Disabled in Mainstream Schools and in Higher Education

Greetings readers,

Welcome back to the blog!

September is the usual back-to-school season, whether you’re an elementary school student or you’re in university. Because of this, I thought what a perfect opportunity to share with all of you, my experiences of being a disabled student, both in the mainstream school system (from grade one to grade twelve), as well as, in higher education.

Before I start, I just wanted to point out, I never really identified myself (or having others identify me) as disabled, up until about 5 years ago. I used to have very limited knowledge and understanding about what it means to be disabled, and always thought I didn’t fit in, because I wasn’t in a wheelchair, or that I must not be “disabled enough.” But, both for myself and for those very close to me, at least some knew about my differences and my limitations, but that was about it. Just to refresh your memory, I now identify as a person with disabilities, and my disabilities are: my visual impairment, and my chronic illnesses.

So now, let me take you back to when I was in elementary school. My first 6 years of schooling, from grade one to grade six, I went to 3 different schools during that period. This in itself posed some challenges for me, because especially when I was younger, I was not very good at adapting to new changes or places. The unfamiliarity of new places (the school environment) or new people (teachers and classmates) often made me feel insecure and scared, and I was very shy and timid. But thankfully, I think I still had good experiences in school. My teachers treated me really well, they were mostly kind and very accommodating. I also had family members that were constantly advocating on my behalf, for my special circumstances. For instances, at school, I was given the most front and center seat in the classroom, for me to be able to see the blackboard and copy down notes. And, if I still struggled, I would get the notes from one of the top students in class. In addition, because of my health and eye sight limitations, it wasn’t required of me to attend physical education (gym) classes; I didn’t have to stand outside and listen to the weekly assembly by the principal and the teachers; I didn’t need to attend the twice daily radio exercises along with all the other students. Also, I was told to only do as much as I could for the after school cleaning. These considerations and accommodations were meant to protect me, but at the same time, for me to have an as similar opportunity as other students at school.

When I got to middle school (also known as junior high), things got a little more complicated. Because at one point, not only I changed schools, I also moved countries and cities, and ultimately to a new school. when I started grade 7, I already knew about this move coming up. Preparation was one thing, excitement was another, but what’s more important was that I still finished that school year, I didn’t let it gone to waste. I also had accommodations that year, similar to those I had when I was in elementary school.

Grade 8 was the year. It was the year when I started the new school year, in a new school, a new city, and a new country. Not to mention, speaking and writing in a language I was still learning as a foreign language the year prior to that. But unfortunately, all of it wasn’t as exciting as I first thought. Because of cultural differences and language barriers, communication was a huge struggle. I couldn’t and nobody was able to advocating for me, so I didn’t get any help, at all. Grade 8 was the first (and the only time ever) I didn’t do my homework the first week of school. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to do it, or I didn’t know how to do it. It was because, I simply didn’t SEE the homework instruction, written on the far end corner of the blackboard, and nobody told me about it, either. I didn’t ask, because I didn’t know how to. And because of it, I had to stay back after school to finish it. Grade 8 was also the year I attended physical education class for the very first time and participated in what I called “terrifying activities” that are just sports activities like basketball and volleyball. This got me so scared that I cried after that class, but my classmates couldn’t wrap their heads around why I’d cry simply from a P. E class. Grade 8 was also the year I realized I was the only girl in class that didn’t know how to swim. Grade 8 was tough, and not as fun as I first thought. And at the end of that year, my home room teacher barely gave me the passing grade for me to move on to high school.

When I started high school, I wanted to start afresh. I had to again go to a different school, but I also made up my mind, that no matter what happens, I wanted to stay in the same school, from start to finish, so I could establish some connections and relationships, so I did that. I spent my entire 4 years of high school plus an extra year, in the same school. I made many great friends, some I still have regular contacts with even today. I built great connections and relationships with my teachers, they were mostly kind and also treated me well. And above all, I was a good student, with fairly good grades. But for one thing though, nobody really knew about my differences and special circumstances with my health and my eye sight. By high school, I was getting better at communicating with my classmates and teachers, I would tell some trusted people at school that I don’t see as well as most people do, and I have some health challenges and limitations that prevent me from doing some tasks, but that was it. That was all I was willing to share and disclose to others, nothing beyond that. And because I never identified as a student that may have special needs, I was never given any accommodations at school. Even without any accommodations, I did well and I was proud of that. But looking back, I think I could’ve performed even better if I was given accommodations. And, this could’ve made my transition into university much easier later on.

I think I must’ve gotten so lucky and may even be a bit carried away just because I did so well throughout high school, I thought I could do just as well when I enter university. That was my mindset at first, but that wasn’t the reality at all. I won’t lie, at the start of my university journey, I was pretty excited when I first started. After all, it was my first time being away from home, from friends and family, going to another new city, and start a new chapter of my life. But all of it, was far from simple. It wasn’t long for me to realize, it’s hard to be a university student; it’s hard to take care of myself; and it only got harder when both my eyesight and my health started to change and decline. Also, it wasn’t long for me to transition from being a full time student to being part time, then to needing help with mental health and needing to get an academic accommodation plan put in place. Seeking for help, for the first time, and not relying on family or friends advocating for me, was probably the best and the most important things I did for myself. This simple and yet not always easy step is so important, for me personally, physically, mentally, emotionally, and definitely it enhanced my academic success. If there’s one message I have for students, of any grade or level, and that is: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There’re a lot of people out there that are waiting and are willing to help others. If I didn’t seek help, and got the support I needed, I probably wouldn’t have finished my studies. I‘m also not embarrassed at all to say that I almost did my entire university career part time, and that took me a very long time than the average. The point is though, that I didn’t give up.

Despite having had several bumps on the road in my career as a disabled student in mainstream schools and in higher education. I can’t help but still feel blessed and lucky that for the most part, my experiences had been positive overall. Again, if I could change one thing, that would’ve been, advocating more for myself and much earlier. But since I can’t go back to the past, I choose to move forward. I consider myself a good advocate now for myself and for others. And this is not just about in schools but in society and in general. All of us, whether we have one disability or multiple disabilities, we all deserve help. Needing help or accommodation is not “special treatment.” It’s what’s required for those that need these supports to have an equal access and opportunity as everyone else.

By: The Invisible Vision Project

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