Defining ‘disability’ can be a slippery thing. There are definitions government agencies use for the purpose of demographic studies and addressing requests for reasonable accommodations. Workplaces, educational institutions, hospitals, and long-term care facilities use their own definitions, and within the disability rights movement, there are many ways to conceptualise disability. This is not, in other words, an identity and experience that can be summed up with a single dictionary entry.
For me, disability, both when I talk about it broadly and in terms of an identity I apply to myself, refers to something that interferes or interacts with the way you engage with the world. It may be physical, it may be cognitive, it may be nonevident. It can be transitory or permanent. It can be acquired or congenital. The same impairment can occur in varying degrees of severity, and two people with an identical impairment may not necessarily agree on whether it’s a disability and whether they identify as such. Some mentally ill people consider themselves disabled. Others identify with the mad pride movement. Some autistic people identify as disabled. Others prefer to consider themselves neurodiverse — and some conceptualise their identities as a blend of both.
In addition to affecting you, disability can interact with the people around you. And it’s something that people should receive accommodations for, on the basis of legal precedent, human rights, and basic respect. Disabled people are people. They have a right to fully engage with society, and to be accommodated if they have specific needs. Thus buildings need ramps so wheelchairs can access them. Walk signals on pedestrian crossings need auditory alerts for blind and low vision people. Schools need to provide more time on tests for people with developmental, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities. People should not be fired for being mentally ill.
A disability may interact and interfere with the way someone navigates the world, but it should not be used as an excuse for the world to shunt that person out, or to shutter a disabled person away. Yet, this happens on a daily basis, and not just in the sense of being denied legal accommodations. Disabilities are belittled and mocked, disabled people are cut out of social settings, people are skeptical about whether something constitutes a ‘real’ disability or about whether someone who identifies as disabled is really entitled to wear the label. These things can collide in very ugly ways.
In August, students brought a lawsuit against Compton Unified School District. They argued that PTSD as a result of childhood trauma — like seeing classmates murdered, enduring sexual assault, being homeless, witnessing domestic violence, and enduring police brutality — constituted a disability and that they needed to be accommodated, as is their legal right. The students and their advocates accuse the school district of effectively punishing them rather than providing them with services — setting children back a grade or more, sending them to different schools, and engaging in other activities that betrayed a lack of understanding and respect for the effects of PTSD on learning and childhood development. Many of the students involved had experienced trauma from a very young age, something that has a lasting effect on physical and mental health, and many were also people of colour.
The school district’s decision to penalise students rather than addressing their needs reflects a complicated and disturbing confluence of circumstances. PTSD, to begin with, is often invalidated, and notably, some people believe it’s limited to veterans, rather than being a problem that affects people with a variety of experiences. If someone experiences trauma and it’s followed by nightmares, stress responses, anxiety, depression, and other changes in mental health status, that person is experiencing PTSD. It needs to be treated. That person needs to find a mental health provider and also needs appropriate accommodations — like more time on tests or a supportive classroom environment that addresses anxiety and stress.
PTSD is not the only mental health condition students of colour struggle with, nor is it the only disability. Students of colour are more likely to be disabled overall, and many experience learning disabilities that go undiagnosed. Instead of being identified, these disabilities become tools of punishment, as when students perform poorly on tests and teachers never stop to ask if perhaps they have learning disabilities. Or when students act distressed or engage in erratic behaviour, and no one considers whether they might have mental illnesses or cognitive disabilities. Among white students, these disabilities are identified and addressed. Among students of colour, they become another tool of oppression.
Thus, this case of students with PTSD arguing for accommodations cannot be viewed in a vacuum. It is a situation about disability, the rejection of PTSD as a serious disability that needs accommodation, and a lack of understanding on the part of the district. But it’s also about race, and how people of colour endure more trauma, have a higher risk of mental health conditions, and are underdiagnosed with intellectual, cognitive, and developmental disabilities along with mental illnesses. Some of this stems from societal ignorance and the assumption that students of colour are lazy or poorly disciplined rather than in need of help, but some of it also stems from an understandable skepticism on the part of historically oppressed communities when it comes to seeking treatment. Subjects like mental health are loaded with complicated issues in communities of colour and many white authorities don’t take the time to learn about how cultural contexts affect the lives of the students they interact with — instead, their solution is to punish students rather than reaching out a helping hand, effectively sentencing them to a life of being constantly behind and depriving them of a fair chance at education.
The fact that we are debating whether PTSD is a disability in the first place is a huge problem. The fact that race, the elephant in the room, isn’t being addressed here is also a huge problem, because the two are intertwined. Compton Unified isn’t just depriving disabled students of accommodations, but actively compounding racial imbalances in education and society.
Image: US Department of Education, Flickr