My Long Journey to Physical Education

Posted by Andrea Wojcik in Life After Paralysis on September 29, 2022 # EmpowHer Stories

At the end of August 2002, I was looking forward to my second year as a high school athletic director and physical education teacher. An accident during a motorcycle ride on August 18, 2002, dramatically changed the path I thought my life would take. This week, I am looking back at 20 years of living with a complete T2 SCI, and I am back to teaching PE.

I spent 5 months in the hospital, and upon my release, I approached the school board where I worked to let them know I would be ready to teach PE at least part-time by September. They not so politely declined to continue my employment. I was shocked, as my evaluation in June had been stellar. This was my first experience with obvious discrimination due to my newly acquired disability.

What I really liked about teaching PE was that I got to interact with students in a different way than in a classroom setting. Getting to know students on a personal level and guiding them to positive decisions for their futures was something I wanted to continue. Becoming a guidance counselor was a natural fit. I graduated with distinction with a master’s degree in counseling psychology and went back to the school board with my shiny new degree. Again, they declined the need for “someone like me.” The last conversation ended with a comment from the Director of Human Resources that the board, “didn’t have any high schools that are wheelchair accessible.” With that lie, I knew they just didn’t want to deal with me. This was the public-school board – was there not ONE student in the entire district that used a wheelchair and had a right to be accommodated?

I had a friend in a smaller board in the same city who encouraged me to apply there, and I received 5 school-based interviews right away. Obviously, their need for counselors was greater than their disdain for potential employees with a disability. I took a job offered at a brand-new accessible school because it met all the new needs my body demanded, but it was near where I lived before my accident. When my old life was so regularly in my face, I could no longer avoid the grief about the accident.

With a dramatic increase in needs and a change to online counseling during the pandemic, I knew I could not return to that role in 2021-2022. When I was trying to figure out what to do, one of my good friends asked me why I wasn’t teaching PE. In the years since my accident, I have remained active by playing wheelchair basketball, whitewater kayaking, downhill skiing, mountain triking and more. I found a posting for a PE teacher at a school for students with “extreme behaviors”. So, I called the principal to find out what the job entailed and ask if I would even be considered for the job with my disability. He didn’t say, “No, we can’t use you,” which is what I expected. He was curious about how I could fit at his school and invited me for a tour.

I toured the school, interviewed, and received a job offer to teach PE. In 2022-23, I am entering my second year at this school. Teachers who have been at this school longer than I have say that students seem to be more willing to come to PE than they were before. Students are willing to try almost anything, as they see me doing things in a different way. They aren’t embarrassed to accept an accommodation when it is offered. They see me showing up day after day and that my life is done a little differently from their other teachers. I’m currently back to that place of anticipation like every other teacher at the beginning of the school year. My hope for my students is that I am giving them an “in,” an opening so that they can have active lives in a way that works for them and respects their humanity. In the end, isn’t that all any of us wants?

Andrea Wojcik is an athlete, artist, teacher, counselor, encourager, and inspirer. She lives with her forever faithful dog, Charlie. She enjoys being outside in all seasons as long as there is an activity to be enjoyed and good company about.

Andrea wrote this blog as a part of the Disability EmpowHer Network and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation collaborative blogging program, which uplifts the voices of women and girls with spinal cord disabilities.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.