Walking into my elementary school for the first time, I was excited beyond belief. I moved through the halls just like the big kids. However, I noticed that everyone’s eyes turned to me, not because they loved my first-day outfit, despite my cool light-up shoes, but because I had a physical disability. I quickly felt self-conscious as I realized that I was different. Nobody looked like me. I stuck out like a sore thumb as I awkwardly toddled through the hallways while wearing my long-leg braces. My peers stared at my legs rather than listening to what I had to say. I couldn’t run with them on the playground or compete in the same activities in P.E. class. The school separated me from my non-disabled peers for something I couldn’t control. I tried resisting these feelings of helplessness I experienced as I watched my peers pass me by, but I knew that I would encounter that feeling of powerlessness for the rest of my education.
I was lucky because the education system deemed me smart enough and “normal” enough to behave within the socially acceptable standards of the classroom. My disabled peers were not so lucky and were hidden away in the special education wing of the school. Middle school was where I saw a drastic divide between the disabled and abled-bodied students. My disabled peers would join our classes in the morning for a brief lesson. Then they left and nobody saw them outside of the special education classroom for the rest of the day. Their learning and experiences would have been beneficial to all of us, but the structure of schools prohibited this.
This practice of segregating disabled students from the general school population dates back to the American eugenics movement of the early 20th century. Prominent eugenicist, Dr. Henry Herbert Goddard, popularized the use of intelligence testing to identify people who he claimed to be “feebleminded.” He believed society should institutionalize feebleminded people in order to stop the disabled from procreating and protect the strength of the American gene pool. Goddard used intelligence tests to test for feeblemindedness and those he believed were feebleminded were institutionalized at the New Jersey Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys in 1908. He later advocated for these tests to be used in public schools in order to weed out disabled children from the general school population. Eugenicists like Goddard argued for the creation of special education for the explicit purpose of identifying and segregating mentally disabled children. The normalization of segregating disabled students from their abled-bodied peers perpetuates these harmful eugenic ideas into current classrooms. While one-on-one teaching can be beneficial for disabled students, the failure to integrate them into mainstream school culture is harmful for both disabled and abled-bodied students.
Through the segregation of disabled students, teachers and peers miss out on important opportunities to grow in their understanding of disability. Regardless of my willingness to discuss disability in an educational setting, teachers ignored me completely whenever their lesson briefly intersected with disability. A teacher once told me that she didn’t want to trigger me during a lesson about a disabled girl so that’s why she never called on me. I appreciated this caution and recognition, but it also prevented a real-life learning experience for myself and my peers. I remember sitting and feeling my skin crawl as a classmate ignorantly presented on a book with a disabled protagonist. He also failed to ever look at me, but I presume he had different reasons than my teacher. He simply didn’t know how to discuss disability with a disabled student. This complete lack of recognition for the educational value of the disability perspective while simultaneously treating me differently because of my disability was a constant barrier during my education.
Generally, schools either lack the resources or the willingness to accept disability and include disabled students in classrooms. As the special education students walked around the hallways, I heard snickers throughout the class. Non-disabled students jokingly called each other the “R”-word when they didn’t make the smartest decision. I attempted to correct them in vain as they had no context of how harmful that word is for the disability community. The only thing abled-bodied students knew about the special education students was that they came to empty the recycling in all of the classrooms once a week. The school’s justification for this job may have been teaching them responsibility or how to complete a weekly task. However, all this job taught abled-bodied students was that disabled students were only capable of contributing to their “normal” classroom and society by removing their recycling.
Educational barriers for disabled students are vast and different for every person. However, the eugenic ideals that lead to the creation of special education and continue to segregate classrooms today are often the most challenging. This separation of disabled students from their abled-bodied peers removes the opportunity to discuss disability and inclusion at an early age. This lack of knowledge and ability to interact with disabled peers harmfully reinforces the stigma around disability. Accepting disabled students into the classroom diversifies learning for everyone. Students can play an active role in this inclusion by asking questions regarding disability and joining or founding organizations to support disabled peers. Education is the foundation of how people learn and grow in their understanding of the world. School systems cannot ignore disability any longer otherwise disabled people will continue to be isolated and removed from mainstream society.