Close shot of a female student's hand taking notes during a class.

Why We Can't Neglect the Importance of Disabled Individuals

It's Autism Awareness Month, and Chris Contreras (San Antonio '13) shares how failing to understand the story, plight, and potential of disabled individuals in the classroom is essentially cheating our future.
Friday, April 15, 2016
Low angle shot of a middle school-aged boy smiling under a statue of giant open hands.

I’d never seen someone so excited about string. I’d never seen a child toss frayed yarn into the air, only to keep it afloat with calculated, gentle breaths. Victor could see the light dance between the splitting fibers: shimmering, bending and glistening. For a minute, I pretended I could, too. I deceived my student into believing the lights could ever crumple and flutter for me as they do for him—not from malevolence, but from a desire to say, “Your happiness, too.” He expelled his grief into the bobbing of a cotton fiber, and when a passing girl asked, “Why is he weird?” the joyful flapping of his fingers against the back of his neck softly quelled the stigma.

Unfortunately, I lack the power of Victor’s smile, and I cannot undo social injustice with a flash of teeth. I instead accept the world as my classroom. I often find myself teaching those outside my classroom about the implications of disabilities, though, in most cases, it’s a tiresome fight against a formless opponent named “culture.” A special educator’s role as advocate and teacher is heaviest when the term “disability” arises. Students, I find, seldom grasp ability-based identities.

Chris Contreras (San Antonio '13)

Certainly, our students understand racial, political and gender identities. As educators, our curriculum develops this appreciation. We applaud Martin Luther King Jr’s leadership. We praise the 19th Amendment, and we discuss the force of political parties. History tells us these great stories on the road to civil rights, and frankly, I’m unsure where the disabled fit into this journey.

Modern civil rights narratives pass over the Independent Living Movement, an important development in the disability rights movement. They just as easily forget the national sit-ins began by Edward Roberts and fellow wheelchair users. In effect, the weak mentioning of the civil rights movements for people with disabilities bolsters an enfeebled understanding of the disabled. From this inexplicable link between social justice and education, I hear things such as “you teach the crazy kids.” I hear “I’m glad he’s not my kid,” and I’ve seen business owners dismiss disabled clients from their stores due to disability-related concerns.

A middle school-aged boy with black hair hangs from part of a bronze statue, smiling.

While I acknowledge Washington’s legal advancements of those with disabilities, the world operates under a paradigm where disabilities are readily perceived as bad things. In the larger argument about vaccination, for example, my disagreement is not with the science, but how quickly this issue can marginalize those with autism spectrum disorders. If we’re to make this world a safer place for disabled individuals, just as we have for women and minorities, then change must begin in the classroom. Inclusion is a commendable first step. Let’s also give our special needs students their place in history.

By neglecting disabled individuals in curriculum and classroom discussion—their story, their plight and their potential—we cheat our future. We ask others to have this conversation, and in some conditions, we even hope to never have it. But the world requires these conversations. Educators labor like carpenters, bridging the world to those in their tutelage. We illustrate a culture in which our most extraordinarily colorful neighbors are forgotten. We must re-imagine them into this picture. Until then, we will send tomorrow’s leaders into the world without an understanding of disabled populations; we will move like disjointed birds, beat eternally back into winter.

Learn more about Autism Awareness Month and visit our Diverse Learner Initiative page.


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