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Teacher puts 'able' before 'disable'

Caitlin Rickard • Dec 15, 2015 at 11:35 AM

Soniya Patel is now in her 15th year of teaching music at Byars Dowdy Elementary School.

Aside from being a dedicated teacher who’s been at the school for more than a decade, Patel has done it all while being blind.

Patel said that growing up she just kind of always knew teaching is what she wanted to do. Coupled with her “niche” for music, Patel has now made a dream into a successful profession.

From third through tenth grade, Patel attended the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville, where Channel 2 News did a story on her at age 10.

“At the time, even at that young of an age, when they asked I said I wanted to be a teacher. It’s just something I’ve always known,” Patel said.

At first, Patel said, she attended college at Middle Tennessee State University in hopes of getting into social work. However, she said that goal only lasted for a semester.

“I took a music appreciation class as an elective, and I just realized that that’s what I’m truly interested in,” Patel said. “It’s something I’ve always done and known.”

After her decision to pursue some type of musical career, Patel said teaching immediately came to mind because that’s what she wanted to do from the very beginning.

“At the time I knew it might be hard to get a job, not just because of the blindness, but because music jobs could be difficult to find with the arts being cut in schools unfortunately,” Patel said.

Patel said she then interviewed at two different places fresh out of college, before ultimately deciding to attend Vanderbilt to receive her master’s in teaching children who are blind or visually impaired.

“I thought, if music doesn’t work out then I’ll attempt this,” Patel said. “It’s something I’ve lived and can help others with, as people had helped me along the way.”

A year later, Patel found herself interviewing for a job at Byars Dowdy with the superintendent and then the principal.

“I said ‘you might think I can’t do this job, but I’m here to tell you I can do this job,’” Patel said.

And Patel said she’s been with the school ever since.

“They opened the door for me, but I still had to prove myself,” Patel said. 

Patel said at first there were a lot of skeptics, but now she believes everyone would say she’s on an equal playing field.

“I was never treated like I wasn’t equal, but at the same time I knew I had to prove myself to these people because they’re going to see the blindness first unfortunately,” Patel said. “I saw it as an aside, but most people aren’t going to until they’re around me and see that I teach just as anyone else does.”

Principal Lorie Blackburn said, with the leadership of Patel, she believed their school had one of the best music programs in the state of Tennessee.

“Her management is what’s so amazing and she’s so professional about everything she does,” Blackburn said. “She’s an all-around excellent teacher due to the great management and the way she incorporates literacy and numeracy into her music lessons. She really supports that drive to improve our scores and school.”

Blackburn said Patel even goes into different classrooms on her flex times and works with groups of students on reading and math.

“Soniya’s awesome. She’s always so cooperative to do anything I ask her to do, and you just would never know she has a disability,” Blackburn said.

Patel said there are definitely challenges she still has to face, but the school system has been wonderful and even hired her an assistant for six hours a week to help with behind-the-scenes work.

In the classroom, Patel uses different types of technology that speak to her, such as a laptop, Apple computer, and iPad.  She also uses a camera that allows documents to be projected on a screen as she brailles on them and can point to specific things for students to see.

“The camera really opened my door, and I feel so sighted being able to point with the kids,” Patel said. “I never had that ability before, and that is the beauty of using technology.”

Patel also holds various programs for different grade levels and usually puts on a Christmas program with music, instruments and a skit.

“We always look forward to the programs,” Blackburn said. “They’re always amazing, and the way she pulls them off is incredible.”

Blackburn said she would never forget a few years ago, Patel had a Christmas program planned for first-graders, but that evening it began to snow very hard. She said though school was canceled the next day she went on with the show, but thought no one would show up in the inclement weather.

“You could open the door and snow was falling, but the gym was full and it was standing room only,” Blackburn said. “That program made that the very best Christmas because of what she pulled off that year. It was amazing; she’s amazing.”

According to Patel, she plans on teaching until she can retire.

“If I’m not teaching kids and doing them any justice then it’s time to move on, but the plan is staying here as long as they’ll have me,” Patel said.

As far as being blind, which she has been since birth, Patel said that is just something used to describe her.

“For me, being blind is just part of it, it’s not who I am, I just happen to be blind. I’m a teacher first,” Patel said.

Because Patel said she’s had a difficult road to get where she is today, she thinks it’s important to give people a chance.

Patel said it’s key to remember that we all have challenges we have to face and we never know when something may happen to us, but that doesn’t take away from our ability to do something.

“People should always look at a person’s ability, not their disability,” Patel said.

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