Life Lessons: Fighting Discrimination in Education

School is already a battleground, but what happens when you’re fighting disability stigma too?

So, full disclosure: its 6:20pm on Tuesday here, I woke up this morning full of intentions to write this post first thing, upload it and get on with my day…that’s not exactly what happened. Instead, I woke up, had to cancel some flights for someone who is stranded in China, had to make a bunch of phone calls for other stuff, tried to get Ed Sheeran concert tickets, failed at getting Ed Sheeran concert tickets, ate pizza, napped and woke up just now.

Having said alllll that, let’s go.

 

As some of you may know, I was born with Spina Bifida, which is a spinal birth defect and in essence means that I walk with crutches, can’t feel anything below my knees and a bunch of other complicated medical stuff that I can’t be bothered to explain. Google is your friend there guys! And because I grew up with a disability, I’ve had 26 (almost 27) years to deal with the discrimination, stares, questions and downright rudeness that that sometimes entails.

 

This blog post isn’t going to be a “poor me” whingefest, it is going to detail some discrimination that I myself, and many others like me, have faced and continue to face on the daily.

I’ll go back as far as I can remember I guess.

 

I vividly remember being in kindergarten, and telling a teacher I needed my aide to help me go to the bathroom, she accused me of being a liar and making it up to get out of class time, which led to an unfortunate accident which was VERY noticeable for everyone to see. When my grandmother came to pick me up from school and I was in tears, my grandmother spoke to the teacher and demanded to know why I had not been allowed to use the restroom, and the teacher really didn’t have an answer, and so my grandmother asked “did you stop all other children from going to the bathroom?” and the teacher replied sheepishly, “well…no.” BOOM, that’s discrimination.

 

Imagine learning that at the age of 5, the idea that if you ask to utilise an aide to do something as basic as access a bathroom, you will be denied because your teacher, who is charged with overseeing your care for 6 hours a day, thinks you might be making up the need to poop! (A little side-note to that story: I’ve long since gotten over the trauma of that incident and have even gone so far as to forgive the teacher in question. My grandmother has not, she maintains to this day that that particular teacher is an awful person).

 

When I was 12, I went to one of my very first school dances, and a boy (who I thought was very cute, FYI) asked me to dance. I thought I had died and gone to heaven, as 12 year old girls are prone to do when boys notice them. So, we danced, until one of the other girls made the snide comment that he only asked me to dance because he felt sorry for me. Now, I don’t know if that’s why he asked me to dance or not, but I do know that that girl was clearly discriminating against me (and being a straight up bitch, too). Not only was that ableist bullshit, but it was yet another incident of girls being mean to other girls, and putting them down for the sake of it. Girl hate is a whole other bag of bullshit that I might write about one day.

 

When I was in high school (from years 7-10) P.E. was a compulsory class, and guess what? Not one single teacher made an effort to be inclusive or to play sports that could be easily adapted to include a person in a wheelchair, so I was either made to sit and watch quietly on my own, or sent to the library to read a book. I like to think that in the 10 years since I stopped having to do P.E. classes they’ve gotten a bit more inclusive, and have made an effort to include those with disabilities, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that wasn’t the case.

 

The thing that sticks out for me looking back on those bloody P.E. classes was that when my parents or I dared to ask why they weren’t adapted to include me, we got blank stares and platitudes. Finally, in year 9 I told my parents not to bother anymore, I couldn’t be bothered to fight that particular battle and had told myself so often that I hated sport that I didn’t care (in hindsight, that’s not true, the few times I got to go to wheelchair sports camps I had a blast!).

 

That kind of discrimination is bloody exhausting, especially since I was a self conscious teenager and the last thing you want to be seen as by your peers is “different” and the teachers make no effort to be inclusive.

 

When I got to university, I had one very memorable professor look me up and down as I walked into the lecture hall and say “excuse me miss?” and when I replied he said “are you sure you’re in the right place?” and so I reply “this is sociology 102 right?” and he says “yes, but are you sure you’re not looking for the special education unit?” WHAT. THE. FUCK? That was in roughly 2010 or so, not 30 years ago or something. I was speechless but when I gathered my wits, I walked out and went straight to the Dean of the University and lodged a complaint. Might have been overkill, still don’t regret it. He was required to apologise directly to me, and to undertake sensitivity training (I’d be willing to bet he never did it).

 

All of these examples come directly from my time at school and university, and if I had unlimited time and space, I could write pages and pages about the shitty things people have said and done, but the whole point of this is that discrimination is so disgustingly ingrained in our society that rarely is it questioned or challenged. It’s time for that to change.

Leave a message in the comments about discrimination you’ve faced or seen and let me know how you handled it.

 

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