Disabled Students are Not Chess Pieces

Were you aware that schools can (and do) transfer disabled students at will? Whatever they call the policy in the given district, the justification for it is that schools need to transfer disabled students to where they will be best-served, including out of district, if necessary. On the surface, this seems both reasonable and wise — no student should be deprived of the right to an education, and no student should be put in a compromised classroom with people who cannot provide adequate support. Disabled students have a right to learn in a safe, structured environment just like everyone else, right?

Such transfer policies, though, have a number of problems. The first is that disabled students, like their nondisabled counterparts, make friends and establish relationships with other students, staff, and teachers. Like any kid, they’re upset at the thought of being ripped away from an environment they know and being placed into an unfamiliar one, filled with people, places, and stresses that weren’t present elsewhere. Especially for disabled kids, connections with teachers and aides are critical, because they understand the student, and can head off problems at the pass.

An aide who knows a student, for example, is familiar with her needs and can anticipate them, rather than forcing the student to struggle to articulate them — they may have a working relationship that’s lasted for years. For students who rely on communication boards or struggle to communicate, having to reestablish that can be frustrating, especially if they don’t fully understand¬†why¬†they were transferred. This can cause students to act out, or shut down, withdrawing from the world around them because they feel confused, and think someone is punishing them.

Likewise, experienced teachers and aides know what triggers their students, how to help them with tasks like homework, and how to keep them engaged in the classroom. Whether they specialise in education for disabled students or they work in mainstreamed classroom, they know their kids — and they pass on that knowledge when their students transition to new classrooms. Similarly, fellow students get to know each other and support each other, creating a mutually productive environment that leads to better learning experiences and fewer disruptions in the classroom.

Imagine being ripped away from your classroom repeatedly, with no explanation or a limited explanation, and no chance to discuss the issue or appeal it. This isn’t just hard on kids, but also on parents, who suddenly have to deal with transportation arrangements to a new school, changes of aides, teachers, and other support staff, and more, often on very limited warning. Parents of disabled children are often put in the position of having to be aggressive advocates to support their kids through school, and it can take weeks, months, and years to build up a good working relationship with a school; a change of school means a new IEP, means meeting new staff members, means familiarising yourself with the system all over again.

It also means worrying about your kid. Changes in venue could place your kid on a bus with an abusive bus driver or kids. It could mean that your child is placed in a classroom where she’s abused — maybe she’s subjected to restraint and seclusion, or screamed at, or otherwise mistreated by teachers, school personnel, and fellow students. Because disabled students are so vulnerable, there are special concerns and considerations when it comes to the potential for abuse, and parents are right to be concerned, given how frequent reports of abuse are. While we’d all like to believe that teachers and staff are in it for the love of teaching, not all of them are, and some are burned out, stressed out, and not suited to the job of dealing with children, particularly disabled children, who can present some unique challenges in the classroom, depending on the nature of their disabilities.

Furthermore, it suggests that disabled children can and should be shuffled around to suit the needs of the adults around them, which is unfair, and unequal. Separate but equal doesn’t work in the case of school services or anywhere else. Schools shouldn’t be allowed to shunt off disabled students to avoid responsibility, to bring test scores up, or for any other reason. Instead, full and comprehensive funding should be provided to help all schools welcome all disabled students — because disabled students, like everyone else, deserve an education and shouldn’t have their choices narrowed by poor accessibility. All schools should be fully emotionally, physically, and educationally accessible to all students, period.

The fact that disabled students are considered little more than pawns is a telling reminder of the place of disability in society. If you can pass as nondisabled or perform suitably, you’ll probably fly under the radar, and be allowed to mingle with the nondisabled children, receiving access to the best education a school can offer (speaking of which, all schools should be offering an excellent education in clean, healthy, spacious facilities with enthusiastic, well-compensated teachers and staff who are passionate about their work and their kids). If you have an evident disability, particularly one that involves cognitive, intellectual, or physical impairments, you will be put on the back burner, and you’ll be treated like garbage throughout your school career.

Disabled students have a right to an education. They do not deserve to be moved about like chess pieces to satisfy the needs of school districts. Like other students, they are entitled to support and accommodation at the schools they attend — and to deny these things is to deny the basic humanity of disabled people.

Image credit: Fighting Stance, Daniel Lee, Flickr.