“I did not know what I did not know until I knew that I did not know it.”
- E.L. Konigsburg, THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY
You have to understand what ableism is to start working against being ableist. And I think this is why we’re making so little progress against disability discrimination in our schools. Too many people don’t know. They’re not aware of the injustice; they don’t cringe at the slights because they don’t hear them, and they don’t feel compelled to speak up against the blatant wrongs because they don’t see them. They don’t understand people with disabilities as an oppressed group and they’re not aware of how discrimination has, and continues, to play out. As Katherine Ott said in her interview with David Serlin, “People accept the historical narratives of other groups much more easily than they do with disability groups because the narratives of ethnic history or women’s history or gay history are to some degree more familiar to the general public. (203)
There are many reasons why those narratives are more recognized - advocacy, group identity, gradual dulling of stigma; the question is how to make this narrative better known. Clearly, people need to be educated but, ironically, that can be pretty tricky in schools. As we discussed in class, you need the time, you need to value the subject, you need to find a way to integrate the information, you might need money or permission (or at least the possibility of being ignored). But most importantly, you need to know that you need to teach it. I think the idea of public history is incredibly helpful here. Ott said, “audience is critical. It’s the first thing that I think about when I’m doing research: who is this ultimately for? (199)
Obviously, teaching a kindergartener to think about what people can do, not what they can’t do, is different than demanding that the fiscally conservative board member who sees the ADA as an unfunded mandate make sure that the school and curriculum are accessible. Supporting parents of children with disabilities and making sure they know their rights, is different from working with a general ed teacher who doesn’t believe she should be required to teach children who don’t access curriculum in all the “normal” ways.
It seems to me that attacking the issue on multiple levels is essential. Disability history has to be part of the study of Civil Rights, schools must be adequately funded and held accountable so that they’re truly accessible, students and parents need to know their rights and be assured of timely remedies, and we must end segregation unless it is demonstrably in the best interest of the child. All of these are very long-term goals that will be subject to the same political fickleness as other educational policies.
What would make the biggest difference, most immediately, is to make sure that teachers understand the issues, that teachers are not trained with ableist methods and attitudes, that in fact we truly believe that all children deserve free and appropriate (for them) public educations. At the end of the day, whatever the policies are, or the latest educational fad, it is what happens in that classroom between students and teachers, the manifestation of teachers’ skills and attitudes, that really makes education what it is.
They can’t know what they don’t know. We have to help them know it.