When Tiffany Nickel tells her special education students that their disabilities are no excuse for not achieving, they know she’s not just saying that. If she can learn to tie her own shoes, she tells them, they can learn to add multi-digit numbers.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she says.
It’s a lesson she’s been living since Sept. 1, 1996, the day she dived into a swimming pool and broke her neck.
A piece of bone went into her spinal cord, paralyzing her.
She’d been at her first teaching job for just eight days when the accident occurred.
Nickel, 34, spent 4 ½ months in hospitals and several more months during which she “wasn’t enjoying life very much.”
Then she decided to move on.
She found an apartment, got a van and worked with officials at El Dorado Middle School on the accommodations she needed to teach sixth grade again. Nickel has an “Incomplete Injury,” so she has some feeling in her arms and legs — enough to navigate her electric wheelchair and use hand controls in her van.
After three years, she moved back to Wichita to take a special education teaching job, first at Gammon Elementary and now at Jackson Elementary.
Her students have a variety of physical and mental disabilities. “Every day is a new day,” she says of her job. “And sometimes, every hour is a new hour.”
Nickel thinks she connects with students in ways another teacher might not.
“I put them in charge of a lot more,” she says, asking them to take turns at physical tasks that are difficult for her, such as writing on the board or handing out books. “I think I give them a leadership role that they desire.”
But her work in the classroom isn’t the only accomplishment that was noted when she was announced as one of three Excellence in Public Service Award winners in May.
The awards, sponsored by the DeVore Foundation, acknowledge up to three people whose work and community activities “transcend the ordinary,” according to this year’s brochure.
Nickel is the schools winner; Cynthia Berner-Harris, director of libraries, was the city winner; and Brent Shelton, chief deputy county clerk, was the county winner.
When the school day is over, Nickel can be found at her students’ athletic and music events. She is tutoring two students this summer. She is executive director of the Kansas Disability Coalition, whose mission, she says, is to “educate, advocate and litigate.” She serves on the Wichita-Sedgwick County ADA Access Advisory Board. She participates in a spinal cord support group.
She also is active in Wheelchair Sports, a nonprofit group that promotes adaptive sports.
Her injury keeps her from sweating, so Nickel can’t participate as much as she’d like. But she water-skis and snow-skis, and helps with tennis, horseback riding, hand-cycling and other activities, such as the upcoming Summer Splash.
“I’m just kind of the coach and the cheerleader,” she says. Part of the $2,500 she received for the Public Service Award will go to Wheelchair Sports; some will go to Emporia State University, her alma mater, and some for a computer for her home office.
Her spirit and determination come from her parents, she says. They “always taught me to give back, no matter the situation.”
Nickel has bad days: “Some days are really bad,” she says.
But mostly she feels “very blessed” — by her students, by “all my angels” who open a door for her, pick up things she’s dropped or just make eye contact with her, and especially by family and friends who stuck by her after the accident.
“They don’t look at me as a disabled woman,” she says. “They just look at me as Tiffany.”
The annual Summer Splash, offering activities such as hand-cycles and skiing, will be July 27 and 28 at El Dorado Lake. More information is available at wcsports.org or by calling Barney Hoss at 316-634-3404.
BY KAREN SHIDELER
The Wichita Eagle