Ask anyone on the street to recount a story from their school days, and you’ll probably be met with a range of topics from just how terrible cafeteria food is to the time they were bullied incessantly by an archenemy taken straight from the pages of a comic book. For better or for worse, school is an integral part of the lives of so many in America. It is for most people some sort of idyllic land, halfway between childhood and adulthood, a place to grow, make friends, and learn. Or, at least, school administrators tell me, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Well, as a disabled person, I’ve grown very accustomed to not conforming to how things are supposed to be, much to the chagrin of those around me. I’m now in my ninth year of navigating the American public school system while using a mobility device (previously a scooter, now a power wheelchair) and over the years I’ve had to advocate on a whole range of topics regarding disability like there needs to be an automatic door button for me to access the restrooms independently or no, your idea of “inclusion week” is actually incredibly ableist.
It’s really not that hard not to interact with disabled students in a meaningful way—just treat us like humans, because that’s what we are! But my experiences have been hit or miss. Usually, I’m met with one of two reactions from the teachers and administrators who I have to educate on how to treat disabled students like me without being offensive.
The first reaction I get is my absolute favorite: allyship and understanding from teachers after I make a point. For example, recently, I was in rehearsal and having a conversation with my theater director about how to make my costume accessible to put on (tiny buttons would’ve never worked for me). The conversation was going fine until he referred to me as “differently-abled.” Cue the record scratch. My spine tightened and my voice dipped from light and easy to professional and cold. I started to do my whole spiel about how using that euphemism is offensive, since it erases my identity as a disabled person and forces me to conform to the ableist view that “disability” is bad and we should avoid naming it at all costs. I exhaled quickly, readying for another round of pointed explanations. Mercifully, I didn’t have to do this because he said “I get it. Your identity is yours to name, and I’ll refer to you the way you choose.”
My spine relaxed and the professionalism eased out of my voice as I did an internal happy dance. It may not seem like much, but that was an example of allyship to a student in the disability community because my director listened to my concern and then chose to respect me, an expert on my own disabled body and identity, instead of doubling down on his comment. Teachers, take note: being an ally doesn’t always have to be some grand gesture; something as simple as listening and changing your stance on an issue could be just as meaningful.
Another common reaction I get when advocating is the antithesis of the previous one: complete and utter apathy. Last year at my middle school the elevator broke, which was a complete disaster for me considering that I use a wheelchair and needed to use the elevator to access half of my classes. The school’s genius (I’m being sarcastic here) solution while they were waiting for it to be fixed was to have me sit in an empty classroom without my peers during instruction time doing independent learning (also known as busy work). When I explained to the principal that this wasn’t suitable because I wouldn’t be with my peers and I was not getting educated to the fullest extent of the school’s duties, he shrugged and attempted to placate me, but basically told me there was nothing he could do.
Fuming, I wrote the superintendent a strongly worded letter detailing the events of the day and explaining how the school had failed me. The letter did the trick, and the following week classes were moved downstairs so I could participate, which was good, albeit too late. I recognize that not everyone is going to understand the complex concept of allyship right away, and as an advocate, I’m happy to educate further if needed. But I shouldn’t have to expend so much energy advocating to get you to listen to me and treat my problems with the respect they deserve.
Allyship is important and helps combat the apathetic reactions that are all too common. Being an ally to the disability community is a complex dance of knowing when to speak up and when to keep quiet so disabled people can share their experiences. But anyone can become an ally—even you!—by taking the time to listen.