Imagine climbing Mt. Everest and making it to the bottom after weeks of the hardest work of your life, teary eyed because you did it, and then being told that it didn’t count because you needed oxygen. What your body provided you with wasn’t enough for the high altitude of Everest. Even though you trained, you tried, and you did the thing, it wasn’t enough. You stand around at the end watching everyone else being congratulated and praised and you stand there confused because didn’t you finish too? Didn’t you climb the same mountain…make the same journey? You did. But it somehow wasn’t enough.
So, you’re standing there wondering why your journey wasn’t worth the praise, even though it took everything in you to finish it. And then it hits you. The oxygen. But you’re still confused because everyone needs oxygen to climb Everest. Your physically can’t do it without it. Your body needs it to keep going and make it to the end. So, you ask the person in charge. The one who hands out the medals, the one who makes the rules. “Why wasn’t I enough? I climbed the mountain.” He looks at you with a sigh and says, “The oxygen…your body needed a little more than we like our climbers to use. Sorry, but it doesn’t count.”
You finished the greatest challenge of your life, literally defied the odds of things that your body should be capable of doing, and they said it wasn’t enough.
A new scenario. You’re in high school and you have an intellectual disability. You might have Autism or Down Syndrome, or whatever else you can imagine in this scenario. You started school when you were 3 years old and got all of the T’s (speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, behavioral therapy. So many T’s). You went through elementary school, middle school, and high school in a “life-skills” program, where you learned all of the things people learn in school…English, math, science, social studies, AND more. You went out into the community and had work experiences, worked in your school cleaning the cafeterias and picking up recycling, and learned life skills that a lot of other students graduate without learning. Since you have a disability, you stay in school until you’re 21, so that you can soak up all of the knowledge you can during school. And let’s be real…there’s not that many opportunities for a person with a disability after the school bus stops coming. At this point, you’ve been in school for 18 years. You’ve been in school longer than your peers, and you’ve had to work harder than them too. After so much time and so much effort, you finally get to walk across the stage and your effort is all worth it. You’ve climbed your Everest! Except…the oxygen. Because you have a disability, you needed extra supports in order to learn and in order to make it to the finish line. And because of those supports, that your body and mind needed in order to be able to go through school and do all of the things required of you, the people in charge tell you that it’s not enough. You’re left with nothing but a piece of paper that says, “Congratulations! You attended school for 18 years! Good luck with your (sans diploma) life!” Nothing for your efforts, nothing to help your future, nothing, nothing, nothing.
Unfortunately, this is a reality that so many people with disabilities face every year. Imagine the heartache for not only them, but their parents and siblings. Years of sitting at the kitchen table doing homework, years of IEP meetings, and for what? A piece of paper that says their child attended school? Students with disabilities often learn job skills and independent living skills, and things that are all so wonderful and that really do matter. But without a high school diploma, what is there to do? What is all of the job training for?
As a teacher, a sister, and a friend to people with disabilities, this is appalling to me. I see my students work hard everyday, with such a desire to learn and to do good. And we’re, as a society, okay with the fact that after all of their effort, all of the years of learning, and all of the years of the many, many T’s is for nothing but a piece of paper confirming their attendance? I’m always surprised to see just how many people are not aware of this sad fact. That our state is robbing students with disabilities of what they rightfully worked for and earned. This isn’t a federal mandate. This isn’t the case in other states. South Carolina needs to do better, and give people with disabilities the opportunities that they’ve earned.
I’ve heard the arguments. “But they can’t do the work.” “They will never be able to hold a job anyways.” I say that these are terrible excuses. Don’t students without disabilities have opportunities for extra help when they can’t do the work? After school tutoring? Summer school? The sad fact is that even when it is a case of students not not being about to do the work, but students just not doing the work, they’re still given the opportunities they need to succeed. What about the students who can’t do the work but try their hardest each and every day? After being beaten down the day before and showing up the next day ready to try again? Where is the line drawn between differentiation and the help students need to succeed, and too much help? Isn’t differentiation the job of not just special education teachers, but all teachers?
As a teacher, I see a lot of students with a lot of varying abilities. If there is anything that I have learned for certain, it’s that a disability diagnosis means absolutely nothing in regards to what a person can and can’t do and their ability to contribute to society. Why should a student’s academic weaknesses affect the number of opportunities that they will receive for the rest of their lives? Especially considering the fact that many of these academic skills that are holding them back are skills that they will never use in a work setting ever again.
Special education is still relatively new. We’ve come so far in the last 46 years, but that doesn’t mean the work is done. By any means. One person cannot change these injustices alone, but knowledge is power. And knowledge is gained by reading, talking, sharing, and seeking out information. My biggest hope is that those without disabilities educate themselves about the injustices that are still in place, and share the information with everyone they know. Every person deserves the right to have a good future. A good life. Disability rights are human rights, and this I will never stop preaching.