My name is Samantha Rose, and I attended Sandwich public schools from the beginning of my education until my freshman year of high school, after which I completed the remaining three years of my high school education online, not in association with the Sandwich School District.
It is important to note that I am a blind student. Being a student with a disability, undeniably, has impacted my experiences and relationships with my teachers and peers throughout my education, as well as impacting my experiences with the institution of education in and of itself.
Throughout my time attending Sandwich public schools, it was a struggle to ensure that I consistently received the accommodations I needed in order to fully participate in my education despite always having had an IEP. Accommodations are not set in place to give disabled students advantages over nondisabled students; accommodations are set in place to ensure that a disabled person, such as myself, may receive the same quality of education as their peers. Until things such as universal design—the design of buildings, products and/or environments to ensure their accessibility to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors, are commonplace—are, for lack of a better word, universal, accommodations as a part of institutions such as education will always be necessary and integral to maintaining equal opportunity for the disabled community.
I, during my time in public schooling, was denied my accommodations, or, inversely, was told I would receive accommodations, only to have that promise unfulfilled. There were countless instances throughout my decade in the Sandwich School District where I was told by teachers that I did not “seem blind,” and that I “seemed to be fine without [accommodations].” I am able to look at these experiences retrospectively and acknowledge that these statements did not come from a place of knowing or intentional ableism, nor did they come from anyone’s personal, individual desire to see me, as a disabled person, receive a lesser education. However, in situations such as these—ones with far-reaching and long-lasting ramifications—the intentions cannot be the focus, as the harm is done regardless.
To insinuate, or outright state, that a student such as myself “seems” to not need their accommodations, or to say that someone does not “seem disabled,” is to exacerbate and be complicit in the ableism and gatekeeping disabled people face on a daily basis.
Disability is not a monolithic way of existing; there is no one image or person which exemplifies what disability is. Disabilities are so vastly varied, as is the nature of humanity, that “seeming disabled” is an illogical and unrealistic expectation to place upon any one person or community.
I understand where these expectations stem from, though. From birth, we are fed a particularly harmful narrative of what a disabled person looks like, and how a disabled person should act, in order to be “truly disabled.” More often than not, these narratives are rooted in ablest, offensive stereotypes which have been perpetuated by mainstream society for centuries.
These aforementioned things kept in mind, me being told that I do not seem disabled, and that I seem as if I do not need my accommodations, is to say, in essence, that because I have assimilated to able-bodied society’s expectations so well—and that because I do not fulfill a certain quota of stereotypes for disabled people—that I do not deserve, and therefore will not receive, the help that I am legally entitled to.
I, as a blind person, have learned to navigate a sighted world, one which looks upon my way of being as something to be cured, fixed—as something wrong with me. I, by virtue of the presence of institutional and systemic ableism, have been forced to assimilate to an able-bodied world. I have learned to mask certain aspects of disability—the ones which make me stand out, and make me “seem” disabled. I have not done this by choice; I have been compelled and pushed to do this by a culture which is not willing to meet me where I’m at, instead asking me to change for their comfort and ease. This, in conjunction with the narratives which disabled people are expected to fulfill, leaves me—and students like me—stuck perpetually in a position wherein we are too different for society to accept, and simultaneously not different enough to be treated in the ways we ask for and need.
I am not referencing small, isolated instances of ableism. My decade attending public school was saturated with ableism on a daily basis. It is especially disheartening to say this about a school district which claims to value and uplift diversity. I was never made to feel as if my presence as a disabled person was valued and embraced, though I was told it was. I was told diversity was valued, and yet, I left public school at the age of 14 having been made to feel as if I was an inconvenience to my educators and my peers alike.
To bring this more abstract rhetoric into the tangible world, and to give an example, there is an elementary school music teacher whom I’ve known since I was 4 years old. She is, to this day, one of the most accommodating teachers I have ever known. With other teachers, I have often been met with the expectation that because I am blind I cannot do something, or that my caliber of work will inherently be less because of my disability. From the day I met this teacher, she has always looked at me with the same expectations that would be placed upon a sighted student, while still acknowledging and respecting my disability—acknowledging it for what it is. I was always held to the same standard as my sighted peers, but there was an understanding that there are some things that would need to be approached differently in order for me to achieve them. This is a shining example of what I always hope to see from teachers. Even now, as I am about to become a junior in college, her classes stick with me as one of the few places in my K-12 education where I felt sincerely respected, accepted, and had my skills recognized for what they were.