This is for Blogging Against Disablism Day. Be sure to check out other BADD posts.
When I was in high school, I would occasionally mention I had at one point been in Special Education (‘Special-Ed’ for short). I did this because I found the results amusing – nobody would believe me. I was “smart” and Special-Ed is only for “[r-word]”. I, of course, knew that I was telling the truth.
I forget exactly when I was in Special-Ed, but I think it was when I was 4-5 years old. In the first draft of this post, I said why I was placed in Special Ed, but I decided to cut that out, because that is not relevant at all to what I want to talk about today. All you need to know is that I was there, and that it was appropriate that I was there – it was not a mistake.
This was one of the first times I had regular social contact with other children my age. Thus, I was a (mostly) blank slate when it came to peer relations. I thought all of the kids in my class were totally ordinary, and even when I review my memories, all of my classmates from special-ed still seem totally ordinary to me. I didn’t think of them as disabled children, or children with problems, or being tragic in any way, shape, or form – I simply thought that they were themselves.
When my parents talk about their memories of the special-ed class, it sounds very different from what I remember. They focus on all of the problems that the children had – for example, one of my friends had severe lead-poisoning. I didn’t know that at the time – I only found out that she had lead-poisoning many years later when my parents talked about her. My father has said that the class made him scared of having more children, because he said the class showed him many of the “awful” things which can happen. I think he also said that he would have wanted an abortion if he thought his child would have some of the problems my classmates had. When I heard these statements, they sounded really strange to me, because I had never thought of my classmate’s conditions as being “awful”.
For a while, I regularly visited one my classmates from special-ed at the hospital. Even the fact that he was in hospital 24/7 did not make me think he was strange or in a tragic state – I simply thought “he’s in the hospital near our home? Great, we can spend lots of time together”. When we played together in the hospital, he didn’t seem like he was suffering. I still do not know why he was in the hospital, though if I really wanted to know I could ask my parents.
However, in the many years since I have left special-ed, I have been immersed in an ableist society. I’m not the blank slate I once was. And I know that I cannot ever again look at people with disabilities the way I looked at my classmates. Even when I try to fight the ableist attitudes I have absorbed, it is a struggle – the ableist attitudes are still there inside me.
The thing which makes me really sad is that, if I could take a time machine back to my special-ed classroom, the first thing I would do is try to figure out my classmates ‘problems’ and then label them accordingly. If I were to encounter them anew, I would not be able to see them as plain human beings the way I did when I was a child.
This is a very thought-provoking post. When you think of ablism as a learned behaviour (which makes sense), and your responses to your classmates as a child as the way we naturally see people…it really begs the question of, “What changes?” and “What do we change about society to keep that child-like way of perceiving people alive?” Lots to ponder…
I think those are excellent questions. I wish my childhood memories were clearer so that it would be easier to figure out an answer to the first question.
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