By Issy Hay
I don’t think I will ever be able to describe what it meant to me, the first time a teacher asked “What can I do to make this easier for you, to support you?”. That should be the norm, writes Issy Hay.
It is hard to reflect on my education without feeling resentful. I have always seen myself as someone who loves learning and knowledge, but when my only context for education was an inaccessible, exclusive and discriminatory system, I ended up reconsidering if I was even worthy of an education.
This is not something disabled young people should be questioning. We should instead be questioning why our education system is allowed to actively deny us the human right of an education. Excuses aren’t good enough.
I wasn’t a difficult student (as my teachers thought), but rather, a student just slightly outside their arbitrary box for acceptability. I struggled with high contact hours, over-stimulation, large class sizes and the rigidity of the system. I was the in-between student – deemed both too disabled for the inaccessible education on offer and not disabled enough for an accessible option.
Instead of providing the adjustments I had a right to, my teachers decided that I was a lost cause and not worth helping. It wasn’t harder to help me just because I was disabled. It wasn’t okay that reasonable adjustments were denied.
While not all of my negative experiences with education came from my high school as an institution, the culture they created enabled bullies to remain unaccountable for the harm they caused.
Dozens of teachers witnessed the very obvious, discriminatory abuse I experienced, and chose not to act.
The few times I was brave enough to speak up about how hurt I was by the people I was forced to share a classroom with, the proposed solution was always a meeting allowing everyone involved to have a say. My complaints were effectively dismissed, and the problems escalated in the aftermath.
Seeking support meant putting myself in harm’s way. Claims of a “no tolerance bullying policy” meant nothing when they realised the bully was also someone who needed more support than they were willing to provide.
That is the state we are in.
I disengaged from education. For 18 months, I was an enrolled high school student, merely because no-one (including myself) felt that the effort of un-enrolling me was worth the time.
I was passing my classes, but just barely.
I was the fuel of ableist rumours that circled back to me on the rare occasions I made it into class (ableist slurs and implications that I was “lazy”). It didn’t bother me. I was too unwell (a combination of things) to put any of my energy into fighting for my place as an equal in a space where I wasn’t wanted.
I almost became a statistic – the ridiculously high statistic of disabled non-school-graduates that, for some reason, isn’t concerning enough for schools to change their ways (68 per cent of disabled Australians over 20 have not completed Year 12 compared to 38 per cent of abled people).
Through a grapevine of ‘uneducable people’, I eventually heard of an ‘alternative’ school run by a TAFE institution. A possibility to be educated in a way that made my access requests and support needs a priority.
The rigidly inaccessible mainstream system, that had plunged me into a depression where I could hardly move, seemed like a distant relative of the flexible, self-led institution I had found.
I became excited about learning again.
I enrolled. I re-learnt that I was worthy of teachers who cared about me, and had peers who needed support too. For the first time in my life, I felt like an equal in an education institution.
I mourned the years of struggles I had once told myself I deserved.
I don’t think I will ever be able to describe what it meant to me the first time a teacher asked “What can I do to make this easier for you, to support you?”.
That should be the norm.
My heart aches for all the other disabled young people, stuck between discriminatory education or none at all, because they weren’t as lucky as I was to find an alternative.
We deserve better. We deserve more.
Issy (they/them) is a 17 year old disabled and queer young person currently in year 12. They work in the disability and youth sector and often write and speak about their lived experiences of identity and intersectionality.