The Rights of Disabled Students

I’ve been spotting a number of stories lately about the abuse of disabled children in the classroom, including not just the usual infuriating coverage of the use of restraint and reclusion in US schools, but blood-curdling tales about teachers rampantly ignoring IEPs, force-feeding children hot sauce, sending kids to the ER for ‘acting up,’ slapping and hitting students, and more. And I duly cover this news, even as I feel my blood slowly boiling beneath my skin every time I’m reading yet another story about children undergoing some horrible torment at the hands of adults. Adults who are supposed to not only provide them with a safe, nurturing environment, but with a place where they can learn things.

It’s a stark reminder of the fact that many people do not think disabled children actually deserve access to education. This is perhaps not surprising, since many people don’t even think disabled people are human; if you don’t think an entire class of people is part of humanity, obviously you’re not going to understand why they deserve basic human rights like an education and the right to live without fear. The only way we’re going to address the problem of abuse of disabled students is to get people to admit that disabled people are human beings.

Education is a universal human right. All people should have access to a safe, high-quality, productive, equitable education that provides them with the tools they need for success, including the ability to continue through to higher education, should they so desire. (I mean here not just the academic ability, but also the financial, social, and practical ability; students deserve access to college and university just as they do to schools at the lower level, because education is intrinsically valuable and everyone who wants it should get it.)

That includes disabled people. And that includes, thus, providing education in an accessible format, accommodating disabled people who are attending school. Sometimes that’s something simple: offering interpretation for a d/Deaf student, for example, or making sure that auditory and/or Braille materials are provided for a blind or low vision student. Some students benefit from having an aide to help them with classroom tasks, organizing, homework, and more.

I went through much of school with a student who had a developmental disability and he was mainstreamed as part of the classroom, which meant his aide came with him. Was he doing all of the same kinds of tasks we were? No. Did his aide work with him on augmentative and facilitative communication so that we, the class members, could establish communication with him and approach him as an equal, rather than a freak to gawk at? Yes. Did he sometimes grunt or squeak or make other unexpected noises in class? Yes, he did, and they were dealt with like any other class disruption. We learned quickly not to make a big deal out of them, and his interjections became part of the classroom rhythm.

He was treated as a human being. And the fury of my third grade teacher never came down so righteously as the time another student made fun of him, and she made it crystal clear that he was a fellow person, and that he was to be treated with dignity and respect. When an otherwise very mild-mannered, easy-going, long-haired hippie who had us doing poetry circle and peace hour disciplined that student in front of the entire class, she was sending a clear message to the rest of us about how this was going to be, and it was a lesson that stuck with me for the rest of my life.

She and the many hardworking teachers like her are sadly trapped in a system where many others don’t share the basic and fundamental understanding that disabled people are human beings. Instead, disabled students are treated as nuisances and sources of frustration. Their basic needs for accommodation are considered a burden, and they’re shunted around a series of isolated classrooms, sometimes even pushed from school to school, rather than being dealt with on a basic interpersonal level, the precise level many of those students need.

There’s this bizarre attitude that disabled people are subhuman, useless lumps, and then the very people who deprive disabled students of the tools they could use to interact with the world are surprised when they have trouble…interacting. It’s like yelling at someone for refusing to speak English when you’ve been steadfastedly kicking her out of English class over and over again and she was raised speaking a foreign language. She’s a human being, she just comes from a different background, a different place, and if you deny her the right to interact, to learn, to explore, you can’t act shocked when she shuts down, gets frustrated, perhaps even acts out. You’re not working to learn to communicate in her language, and you’re preventing her from learning yours.

I live in a country where disabled people undergo horrific abuses in institutions all over, including not just schools but prisons, jails, ‘care’ facilities, and more, and these abuses stem from the idea that disability is Other, and disabled people are something not quite human, not quite there, not quite real. The persistence of these ideas is what’s led to the idea that such treatment is not just acceptable, but normal, and to be expected; after all, ‘they’ are only cripples, right?