From the age of eighteen months to age nine, I went to a school solely for disabled kids. There we had students who were toddlers through the age of twenty two with various disabilities and health issues. We frequently had assemblies outside and school dances on our outside recreation area/sports court. I would sing at the assemblies and from there started to sing for groups in the wider community at age five.
The back door of our classroom led out to our play/recess area, which was sometimes used by other classes but was mostly ours. I loved this, being a girl who loved nature and solitude as well as small group play. Our class had about 7 to ten students in general, and this was perfect for my very introverted self. Though mostly we were all close in age by a few years, there were no classes grouped by exact age and so we would sometimes have teenagers in our classes for the year or beyond.
I had, therefore, no concept of age grouping or the concept of “grades” as a way to measure performance. I was confused when grownups asked me, “What grade are you in?” When I started to be asked this around age 6, my mom would tell people what my grade equivalent was. As I grew to understand what she meant, I would say “There are no grades at my school” I made this my stock response but did not really understand people’s surprise. It all made sense to me; we all were just people going to school and spending time together.
It wasn’t perfect and I had some bad experiences, too. But I really liked the freedom of the structure of this and think that we need more support spaces like it for disabled people. This experience has really led to my belief that people in general lose a lot when disabled people don’t spend time together.
I am all for inclusion that is not about teaching disabled people how to “be less disabled” or “life skills” that seemingly have no end because we don’t know how to include people as they are. I am all for honest inclusion that is natural and supported because we are all human. I am against making inclusion about “skill based social groups” that non disabled kids are not required to attend. We have to deal variations of this a lot, especially if we have developmental disabilities. I am against including disabled kids and teens less in places non disabled kids naturally spend time.
Above all, I am against the assumption that if disabled kids and teens hang out together, they will never learn to navigate “the real world” or get along with people who are not disabled. This is not true. There are more people without disabilities than those with them.
Nondisabled people are not so different that we can’t interact. Disabled people see and talk to non disabled people all the time. We don’t need tons of help and training to be able to do it. It’s just life. Instead, we need to be shown that it’s okay to spend time with and support one another during youth so we don’t tear each other up later on for being “too disabled” and hate ourselves because we can’t walk, talk, see, hear, stop stimming, or whatever it is we learn to feel shame about because everyone has been told disability is bad.
One of the main reasons I started the Disability Intersection was to build community and counter this idea. To honor both ability and disability as part of the same picture and push back against the idea that spending time with each other necessarily limits us.
Want to show disabled kids what’s possible for them? Help them find mentors with disabilities. Help them build community. Help them know they matter as they are. Know when to say “Enough is enough” to therapies and yes to natural movement, self directed goals/successes, authentic communication in daily settings, and self determination. They will be okay and they will thrive.
Want some help? I’d be honored to be part of it, too.