Monday, March 24, 2014

Dealing with Ableism as a Child

My classroom teacher in fourth grade (the same year the ADA was passed) was a likely well-meaning woman, near retirement age. The minute I joined the class, I was known as “the smiley new student with Cerebral Palsy.”

Fifth grade, which proved to be a much better year.

I was rewarded with undue praise when I did things like opening the classroom door independently. Worse, my teacher took to calling me “princess.” Saying, “make way for the princess,” to be sure the other kids knew to clear a path for me. Honestly, my first reaction was to laugh. I was sure she was joking. But this only made her think that I was okay with her referring to me that way. She was constantly telling other kids to do things for me. She assigned a particular student to walk with me down to the bathroom (in case I were to fall or something?) She pushed my entire desk (with me in it) to the front of the room when it was my turn for Show and Tell.
I had to go to my own IEP meetings which did nothing but make me feel terrible about myself. All I wanted was to be “the same” as my classmates. I felt the same, but no one treated me the same. And then I had to sit in this room, with my parents, school administrators and my teachers, hearing about all the areas I struggled in and the new goals that were being set for me. In short, no matter how hard I tried, I knew it was never enough.
All this, and I was the new kid, who was trying to fit in. But at every turn, in the classroom, I was set apart. I started to feel resentful and depressed. To challenge my teacher in subtle, manipulative ways, waiting for her to call me out. I refused to move from my desk to the floor when the rest of the class did. I stopped saying thank you when classmates helped me.
When my mom found out about my teacher moving my desk to the front of the class, she made me practice saying, “I can do it myself” over and over. As a sensitive kid, it didn’t take much for me to start crying, feeling like my mom was mad at me for what my teacher was doing. My feelings were hurt. When we’re kids, we’re taught to honor the adults in our lives. This was my teacher. I was raised not to “talk back” to my teachers. In my mind, I was just doing what I’d been raised to do, and all of a sudden, it wasn’t right and I was in trouble.
By the end of the school year, nothing had really changed. But track and field day was coming. Which was something really exciting. Kids do all sorts of outdoor events like shot put and tug o’ war, and running races, and getting real red, white or blue ribbons depending on how well we finished. All day basically playing outside instead of being in the classroom where I was singled out? Awesome. I was ready for it.
Then, one day leading up to track and field day, my adaptive gym teacher kept me after class. She looked at me and very seriously told me, “I just have to let you know that on track and field day, you’re not going to be able to win a red, white or blue ribbon.”
I was shocked and hurt, but managed to ask why.
"Because we have to modify some of the events."
She must have seen how close to tears I was. Don’t forget, I was only 9 years old. I had so few opportunities to DO physical things with my classmates, much less to get rewarded for it, that this was crushing for me.
Then, came the worst part. Trying to mollify me, she said, “But you can still earn a red, yellow or blue sticker!”
I felt humiliated. I went home, and battled tears for hours until my sister asked me what was wrong. I made her promise not to tell our parents. Then, I told her that I couldn’t get ribbons on track and field day, only stickers.
She told our parents.
And when they came to talk to me, I was angry. It didn’t matter what they said, my adaptive gym teacher already made the decision.
To my parents’ credit, they went in and had a meeting the next morning with that teacher, after which, I was miraculously told I could earn ribbons.
I half-heartedly competed in track and field day and was rewarded with a variety of colored ribbons, which I accepted, but resented. I knew what they meant. I knew my parents had to go meet with my teacher and MAKE her give them to me. I hadn’t earned them. The thing that no one seemed to grasp is that I would have happily taken home a collection of red (lowest place) ribbons because I would have earned them honestly.
Though painful, there are lessons here. FIrst, if you are a young person with a disability and feel that you are being discriminated against, tell someone. Even if that person (or those people) discriminating against you are people in positions of authority. You deserve to be treated with the same respect every other person is treated with.
Also, to parents of kids with disabilities: pay attention and advocate for your child. Teach your child that it’s okay to say no to people in authority if they do something your child is not comfortable with. My parents are amazing. I’m so grateful to have them, and I’ll always remember my mom’s lesson in advocating for myself, and how both my parents refused to accept my being treated unequally.


  1. Read this because Mary Evelyn from What Do You Do, Dear? shared it, and I'm glad I did, because I can relate. Blatant special treatment or comments about my disability in the classroom used to embarrass the heck out of me, but most of the time, I worried about challenging authority. Looking back on it, the skill of telling someone you can do something yourself is one of the most important things a child can have. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Thanks for reading this! I've read several posts by you, too, and really relate to them! I remain super grateful for my mom's lesson on self-advocacy even if it was hard to understand and accept at the time. And you're welcome!