An Ableist Education.

A laptop showing a blank screen, notepads, and coffee mug.

In my very first week of high school all the way back in glory days of 2007, in my first P.E (gym) class, the teacher stood at the front of the group, & said something along the lines of:

This is the most important lesson on the curriculum, because it doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you aren’t physically fit & healthy, you won’t be able to use your intelligence.

This being before I fell ill, I thought it made perfect sense & it wasn’t until many years later (& long after I had left school) that I realised how disgustingly ableist that was. If it is only the people who can run around like a banshee on caffeine who can demonstrate their intellectual prowess, then by this logic, disabled people cannot show that they are smart and are thus presumed to be unintelligent.

You can disprove this lie with the words “Stephen Hawking”, & certainly my inability to walk far has never impeded my ability to do algebra, but this way of thinking has pervaded every level of education in the face of this logic. Is it any wonder that the impressionable children exposed to this way of thinking grow-up to be ableist adults?

In addition to pushing ableist ideals onto children & young adults, this “logic” might help to explain the rampant ableism within education itself. After all, it doesn’t matter if disabled students have to tackle obstacles & barriers that able-bodied children don’t, if they aren’t smart enough to be worth educating in the first place, right?

I’ve discussed much of the ableism I experienced in school before & so I won’t repeat myself, but I will focus on an event that took place on the very last day I ever entered the school, my A-level results day.

I already knew that I had got a place at the university I wanted, & so collecting my actual grades was more of a chance to check how my peers had done & say goodbye. One of the people who wanted to say goodbye was my chemistry teacher, someone who I’d had a rocky relationship with. In my first year of A-levels I hadn’t done as well as I could, & so during my second year I was put under pressure to retake all of the first-year exams as well as the ones I hadn’t taken before. I felt like this tactic was a bad idea anyway, but with a chronic illness this would have left me with so little energy to dedicate to the new content that I would probably have failed outright. After months of pressure, I was finally permitted to proceed with just the new exams, while all of my peers followed her advice.

On results day I found out that most of my peers had done well, maintaining their grade & securing a place at university. I also found out that my grade had actually gone up from the year prior. When it came time to speak to my chemistry teacher, I was told to imagine how much better I would have done had I followed her advice. Not only was this disrespectful, particularly in regards to my ability to manage my poor health, but it was the last interaction I ever had with her & is how I remember her. I was not amused.

It is also a prime example of how the education system is geared towards the able-bodied, disregarding how disabled people choose to manage their health, because disabled people couldn’t possibly be smart enough to figure out how to work with their malfunctioning bodies. The allowances they ask for get denied or only given begrudgingly, & their decisions are not respected.

Perhaps if this had occurred when I was much younger & more inexperienced, it would have been understandable, but I was an adult when making these choices. In fact, one of the many reasons I enjoyed my time at university despite still experiencing ableism, was the fact that my lecturers knew I could manage my health without needing their supervision, & would only offer help when asked.

When all is said & done, your ability to see, hear, communicate, think, or move in a conventional manner has absolutely no impact on your intelligence, & it is ableism & inaccessibility that present the biggest barriers to demonstrating your abilities, not disability itself.

One thought on “An Ableist Education.

  1. High school in 2007? You’re an infant compared to me. 😁

    That quote from the gym teacher explains a lot. In particular, it explains why so many people assume that having a disability guarantees lack of intelligence, like the maintenance man that assumed my wife was stupid that I described previously. We just have to be tireless in our efforts to instruct people on how foolish this thinking is.

    Liked by 2 people

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