There are certain teachers whose influence can affect students for the rest of their lives, whose names are never forgotten. Doug Forbis hopes to become one of those — and it’s not just because he doesn’t have any legs.
The 24-year-old Spartanburg, S.C., man is finishing up his first year of a two-year graduate education program at Converse College. He plans to teach physical education to kids with special needs.
“When I was growing up, if you had any sort of difference in a PE class, there wasn’t a lot you could do,” Forbis told AOL News. “You could be a score keeper or watch, but it wasn’t the most productive use of your time.”
Rather than spending his youth as an observer, he joined swimming and basketball leagues for disabled kids.
“It was a big deal to meet others going through the same issues. It gave me a safe zone each week going to practice,” he said.
Now he hopes to offer that safe zone for those in need at a local self-contained school.
“It’s so rare for kids with special needs to have a teacher with special needs — that almost never happens,” he said. “I think it would help a lot for these special need kids to say, ‘Look, Mr. Forbis is a teacher, I can do that, too. He lives by himself, gets around town, goes shopping, I can do that, too.’ A lot of kids don’t know that’s an option. They just depend on the system their whole lives.”
Forbis was born with a rare condition called sacral agenesis, preventing his lower spine from developing properly. It left him with malformed legs, which would only serve to hinder movement.
So at the age of 2, his parents took a doctor’s recommendation and elected to have his legs amputated. As a child he tried using prosthetics in an attempt to “be more like everybody else.”
But he soon chose to go without them.
“They were tiring, hot and more hassle than they were worth,” Forbis said. Instead, he gets around by walking on his hands or using a custom-built titanium wheelchair.
When he needs faster wheels, he drives a minivan, outfitted with hand controls and a hydraulic driver’s seat that allows him to see over the dashboard. Forbis bought the van to accommodate the various wheelchairs used for his individual sports — which eventually grew to include track.
In 2008, Forbis even tried out for a position on the U.S. Paralympic team.
“People always think I’m overcoming something. I’m not,” he said. “I’ve never known anything different.
“The only challenges I run into are other people’s mindsets, nothing physical or anything related to me,” he added. “People who think a person in a wheelchair shouldn’t be at the mall or shouldn’t be hanging out with their friends. It’s crazy.”
But Forbis takes all the looks and murmurs in stride — particularly when they come from naturally curious children. It’s parents who tell their kids not to look and to keep quiet that bother him.
“I’d rather they bring them over to me and I can explain everything, then they walk away and they’re cool with it,” he explained. “But if parents don’t let them ask, it contributes to the lack of understanding and learning, and nothing’s going to get accomplished. It makes a person with a disability feel disabled, because people don’t understand. You shouldn’t have to feel disabled.”
Helping others understand is something he’s been doing his whole life. Forbis frequently offers advice to people with the same or similar disabilities — some of whom did not have their legs amputated and are now contemplating it as young adults.
Once he receives his teaching degree, he’ll be certified to help a much broader range of kids find confidence and success, from those with intellectual and physical disabilities to those with emotional and behavioral disorders.
Last semester he gained classroom experience assisting 22 typical second-graders of all ability levels. In addition to helping with reading skills and research projects, he often shared personal anecdotes about his own days as a pupil and encouraged students to set goals and achieve more.
“I could see immediately that Doug knows how to talk to children and help them to understand acceptance and respect,” said Angela Ridings, his supervising classroom teacher and mentor at the Spartanburg school. “He is a unique individual with many talents, and I am positive that he will go far in the profession of teaching. The students love seeing Mr. Forbis, and I know he will be remembered for a long, long time.”
But despite Forbis’ accomplishments and ambitions, don’t call him an inspiration.
“I get called that a lot and it drives me crazy,” he said. “I’m doing what any 20-something college grad would do, it’s not really any different.”