It was only last year when I was diagnosed with ADHD, clinical depression and anxiety. Quiet a package right? Well, I wasn’t surprised but my parents were. Growing up I was labeled as a “gifted kid” by my family, friends and teachers. When you are young, it is easy to understand yourself through others perceptions and as someone with very little self-concept, I latched onto my teachers and parents praises. I came at the top of my class every year even when I barely studied. I was the teacher’s pet and the ideal kid one could ask for. With my homework always finished, I was ready to do anything to get that extra validation from my favourite English teacher.
And then, high school happened. Not the ‘Gossip Girls’ kind but more like the cheaper sans glitter-makeup-Euphoria kind. From academics, co-curricular activities to friendship, I was a wreck. I didn’t have any clue why this sudden downfall happened but after my recent diagnosis and listening to anecdotes of other disabled friends, I learnt that school has a bigger role in our lives than we like to admit.
Most of us dismiss the impact of schooling in our lives and yet have nightmares about accidentally missing our exam till we are 25. We say “Who cares? We were all kids back then” and then get nervous about our appearance in public. As a disabled person, I have realised that my “adulting” problems are very much rooted in my school experience. The way I perceive myself and the way I define success can be credited to the time I spent in school. Thus, it was important for me to re-analyse this crucial part of my life, the twelve years that not only shaped me but also my experience of my disability.
It is an undeniable truth that our schooling system in inherently ableist, exclusionary and coercive. While people have come to realise the sexism and misogyny that goes on in schools, it is time for us to re-examine the foundation on which schools pride themselves.
Here are some of the ways in which the schooling system failed me and continues to do so for other disabled people,
The favourite word of every neuro typical adult is “discipline” which borrows from and in turn seeps into institutions like schools, colleges and workplaces.
My question is what exactly falls under discipline?
As a kid, I remember my fellow classmates get punished for the most insignificant things. The most obvious one I can remember is the concept of attendance.
We all remember how some kids who would get a certificate for hundred percent attendance. Ever wondered why?
Why should a child get rewarded for not falling sick or taking a break? It is as if you are training children to prioritise productivity or the institution they are part of over their own health, traces of which can be see in our workplaces where everyone wants to be busy or productive on all days. The worst part isn’t even this, it is the application that students need to show every time they are absent. As a kid, I was terrified of writing applications which meant making excuses for symptoms I had no control over, so I kept forcing myself to be regular, which ended up in me feeling burnt out by the time I was over with schooling.
I remember seeing my other immunocompromised friends getting scolded by teachers for being absent for long periods of time and their illness being called as an “excuse”.
The same approach was used with deadlines. There was absolutely no mercy. It was normal for teachers to assume the child was “lazy” if they didn’t submit their homework on time. After attending 8 long hours of schooling and a house environment which isn’t always guaranteed to be supportive, completing homework should not be a student’s first priority.
Another seemingly important thing that I remember myself struggling with was uniform and time-table. As a neuro divergent person, we do not have the luxury of memory or in simple words, “having our shit together”, so it is a common thing for us to lose our belongings, confuse the days and not have the right uniform prepared for the next day. However, schools continue to be strict about such trivial things which adds extra burden on disabled and otherwise socio-economically underprivileged students.
While teachers deserve every bit of respect and appreciation, it is important to admit the abuse of power they practice. Schools operate within a framework of unequal power dynamic and it is often the students who need sympathising. No matter how much a student annoys a teacher, nothing they say can impact a teacher, an adult’s self-image not to say this allows disrespect and rudeness. Teachers practice coercion when they force children in things like giving presentations, class participation and group projects often in the name of “socialising” or “personality development” which in actuality does nothing but harms a disabled person’s self-confidence.
Most people with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are horrible at socialising, making eye contact and a 15 minute long memorised presentation would probably be the last thing they would want to do. However, it is routine for teachers to often pick the one most hesitant or clueless student and force them to answer a question or give a presentation they evidently cannot.
This coercion extends to things like taking permission to drink water or go to washroom and fidgeting in class. A lot of people with anxiety and ADHD fidget, the latter do it more as it increases levels of neurotransmitters the same way medications do. However, once again disabled students’ tics or comfort habits are labeled as “indiscipline” or “bad behavior”—remarks that can be a severe blow to one’s self-esteem.
A child’s worst bully can sometimes be their teacher and I think we all can remember that one teacher in our school who thrived off of torturing children. A lot of the times teachers gang up with other classmates on a disempowered student or an outcast. There was always that one “dumb” kid teachers loved to make jokes about, and use as a bad example in front of the whole class.
I remember how teachers upon seeing someone zoning out or not paying attention would immediately stop the entire class and bring everyone’s attention to that kid. This kind of attitude is not only wrong but also contributes negatively to the disabled experience. Teachers are supposed to be understanding, accommodative and flexible. You cannot pick a favourite straight A, neuro typical student and expect everyone to follow their footsteps.
If a kid wants to eat or sleep in an ongoing lecture, ask them what’s wrong and give them a break. Don’t mock them for being human. If a child stutters when answering, help them finish their answer or frame it better for them because a lot of autistic and neuro divergent students have difficulty in making coherent sentences. If a student does not want to give a presentation or is afraid of exams, it is the teacher’s responsibility to come up with an alternative.
These are only a few examples of the many ways in which schools have ingrained ableism. The truth of the matter is that our education system is severely outdated and exclusionary. It is becoming a life-sucking system which reinforces and perpetuates the very inequalities we spend our life fighting. I do not want to be called “differently abled” or a person with “special needs”. I do not want to see disabled students struggle as teachers continue to use videos with no subtitles and schools conveniently forget elevators, ramps and including sign language in their curriculum.
I do not want disabled kids to feel like they are responsible for not being able to adjust in a world not made for them. Instead, I want a space that is deserving of their time and is warm enough to let them know that this world can always be a better place.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India