“I know when people see me for the first time, they see my chair, but I have been told throughout my life that I’m always smiling. This is true — I am a happy person who loves to laugh,” says Shayne Sheets.  

Sheets was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, the most common motor disability in childhood, when she was just a few months old. Growing up with CP, she participated in occupational and physical therapies that helped strengthen and coordinate her muscles and skills. As an adult, her experiences drive her success as a special education teacher. 

“I cannot remember being specifically told about my diagnosis of CP — it’s just been something that I have always known. I’ve had to modify and adjust my whole life in many areas along the way, but I believe that has helped shape my personality and make me who I am today,” says Sheets.

Meet Shayne!

LRF: Tell readers about yourself.

I was born and raised in Little Rock. My parents were divorced when I was a young child, and I have twin step-sisters. I have been married for almost six years, and I have a step-daughter who is 15. My husband and I have three dachshunds who keep us busy!

We love to try new restaurants, travel and watch the Razorbacks! I love baking, doing jigsaw puzzles and birdwatching. I have my bachelor and master’s degree in special education and have worked in the field for 20 years.

I have many years of experience working in the area of early intervention. I have been a special education teacher in the Little Rock School District for the past 3 ½ years. I teach 3rd-5th grade students in a self-contained classroom. My career is both rewarding and challenging. I love celebrating successes with my students and their families! 

LRF: Tell us about your diagnosis. What tools do you or have you used to help you? 

I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant. I was born via cesarean section about three weeks past my mother’s due date. There were no complications at my birth, but my parents noticed that I was not meeting typical developmental milestones over the next few months. 

I received early intervention therapies and strongly believe they were very important in giving me a head start with my motor skills. I continued to have physical and occupational therapies during my school-age years as well as a handful of orthopedic surgeries.

As a child and young teen, I mostly got around by walking and used a wheelchair for longer distances. When I began junior high school and high school, it became more tiring for me to walk longer distances between classes, so I started using a power wheelchair for mobility. This allowed me to become more independent, but I also unfortunately lost some strength and endurance.

I began college at UCA right after high school, but I was missing an important part of my independence — driving! My family took me for an evaluation to see what types of modifications would work best for me. After practicing driving with my dad many times, I took the written and driving components of the test and passed! During my second year in college, my family bought me my first modified van. I’m now on my third van, and the modifications that I use are a knob on the steering wheel (to help me turn) along with reduced-effort steering. I am able to use my legs for the gas and brake. My van has a powered ramp, so I can get in and out easily in my powered wheelchair. 

LRF: What do you wish others knew about CP?

… don’t assume that I’m not capable of most anything that a person without a disability can do. Sure, I might not be able to run a marathon or climb a mountain, but I’m very proud of my 20-year career as a special education teacher! I have often had to work harder than the average person to show others that I am an intelligent and independent person. 

LRF: What advice do you have for parents of kids with special needs?

I think it is important for parents of kids with special needs to know that their child is capable of many things, even though some professionals may say otherwise. Parents need to support and encourage their child to be as independent as possible while still being patient and accepting along the way. 

During my career, I have worked with families who are in denial about their child’s disability and may even want to pretend it doesn’t exist. I think that it is important for parents to know that it’s OK if their child walks, talks or learns differently than other children. 

Some parents believe that their child needs to be sheltered and they are not taught basic life skills (dressing, feeding, toileting) at an early age. That is also a detriment to fostering growth and independence. It is important for families to know that the support team for their child (teachers, therapists and medical professionals) are there as a support and invaluable resource! 

LRF: What advice do you have for kids with special needs?

I believe that it is important for kids with special needs to know that it is necessary to try your best and push through even when the task is difficult. Your parents and teachers/therapists have your best interest in mind and want you to succeed! 

It is also important for kids with special needs to interact with their peers who are typical because both groups need each other’s viewpoints and acceptance. The world is full of many types of people, and we all must interact together at some point in our lives! Starting these interactions in childhood builds a foundation of accepting diversity as children develop into teens and eventually adults. 

LRF:  What advice do you have for parents of typical kids or for typical kids as it relates to kids with special needs?

It is so important for parents of typical kids to foster an environment of acceptance while answering questions of their children at the same time. When I’m out in public and young children stare or ask questions, parents are often embarrassed or try to quiet their children. Please don’t do that! Children learn by asking and are inquisitive. I never mind talking to children, showing them my wheelchair, or even how I get into my van to drive. Children who are typical need to be taught by their parents that other children (or adults) with special needs should be treated with respect and included in society. 

Heather Honaker is circus ringleader for three kids 4 and under — two typical, one not, but they all think they are special. You can follow along as the messiness unfolds around her family by reading the Typically Not Typical blog. If you know of any Extraordinary people you’d like to see featured, email heatherphonaker@gmail.com.