially exceptional children of color,” said Jamilah. “Initially I never wanted to be a teacher. I had aspirations of going into the medical field to become a surgeon or a pediatrician.”
Growing up with a sibling with a disability, Jamilah often felt the need to look over her sister and help her in any way possible. “I always had to help her with everyday things, i.e. tying her shoes, bathing sometimes, looking out for her, etc. It was very overwhelming for me because I felt like I couldn’t be a kid,” she added. Though in retrospect, it was often her younger sister who helped her discover and find herself.
There were also moments when she grew extremely overprotective of her younger sister because she didn’t trust people, and didn’t know if they were going to be patient with her sister, or make fun of her younger sister for having a disability.
“The most frustrating thing was helping her get dressed and go up and down the steps properly. To me, it seemed simple routine tasks but she struggled buttoning things and tying her shoes, and going up the steps properly.”
It took a while for Jamilah to understand the bond she has with her sister is unique and irreplaceable, and that the moments of frustration were put there for a reason.
She learned many life lessons through her younger sister and grew to respect and nurture their sibling bond as she became an adult.
“As I grew into an adult, I learned that things are simple for some and not others. I learned to have patience and to help her where she was not where I thought she should be. Furthermore, I learned to hold her accountable for what she could do and help her with her areas of need,” said Jamilah.
Spending her childhood with her younger sister also taught her a great deal about patience, compassion, and resilience. And over the years, they’ve maintained a wonderful sibling bond – one that involves many long conversations, movie-thons, and exploring new places to eat.
“Aasiyah has her limitations, but she doesn’t allow them to get her down, which has made me reflect on things I may complain about.”
Advocating for Children with Disabilities
A Native of Pennsylvania, Jamilah quickly fell in love with the field of education and knew she could make a positive impact on the lives of children with special needs. In 2006, she received her bachelor’s degree in special education and two masters degrees in education and educational leadership. Over the last 10 years, she has worked as a special education teacher in elementary and secondary schools. In 2016, she was honored by the United Muslim Masjid Women’s Committee for her work in the field of education. She was honored amongst other women, veteran educators and was grateful to be recognized.
“My mission is to support my students to help them reach their fullest potential. I know how much help to give and when I need to pull my hand back. My hope for my students is that no matter what, they always do their best and utilize their coping strategies learned over the years to help them handle situations that don’t go in their favor.”
In her book, “Because of H.E.R.,” Jamilah emphasizes the importance of advocating for children with disabilities.
“If you have other children, they are affected as well by their exceptional sibling(s) and it is important to listen to and validate their feelings,” said Jamilah. She adds that after reading her book, she hopes people will learn that siblings are affected by their “exceptional sibling(s)” and that it is important to show them support, understand some of the struggles raising an exceptional child, and also letting them be able to live a quality life.
There are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about exceptional children, says Jamilah. Some of these harmful stereotypes or misconceptions include the idea that they cannot learn or they will never have a good quality of life, she noted.
Schools and districts can be more present and understand the needs of special education, or exceptional students, by understanding that there is no “cookie cutter solution or approach” to educating students, especially students with exceptionalities, says Jamilah. A huge problem that many schools in the U.S. face, says Jamilah, is the unfair disbursement of funds between districts that serve certain socioeconomic statuses.
“Many exceptional children require repetition of skills learned so that they don’t digress so they require specially designed instruction to help them grasp the content being taught,” said Jamilah, who shares that every exceptional child is different, as one individual might require a huge amount of support due to the severity of their disability, whereas someone else may not.
Many children with developmental, intellectual, and physical disabilities are at increased risk of being bullied.
“Many exceptional children want to fit in and be treated and respected like everyone. However, due to their limitations, the conversation may not match their age development and this can open the door to being teased or picked on,” said Jamilah.
According to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers.
“One district may have an array of services that are provided to exceptional students but at another district, they don’t have enough teachers or support for these students,” said Jamilah. She shares that she has experienced this gap first-hand working in an urban school district, and now, a suburban district.
Jamilah adds that teacher turnover rates and burnout are very real and that it is important to have support.
“Teachers are responsible for educating children and progress monitoring. A special education educator has to teach children and be a case manager, which can be an overwhelming job because you have to teach, progress monitor students, and complete a mountain of paperwork.”
Sometimes paperwork can be one of the factors that might deter someone from the profession of special education, along with not having support as a professional and for the students that one might service, says Jamilah.
Jamilah would like to see more districts support its educators by providing more aides and to have enough special education professionals to properly service the population of exceptional children. She hopes that more districts will also provide students and professionals with proper resources, service providers, interventions, and materials to succeed.
If special education professionals know and feel they are supported, perhaps more individuals might be more interested in the field, says Jamilah. “However, the paperwork is a huge deterrent and there is no way to get around the paperwork.”
Through her work as a special education teacher and advocate for exceptional individuals, Jamilah imparts this advice:
“Always be the biggest cheerleader and advocate for the exceptional individual in your life. For anyone who is caring for or is the sibling of someone with an exceptionality, I totally understand how overwhelming and frustrating at times things can get. However, I want you to know and understand that it is a reason that exceptional person, that blessing was placed in your life. That exceptional person and those experiences can be prepping you for something that you will do later in life. I never in my life wanted to be an educator. However, now I understand that my sister was placed in my life for a reason. She has helped me to become the educator I am today,” said Jamilah.
In regards to sisterhood and woman empowerment, Jamilah urges others to build each other up and support one another.
“There is room for everyone’s ideas and to get ahead. There is no need to step on someone else dreams or tear down someone else.”
-Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni