The Dragonfly Forest

They have been given names such as devil’s darning needle, ear sewer, horse stinger, skeeter hawk, and the snake’s servant. Actually, Dragonflies are beneficial, peaceful, and stunning. You are a Dragonfly if you are: ADD/ADHD, dyslexic, dysgraphic, Asperger’s, NLVD, autistic…

Sunday, August 6, 2017

How students with disabilities are discriminated against in schools - the problem: Ableism

This article is to help you understand that people with disabilities (visible & invisible) are discriminated against and it needs to STOP. 

The REAL problem with our education system isn’t the common core curriculum but ableism.  Ableism like any other “ism” is the belief that abled people are superior to disabled people and the only way to do things (learn, read, walk, see, hear…) is the non-disabled way.  Ableism is a form of prejudice that is not only overlooked but tolerated, condoned, and defended.  

Think about it - how often do schools teach and celebrate people with disabilities?  When schools address diversity they avoid or disregard the diversity of disabilities (actually a form of ableism). 

School districts proudly state they have a culture and climate that supports inclusion but this is not reality until we openly embrace people of all kinds of disabilities.  

I wrote this article to help you understand ableism in our schools.  Here is a great litmus test – if you replace a person’s color, religion, or gender with a disability in a situation you will come to realize that schools are discriminating against students with disabilities.

·        In order for a student with a disability to receive an appropriate education there must be proof he has a disability.  Race and gender are no longer allowed to be used to deny a student an education but if a student with a disability does not meet the school’s eligibility requirements then he is denied an education.
For example, Jane has dyslexia which makes it hard for her to decode and keep up with her peers in reading.  Jane did not qualify for special education services because she is passing her subjects and her standardized tests scores are “average.”  The school denies her an evidence based reading program (explicit, systematic, phonics based approach) and requires her to learn to read via programs conducive to only non-dyslexic peers.  Umm Ableism!

·        School systems and even some parents tend to focus on “fixing” the student with a disability instead of creating educational environments conducive for all students with disabilities.  The problem lies in the belief that something is wrong with the student with a disability because they do not fit into the ‘abled’ school or society setting. 
For example, Jack not only has learning disabilities but he also experiences anxiety (often this is a result of years of discrimination, being made to feel something is wrong with them, and not being educated appropriately).  Teachers (and other adults) believe that Jack should learn information in the way they are teaching and function like his non-disabled peers.  These assumptions cause teachers to focus on “fixing” Jack by forcing him to do things their way – be it eye-reading, handwriting assignments/test, speaking in front of others…  The goal is to create an all new Jack, one that looks, acts, and learns like his non-disabled peers.  Is this okay?  How would you feel if white teachers focused on teaching African American students how to look, act, and behave white so they would “fit in?” 

·        Referring to a person having a disability as just having a ‘difference’ is abilism.  Using the label of ‘difference’ does NOT take away the disability.  Instead of empowering a person by using the word ‘difference’ the person is actually being marginalized.  When students are told about their disability and it is acknowledged, they experience less shame.  Students with disabilities are well aware of how different they are from their non-disabled peers.  Minimizing their disabilities as just a ‘difference’ causes students with disabilities more difficulties.  Often it is a parent pushing for the label of ‘difference’ because the parent is struggling to come to terms with their child not being ‘normal.’  “See my child isn’t abnormal she is just different.”  The same can be said for the person who refers to themselves as not having a disability but only having a ‘difference.’  Denying the disability is the same as denying one’s gender or race – we are what we are! - Learn why the word disability is better!

·        School counselors and teachers tend to believe that a good way to include students with disabilities is to have a “Buddy” program where non-disabled students are paired up with students with disabilities.  Hmm, let’s put this program to the test- would it be appropriate to assign non-white students a white “buddy” so they can be included in the majority white mainstream culture?  NO, this would be racist! 

·        Anti-bullying programs are everywhere (which are actually counterproductive by the way – here’s what works better).  Sadly, students with disabilities are often the target in bullying situations and school staff members condone the behaviors of the bullies.  If the student being bullied does not fit in as ‘normal’ than these students are blamed for causing the problem.  Parents of students with Asperger’s or on the Autism Spectrum are often told by school counselors and teachers that the student would benefit from social skills counseling.  The goal here is to get the student with a disability to fit in so THEY no longer are the target to the bullying behaviors.  What if a student was being bullied because of his religion?  Would it be appropriate to tell the parents of a Jewish student they need to take their child to counseling so the child can learn ways to fit in with his Christian peers?  

·        School districts require students to learn a foreign language but most refuse to offer American Sign Language as an option.  Students with learning disabilities especially language processing disabilities and dyslexia struggle with learning the English language but are forced to participate in classes were they will not be successful and are informed that no accommodations or modifications can be provided (I’ve been told this one personally).  This is actually discrimination.  When parents request their child be provided a more appropriate course, parents are told they must find and pay for the course themselves.  What happened to free and appropriate education here?  Furthermore, isn’t the school supposed to be a safe environment for students?  By forcing students with disabilities that impede their ability to learn a foreign language to meet foreign language requirements the school district is causing unnecessary emotional distress. (Universities like Yale even exempt students with dyslexia from the foreign language requirement - taking foreign culture instead so why can't high schools?)

·        When teachers tell parents that Little Johnny would be doing much better in class if he could just stay focused is ablism.  Little Johnny has ADHD and he does not need cured with medication or more discipline.  What Little Johnny needs is understanding and accommodations.  Telling him to “just try harder” is discrimination.  Assuming he is lazy is abilism – he has a disability and yet he is expected to behave as if he is ‘normal.’   Negative comments like these are actually attacking Little Johnny’s self-esteem and in turn makes the ADHD worse.  Students with anxiety, depression, and other disabilities experience more negative judgments than their non-disabled peers.  Instead of embracing and understand the individual students, school staff members are discriminating against the students who don’t fit in or are more difficult to teach.  Hmm what if school staff members said these judgmental comments to students based on their race, gender, or religion?

Are you aware that inclusion is NOT really inclusion and here are some examples of students with disabilities being excluded:

Did you know that students with disabilities that require them to receive more individualized support for their disability are excluded from extracurricular classes such as art, gym, music, or even recess.  These classes and activities are a great way for students to interact with each other, build social skills, self-esteem, and feel included.  Research has shown that the social and emotional health of students with and without disabilities has a direct impact on their academic success. A school would never be allowed to use race, gender, or religion to exclude a student from classes and activities but do it daily to students with disabilities.

Furthermore, schools have a minimum GPA requirement for a student to participate in sports with no accommodation for students with disabilities. This is often a state rule but schools do have the power to make some adjustments based on the individual student.  Sometimes a student is trying exceptionally hard academically and they just can't meet the grade expectations so they are punished by not being allowed to participate in sports. Denying these students the opportunity to participate in sports because they are not successful academically is discrimination and ableism! The Department of Education agrees that students with disabilities should NOT be discriminated against and allowed to participate in sport. Furthermore even the NCAA understands that not all athletics will meet academic eligibility, here's an excerpt & link: "For academic eligibility purposes, the NCAA defines an education-impacting disability (EID) as a current impairment that has a substantial educational impact on a student's academic performance and requires accommodations." I have written frequently on how it is NOT okay for teachers and school districts to allow students to fail: Why are students failing if schools are required to provide a free and appropriate education? and Students don't fail, the education system is failing our students!

What you should be able to notice in this article is how able-entitlement is one of the problems.  When you are able – able to walk, read, talk, see… you assume that everyone else can do what you do and if they do things differently than they are doing them wrong.  You believe that your way is the best way despite research providing evidence to the contrary. 

School staff members must realize that ableism is a form of discrimination or prejudice against students with physical, mental, emotional, or intellectual disabilities.  Ableism is characterized by the belief that these students can be fixed, are not as capable as their non-disabled peers, and would be successful if they would only try harder, focus more, or learn in the way their peers are learning.

School districts boast that they are opening and accepting of all students, celebrate diversity, recognize multicultural concerns, and have a mission to facilitate maximum learning for every student.  Sadly students with disabilities are excluded in all ways.   

Finally, as a person who focuses on the positive and strength of the student I have no problem with the term disability but I prefer to use appropriate labels – Autism, Asperger’s, Anxiety, ADHD, Depression, Dyslexia, Dysgraphia….   Teach students to work to their strength and stop trying to make them all fit into a mold of ‘normal.’   When teaching about diversity include people with disabilities.  Remember excluding or ignoring students with disabilities IS ableism.