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.