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Learning by Heart

Teacher Keilondi Johnson helps students in the classroom and beyond

Keilondi Johnson, a 39-year-old teacher from Virginia, who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), always wanted to work with children. When she got to college, she thought she wanted to go on to study the law and become a family lawyer. However, that changed when Johnson took on an internship at a campus day care center as part of her studies. 

Keilondi Johnson

“I enjoyed that a lot, and I was still working with kids,” Johnson says. “I ended up changing my major from political science to family and consumer sciences. I still wanted to focus on kids, but I just didn’t see myself in the courtroom.”

Johnson followed up her undergraduate degree at Virginia State University with a master’s degree in vocational education. From there, she started looking for teaching jobs, and she found the perfect opportunity when a spot for a life planning and wellness teacher opened up at J.R. Tucker High School in Hernico, Va. Her love for the job and her students has kept her there for the past 14 years. 

“The school is really diverse, so every day you learn something new,” she says. “The kids are great, and they don’t look at me as necessarily having a disability. They just look at me as their teacher.”

Johnson says that just in case kids are uncomfortable or don’t know how to deal with her neuromuscular disease, she does a PowerPoint presentation at the beginning of the school year to introduce herself to them. 

“It tells a little about me and about [neurmomuscular disease] and the type that I have,” she says. “It tells them about some of my limitations. In case they have questions and they’re afraid to ask, I just introduce it.”

Johnson has formed bonds with many of her students, and she points to the moments when she sees her students flourishing after they’ve taken her class as the highlight of her job.

“I have those students who come back and say they used the job portfolio [we created in my class] to get a job, and those kinds of things make it all worthwhile,” she says.

And while teaching is her passion, Johnson also has an adventurous streak. One of her favorite activities was attending MDA Summer Camp. Now, she looks for ways to do exciting activities from her wheelchair.

“I’m always doing research on different things and their accessibility to people in wheelchairs,” she says. “Like hot air balloons — they have one for wheelchairs — or scuba diving. I haven’t done those yet, but I’m looking into it.”

Find more stories of people living beyond limits, as well as research news and updates about MDA resources at


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