K-12 education: An introduction to ableism

The system fundamentally fails students with disabilities, specifically intellectual and developmental disabilities, and perpetuates structural ableism.

In discussions about K-12 education reform, disabled students are often an afterthought, yet represent a gaping hole in the system. I have documented my own struggles with higher education throughout the past year, and in doing so, have thought about other students with disabilities. It's often easier to simplify our struggles to a failure of a single school to accommodate individual students, but this ignores the big picture. It has become apparent to me that the system fundamentally fails students with disabilities, specifically intellectual and developmental disabilities, and perpetuates structural ableism.

I remember in elementary school, students with and without disabilities were integrated into the same classroom and then as the years passed, many with disabilities were placed in a separate classroom “for their own good.” It reminds me of the “separate but equal” Jim Crow rhetoric of the deep south decades ago, with schools introducing nondisabled and disabled students to ableism inadvertently.  

The physical separation is just a microcosm of the outright segregation. The only interaction between those in the self-contained classroom and the “regular” students is during passing periods, lasting only seconds. It reinforces the situation where the institutions set out to give children chances to succeed academically and socially but do the opposite, where schools produce and reproduce social, economic, political and cultural Inequalities -- the very thing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr warned against in his 1965 speech at Syracuse University.

But this circle of inequity is caused by a one-size-fits-all approach to American education. Students are expected to take math, science, English and history classes in high school, and if a student cannot, then they won't succeed in life. The main purpose of schools has been to create the human capital necessary for a healthy economy. And because society largely views people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as liabilities, there's little investment in those students. People like me aren't set up to take advantage of what we can do; it's constantly about what we can't do. It's about how unproductive people perceive us to be, not how we have potential that shines when we are in the right situations.

What would happen if at age 14 -- the age at which students must be included in their IEP meetings and natural start of high school, -- students with disabilities were able to shift the trajectory of their education? Maybe learning trigonometry or reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” isn't the most ideal for some students, but what if they were able to hold jobs at the local grocery store with an assistant from the school beside them? Section 300.1 (a) and section 300.43 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act calls on schools to provide transition services for disabled students to prepare them for further education, employment or community living. It adds that the services should be based on student strengths and interests. I fear that these well-intentioned guidelines are incomplete, however. In my eyes, they side with the schools rather than the students, ultimately allowing schools to do what's best for them instead of empowering students and their families to dictate what's best. 

For some reason, it's difficult for educators and policymakers to understand that disabled students have the potential to be future workers for communities. Nondisabled people often only experience disabled people as vulnerable, whether in the media or elsewhere, perpetuating the belief that we are less-than-human. This is exactly where the system fails us. As James Baldwin wrote in 1963, the purpose of education is “to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not, to ask questions of the universe and then learn to live with those questions.” Baldwin argues students will forge an identity through those questions. 

In this way, the system fails disabled students. It has always frustrated me how schools begin working with students with disabilities assuming, or expecting, they will remain in high school until age 21 -- which they are allowed to do under IDEA. I always ask, why does it have to be that way? It's not that students with disabilities benefit from the additional years of high school; remaining in high school is often a matter of delaying adulthood and the need for additional services. But it's vital that we change the system to make transition services part of the high school experiences. That means spending students’ high school years either finding ways individual students with disabilities will learn best and what they may need in college or working with students’ strengths to get them into the local workforce and setting them up to succeed in ways that best suit them. We need our schools and our education system to be accountable for the outcomes with disabled students arrive at after high school.