Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Tonia Christle from Tonia Says for a blog series titled “Growing Up With a Disability.”
The previous post focused on The Early Years, and what was important to keep in mind with very young kids with disabilities. Today, I’m moving onto the elementary school years. What impacted me the most during that time was ableism (discrimination against disabled people). However, I didn’t even know that what I experienced had a name. Discrimination can affect your child, even this early on. I’ll also include tips on things parents can do to help a child who is experiencing ableism.
Elementary school started out a happy place for me. Although my family moved a lot during that time and I attended a new school almost every year, I was mostly happy, even though it was difficult to make friends. I liked school and got comments like “Great sentences!” and “Very good! Well-written!” on writing assignments.
By the time I began fourth grade, though, things had changed drastically. Previously, I had been very social (especially with adults) and eager to please. A Physical or Otherwise Health Impaired Report (P.O.H.I.) from that year showed a shift in my behavior:
The students seemed very helpful to her, taking her backpack and jacket to her locker… Another student moved Tonia’s walker to the corner of the room. I did not notice Tonia thank these helpers.
Tonia then took a book from her desk and began to read quietly using a bookmark to keep her place. The morning meeting was called to order and the children stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. Tonia continued to read and did not stand up. During lunch count, Tonia continued to read and another student called out her number for her.
…When the teacher began talking at the front of the room, Tonia continued to read. When the class was directed to move to the floor for language, Tonia remained at her desk. When the teacher asked if Tonia needed help, Tonia did not respond but slowly slid from her desk to the carpeted area on the floor.
It was less than a month into the new school year.
HOW IT FEELS:
This is what the P.O.H.I. Instructor didn’t see when she came to observe me at the end of September in 1990:
“Make way for Princess!”
She didn’t see how my classroom teacher called me Princess daily, when she didn’t have embarrassing nicknames for any of the other kids.
“Tonia ran the mile today in 45 minutes!”
She didn’t see how I was expected to run the mile in gym class, all alone with just the adaptive gym teacher, completing a certain number of laps while being timed. By the end, I was so exhausted I only wanted to go home.
“You can’t run ahead! The teacher says you could get hurt!”
She didn’t see how the other nine year old girls in the class reprimanded me. (These students were assigned by the teacher to accompany me to the bathroom and then stand by the wall listening while I peed, in case I were to fall.) It got to the point where I was sick of being looked after like a much younger child by my peers, and would run ahead in protest.
“Tonia opened the door to the classroom all by herself!”
She didn’t see how the classroom teacher gave me a Happy Gram (something sent home telling parents of really notable accomplishments) for opening the classroom door myself.
“You won’t be able to earn red, white or blue ribbons on Track and Field Day. There has to be modifications on the events for you to participate. …But you can still earn a red, yellow or blue sticker!”
She didn’t see that this teacher only relented when my parents came to school the very next morning and demanded fair treatment on my behalf.
“The next spelling word is different. Tonia is different from everyone else because she uses a walker. Different.”
She didn’t see how I was singled out and humiliated during a spelling test.
Expectations for me were simultaneously too low (in the classroom) and too high (in gym class). The low classroom expectations resulted in the sort of passive-aggressive behavior detailed in the P.O.H.I Report. I subtly challenged my teacher by not complying with what the rest of the class did. Accomplishments I previously took pride in (specifically with regard to my writing) were meaningless, as I was sure that my teacher’s praise was undue. My work couldn’t be the best out of everyone’s. It was probably in the middle of the pack. My teacher was just being nice to me because I had CP.
Likewise, when my adaptive gym teacher had a change of heart after the meeting with my parents, I couldn’t take pride in my red, white and blue ribbons on Track and Field Day. I felt like they were fake. I knew administration had been forced to give them to me. If the ribbons accurately conveyed my accomplishments, I felt sure they would have all been red – signifying only participation in an event – not competence or mastery, which I would have been happy with because I would have earned them. The multicolored ribbons, I felt sure, were not earned. I now doubted my own legitimate accomplishments due to skewed expectations at school.
Because of experiences like these which are not rare for people with disabilities, I question, even now, whether people’s motives are genuine when they do or say something nice.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
1) Watch for Behavioral Changes in Your Child
Experiencing ableism from two teachers at school, as well as my peers, made me feel embarrassed and ashamed. My self-esteem took a major hit, and I began feeling depressed and inferior. However, being only nine years old at the time, I was unable to articulate any of this. I only knew I was being treated “differently” than my peers, and I wanted to be treated “the same.” If your child begins acting in a way that’s out-of-character for them, follow up with them.
2) Ask Questions
Grab a quiet moment with your child, apart from school and stress. Take them with to do something they enjoy, or make a trip for a special treat just because. While you are occupied eating, window shopping or crafting, ask specific questions (the generic “How is school?” won’t work for this.) So, try these (pick and choose depending on your child’s age and comprehension):
“Are you treated the same as everyone else at school or differently?”
“What happened at school today that you liked? What happened at school today that you didn’t like?”
“What do you like about your teacher/school/the other kids? What do you not like about your teacher/school/the other kids?”
“Do you feel safe at school/with your teacher/with the other kids?”
“Do you feel respected at school/with your teacher/with the other kids?”
Ask appropriate follow-up questions, stay calm, and address any self blame your child is feeling. Your child may feel they have to comply with a teacher’s ableism because they are the adult, and children are generally raised to listen to adults. They may feel that their disability gives the teacher a reason to mistreat them, which is absolutely not the case.
3) Drop In
If your child tells you they are being discriminated against at school, don’t be afraid to take a page from my parents and confront school administration. This will not only let the school know you are serious and are paying attention to the way your child is treated at school, it will also reinforce to your child that they deserve to be treated with respect.
You can also make an unannounced visit to the school to check up on your child’s well-being. This is especially important if your child is nonverbal or cannot communicate due to the high stress of what is going on at school. This will afford you, the parent, a firsthand look at the classroom culture, your child’s demeanor in class, and how your child is treated by the teacher and by peers.
I urge you, family members and guardians, to let your kids know it’s okay to speak up if someone is hurting them or treating them unfairly. Keep in mind that one conversation may not be enough. Keep talking. Keep the line of communication as open as you can. By noticing a shift in your child’s behavior, asking questions and even dropping in at your child’s school, you are going a long way toward helping your child understand that they are valued and deserve as much respect as their peers. You are also letting staff at school know that you are paying attention.
Today, ableism is more well known, and by recognizing it, you can help stop it.
Trust me, it means the world to us.
“I want to encourage kids to speak up, to tell their stories. That is the only way people will know what we have to go through. Believe in yourself. Someone once told me being different isn’t bad – different is just different!” – Lauren Potter
Tonia is a 30-something woman passionate about bridging the gap between disabled adults and parents of disabled children. She is also passionate about seeing a respectful representation of disability in the media. She blogs at Tonia Says, and you can best reach her at Tonia Says on Facebook.