Public Schools and Disability Do Not Mix

27 05 2010

High School can be a difficult time for anyone. It’s made exponentially more difficult for anyone who deviates from the so-called typical student.

My 14 year old sister and I both have Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. I was not present for most of high school and part of middle school because my schools were unwilling to accommodate my visual and physical disabilities. There were a couple of teachers who failed me because I was physically unable to do the work, and it continues to affect my performance now in college. I was hoping my sister would not have to follow the same path I was forced down, but I can see it’s already happening.

I have not taken gym since elementary school, since I had many eye surgeries in that time and any head trauma could have caused serious problems. The same accommodations have not been provided for my sister. She is instructed to inform her gym teacher when she is in a flare, or when she is in pain to excuse her from gym, thereby granting ableist educators even greater power over a disabled student. If they choose to believe her, she sits on the sidelines for class, but if the decide to exercise their power, she is forced to participate and endure 43 minutes of excruciating pain, or take an F for the day.

People with invisible disabilities are often questioned aas to whether or not they’re really disabled. Because if you aren’t in a wheelchair, or wear sunglasses and use a cane, you’re just lying for the attention. When it comes to invisible physical disabilities that involve chronic pain, such as JRA, it is often assumed that we are just lazy people.

In the state of New Jersey, one is required to complete four years of gym in order to graduate high school, unless there is a medical condition preventing them from doing so. I was prohibited from participating in gym, so I was exempt. However, my sister has that special provision saying she can participate, except when she’s in pain. She is currently failing gym for the year, because her ableist gym teacher wants her to “work through the pain.”

That’s right. When the nurse wraps her angle in bandages and puts ice on it, her gym teacher (who apparently moonlights as a Pediatric Rheumatologist) feels it is important for her to play kickball, instead of resting her ankle. This is not only ableist, but also a case of disability policing. The teacher in question walks with a cane and uses a wheelchair at times. But I guess since Arianna does not use an assistive device, her illness is less legitimate.

Failing a class in high school can have a terrible affect on one’s future prospects. Students with disabilities are at a greater risk for failing classes because teachers are a product of their society. Whether you’re a trans girl or boy, a child of colour, poor, or in this case, a student with disabilities, you will not be allowed to thrive and grow within the confines of the public school system.




4 responses

30 05 2010
Kateryna Fury

Does she have an IEP? I know that IEPs are usually reserved for children whose disabilities effect their school work but oh wait that is this case. If not try and advocate with your parents so that she can have this set up. Try and get her Rhuematologist to write a letter to the school telling them that she needs to be exempt from gym, as this treatment is likely to cause long term damage.

I’ve been there too, and now I do use a chair, mostly because of working through the pain as the enabled call it (TABs etc). If those ideas don’t work look for a local advocate, because the school is violating her rights. It may take sueing them with an advocacy group to get this fixed but the odds are she is also not the only student who is being effected by discrimination in this manner, though I suspect that matters less because she is your sister and you would move the world for her correct?

30 05 2010

She has an IEP. Since I posted this, Arianna had a meeting with her guidance counsellor and her child study team case manager and they said they would “deal with” the teacher. She has her annual IEP meeting sometime this week, and I’m certain this issue will come up. Hopefully, it will be finished after this point, and she will not have this gym teacher anymore.

As for getting exempt from gym entirely, I don’t see that happening. Maintaining some level of physical activity is important (when you’re not in pain, that is) for people with JRA, and our Rheumatologist wants her to continue with gym while she still can.

What needs to happen here (and what should be happening for every student with disabilities) is that before the start of every year (or quarter, or term) there needs to be a meeting between student, teachers and support staff to discuss what the student can and cannot do. If this had happened, I don’t think the situation would have escalated to the point where she’s failing a class now.

30 05 2010
Kateryna Fury

Excellent! I agree that there should be meetings like you stated. I had that one year growing up and it was the only year of school I actually enjoyed. It may have still reached an escalation point if the teacher is truly out to get disabled students, but then by having the meeting it would take less escalation for her to receive support.

Does her school have a pool? She could have modified gym, where she does things like swimming that are less strenuous on her body, if any activities still are at this point. I always try to trust doctors but if the teacher isn’t going to let her stop when she needs to then sometimes it takes the doctor doing more than relying on the teacher (as you obviously know) and outside physical therapy may be needed.

Good luck!

30 06 2010

As a New Jersey public school student until fairly recently and former-and-always disabled person: fuck. this. shit. You and your sister have my best wishes!

Also, I realize how useless IEPs can be at times…

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