What I wish my teachers had told me
When I was in school, it was wildly apparent that my teachers really had no idea what to do with disabled students. There weren’t very many of us, and even fewer of us in mainstream classes. So, when I showed up they didn’t know how to support me or encourage me. Disability wasn’t talked about – it’s still not, to be honest. It wasn’t really ever considered beyond making sure my wheelchair fit in the classroom. I hear stories from people who have these really meaningful relationships or memories of their teachers and I never really had any of those mentor moments or inspiring conversations. If anything, 9/10 times I had the opposite experiences.
This isn’t to call anyone out. I’m not going to talk about the times I’m harboring grudges over. Sidenote, no matter how much I seem to grow as a person I never let anything go. Probably not the healthiest? Anyway, I wanted to talk about the things that I really needed to hear from my teachers when I was a kid!
“Your disability isn’t what’s holding you back – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
No one ever acknowledged a lack of accessibility within the public school system or in general. When I couldn’t do something or participate, it was always just excused or brushed aside. It was okay or even expected. It was sort of assumed that I was disabled and that’s why I was being left out. In reality, there were so many times I could’ve done something if it had just been accessible.
“Never feel ashamed to ask for help.”
There were so many times I needed to ask for help but didn’t because my teachers had either made me feel guilty or had straight up accused me of asking for more help than I needed. I needed someone to tell me there’s nothing wrong with needing help. My teachers should have been helping me gain confidence. They should’ve been breaking the stigma instead of making me feel like I was a burden.
“Accommodations aren’t special perks.”
Getting a different desk or leaving class early so I could make it to my next class safely on time weren’t ‘perks’. They were necessary. They weren’t giving me some advantage, they were supposed to even things out so I had the same chance at success as abled students. I wish that someone had shut down the shit I got from other students. They should’ve reassured me that it was perfectly okay to accept accommodations. Instead, I used to turn them away for fear of standing out too much or getting too much backlash from jealous students.
“Advocating for yourself isn’t disrespectful or bossy.”
Disabled students at my high school were never expected to stand up for themselves. We were made to believe we didn’t know what was best for ourselves, our bodies, or our education. If we did decide to advocate for ourselves, it didn’t go well. We were questioned, accused of lying, laughed at, or just ignored. It was almost met with defensiveness like I was being disrespectful. Disabled students need to be able to say what they need without it being treated like a crime or something dirty.
“Your needs aren’t special, they’re just needs.”
I go back and forth with my feelings on the term ‘special needs’ because I know a lot of disabled people like and use it. In general, I really don’t care for it. I don’t feel as though my needs are special, they’re just what I need. The phrase only adds to that feeling of being an outsider and emphasizes the help a person needs rather than the person themselves.
I might need help going to the bathroom, yeah. But everyone needs to go to the bathroom, so is it really all that special? Or is it just that you think it sounds nicer than calling me a burden? I’d rather someone just be upfront about it than hide their feelings behind ‘nice’ phrases.
“Disabled people can – and do – accomplish amazing things.”
There was always this sort of attitude that because I had a disability, there were certain things I’d never be able to do. Which alright, I guess there’s some truth in that. The problem is that no one really encouraged me to do anything more than what I was doing at the moment. AKA the bare minimum.
I think the biggest example of what I’m trying to say is when I was applying for college. It was just sort of a given that I’d go to a small state school a few minutes away from where I lived. I was never encouraged to apply anywhere else or to try and go to a university to get the dorm life experience.
In retrospect, I highly doubt that would’ve worked out for me anyway. But I deserved the chance to at least consider it, you know? No one ever had me aim high or dream big. The thought of that happening to other disabled kids breaks my heart.
I know that for the most part, my teachers didn’t mean to make me feel like an outsider or ashamed of my disability. At the same time, good intent only goes so far and you have to look at the impact. There are going to be disabled students. Teachers need to know and understand the issues that these students will be facing. They need to understand what ableism is so they aren’t harming kids with ableist language.