Growing Up Special Needs: My Journey of Self-Esteem

By: Rivka Inger  |  May 26, 2024

By Rivka Inger, Senior Features Editor

Making space for others despite their differences is a common saying nowadays, especially when it comes to those with learning difficulties. People with special needs are undoubtedly in a better place now than they have been for hundreds of years, moving from one of the lowest places of society to an accepted minority group who receive a plethora of services, love, and support. 

Yet, until a few years ago, I did not realize that I was one of these people. 

From birth through preschool, I was provided with occupational, speech, and physical therapies – among others – to allow me to function during those early years. 

When I began school at the age of two, I went to the HASC Center in Monsey, since a standard Jewish preschool couldn’t provide me with all of the services that I needed, even though I was rather high functioning compared to my peers. Two years later, I joined my twin brother at the local Chabad school, where we stayed for the next several years. During that time, I began to realize that I was different; I was often pulled out of class to attend my various therapies, appointments which I noticed none of my peers ever participated in. It wasn’t only in school – my mother often accompanied me to different playrooms filled with colorful gymnastics mats, where I would do some of the same activities that I did with the therapists in school. 

With my teachers knowing that I was receiving so much help, one would think that the classroom would be made extra accommodating, and that questions would be welcome. For the most part, that’s what happened. Many of my teachers would go out of their way to ensure that my learning environment was safe and welcoming, and I have endless amounts of gratitude to those teachers for allowing me to flourish and feel like I was capable.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case.

Sometimes, I would be scolded for blurting out answers, even though it was so rare that I actually got them correct. I was humiliated during games at recess, since I was much smaller than my peers and lacked the strength and stamina that they had. On one occasion, I was very publicly taken out of class and pressed as to whether I was putting dirty tissues in the bathroom’s metal boxes designated for feminine products. I had never even opened one.

All of this contributed to suffering from low self-esteem as a young child, knowing that I was behind my peers without understanding why. Though I wanted to have friends, I always struggled formulating such relationships, with the inherent knowledge on both sides that I was the one who was “special.” Different. Separate. 

When I entered fourth grade, I was finally able to get a fresh start. I transferred to another school, where I met friends who knew me for being me, not for being the girl who was taken out for therapy every day until the age of five or six. Suddenly – or, according to my mother – I found myself flourishing, thriving in an environment where I finally felt like I belonged. 

There was a time when I didn’t even remember this part of my childhood, being too busy with my present life to focus on the past. However, the more I look back, the more I remember what it was like to be six years old and be ridiculed for getting the correct answer to a question, or to be called last in Red Rover because my class knew that I was the weakest. Reflecting on my past helped me a lot not just with connecting to my younger self, but with connecting to others. Making space for others is essential, because belonging isn’t a privilege, it’s a right.