Today I came across my 7th grade ID photo, in which I am a tiny 12-year-old girl in an aqua tank top, smiling and trying to convince myself that junior high seems like a good idea. The anxiety I felt when the picture was taken is still so real to me that it’s hard to believe 16 years have gone by. I occasionally ask myself why I saved the long-expired ID card, and I still can’t settle upon an answer, considering that it is a relic of one of the hardest, most awkward times of my life. The best answer I can come up with is that perhaps I need to see how far I’ve come. To have evidence that I really did make it.
As the back-to-school Walmart commercials flash across the television and first day of school photos are posted, it’s so easy to be transported back to what those first days felt like. As a disabled student in a school system still trying to catch up decades after IDEA, the first day of school was often akin to being dropped in the jungle. Among the color-coded binders and sticky, creaky lockers hung heavier questions:
Will the accessible desks be in place?
Will the elevator work?
Will my wheelchair fit under any of the lunch tables?
Will the person who helps me use the bathroom treat me like a human being?
Inevitably, the answer to one of these questions, or many of them, was a resounding “no.”
Navigating an educational system that frequently leaves disabled kids behind made me the advocate I am today, and I will always be proud of that.
But a piece of my heart will always be broken knowing that disabled kids should not be burdened with fighting tooth and nail for basic accommodations.
The little girl in the ID picture couldn’t have a carefree first day of junior high because she was busy fighting dozens of little battles: ill-fitting desks, heavy doors, inaccessible lab tables, the epic search for a competent note taker. I know my story is not unique and for millions of disabled students, the same anxieties that haunted me in my school days persist.
When I watch those Walmart commercials, I want to shout at the TV that for students with bodyminds outside the mold, the first day is never as simple as jauntily walking through the schoolhouse doors with a cute backpack.
But oh, I dream of that day…when all that disabled students must worry about on day one is if their new sneakers fit.
Until that day comes, my heart remains with the disabled kids breaking back-to-school barriers that simply should not exist. I salute the courage and grit it takes to wade through the system, to keep showing up in places and spaces that too often suggest that you don’t belong. I’m here to tell you that you do belong, in all your perfect wonder, and you always have. Anyone who believes otherwise has so much left to learn.
To those disabled students, wherever you are, the first thing I think of at “back to school” time is you. I know the feeling of waiting for a perpetually late short bus with an ancient wheelchair lift. The feeling of hoping for classrooms that you can freely navigate. Of crossing your fingers that someone, anyone read your IEP. As someone who needed personal care assistance in school, I know the bravery it takes to trust new people with your body. And I pray with everything in me that the people chosen to care for you will be kind.
I was once where you are, my head spinning with the same galaxy of worries. You are not alone, although it may feel that way right now. On your first day of school and on every day forward, you make me proud. Get out there and show the world how worthy, beautiful, and fulfilling disabled lives can be.
And to the non-disabled educators, classmates, and parents reading this, ask yourself what you can do to dismantle ableism in school. Ableism harms everyone and it ends when we all commit to fighting it.
The fight will have been worthwhile if one day, not long from now, the next little girl in a wheelchair finds herself rolling on a much smoother path.
Image: Old ID photo of me at age 12. I am a white young woman in a wheelchair with a blondish ponytail, glasses, and an aqua tank top.