Trigger warning: Incident of ableism from a teacher.
21 December 2011
Dear [name redacted],
Do you remember what you said to me last fall?
I walked into your classroom during the fifteen minute break period. I probably had a question about our senior Globe project. Maybe I was reciting my lines. When I went to leave, you asked if I knew where two other seniors were. "They're probably in the senior hallway," I said, and you asked if I would go check. "Oh, I never go in the senior hallway," I responded. You asked why. "I have sensory issues, and I can't go into the senior hallway," I said.
Do you remember that? Maybe you remember what you said to me next. You looked me in the eye unflinchingly, and spoke in a firm, certain tone.
"You're just going to have to get over that."
For a few seconds, I'm sure, I stared at you in shock. Excuse me? "I don't 'get over' my sensory issues; sensory processing disorder is a neurological disability; it doesn't 'go away' and I can't 'get over it.' I can and do develop coping mechanisms, but I'm never going to 'get over' sensory processing disorder." Not to mention how presumptive, ableist, and insulting you were. I don't remember what else I said, only that I spent a good two minutes or so angrily explaining the nature of SPD.
Later that year, I heard that you told another student with a learning disability the same thing when that student went to talk to you about something -- possibly to ask for help or an informal accommodation, although I don't know the details.
Ever since, I have intended to write this letter. It's now December 2011, well over a year after this happened. I might have been dissuaded of the notion simply because of the long lapse in time between the original incident and today's date, but what you said to me cannot be forgotten, excused, or overlooked. It's far too significant and it was far too hurtful for that to be even a possibility.
How can you, an educator and a mother, look a person in the eye who has disclosed an intimate detail of his or her difficulties in your world, and say, "You need to get over that" to that person's face? It takes immense courage for most people with invisible disabilities (those that are not necessarily apparent simply by looking at an individual) to disclose their disabilities to non-disabled people, because people like you apparently cannot grasp the concept of an invisible disability. Simply because you cannot see it the way you could see a thin white cane or a wheelchair does not mean that it does not exist, is not real, or does not truly impact an individual.
How can you, an educator and a mother, listen to what someone has told you in explanation of some part of him or herself, and respond in such a dismissive and condescending manner? While those of us who are part of the disability community (people with disabilities or disabled people) may diverge on the relative importance we assign to our individual identities as a person with a disability or disabled person, disability (or ability) is an inherent part of an individual's identity and life experience -- in the same manner as race, religion, or sex. There is nothing more condescending than to talk to a disabled person or person with a disability and assume that you know more about his or her condition than he or she does. There is nothing more dismissive than to talk to a disabled person or person with a disability and suggest that that person can in fact make his or her disability go away.
Would you tell a man using a wheelchair that if he just "got over" his problems, he could walk? Would you tell a Blind woman that if she just "got over" her problems, she could see? Would you tell a Deaf man that if he just "got over" his problems, he could hear? I didn't think so. You wouldn't say such a thing, because nearly any rational person would be rightfully outraged at the mere suggestion. But you, [name redacted], seem to think that it is acceptable to tell a person with an invisible disability that if he or she just "got over" his problems, the disability would go away. There is so much wrong with that statement that I can hardly begin to dissect it. It reeks of ableism.
Do you know what ableism is? Merriam-Webster defines ableism as "discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities." Ableism takes many forms, as it is necessarily manifested differently against people with physical disabilities as opposed to people with mental disabilities, or people with learning disabilities, or people with cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities. In our community -- that is, the community of people with disabilities, and in particular, the community of Autistic youth and adults -- a very common experience of ableism takes place when a non-disabled person dismisses characteristics of our disabilities as valid, legitimate, or genuine merely on the basis that he or she does not experience that particular characteristic.
And that is precisely what you did when you said that to me -- and to that other student. You do not have sensory processing disorder. To my knowledge, you are not learning-disabled. How then can you claim that if I would only "get over" my sensory issues, they would go away? You do not live with sensory processing disorder. You have never experienced sensory processing disorder, and it is impossible for you to experience what it is like to live as me. (To suggest that you could appropriate my life experiences and daily perceptions of the world would be arrogant beyond belief.)
You seem to think that if I would only work harder, my sensory issues would go away. If I were only strong and persistent enough, I could make my disability disappear. Well, if I were determined enough, according to what you yourself implied with your ableist remark, I could stop making up petty excuses for eccentric habits and get in touch with the real, adult world! (If the sarcasm is not evident, let me explicitly acknowledge it here.) Can you begin to comprehend how insulting that is? While this ought to be self-explanatory, it seems that I ought not to take any chances by assuming that you understand the depth of your offense.
By suggesting that I can "get over it," you directly imply that I am not putting enough effort into coping with the challenges that I face, thereby suggesting that I am lazy, unmotivated, or unwilling. By suggesting that I can "get over it," you directly imply that my disability is not real, thereby suggesting that I am wont to make excuses for atypical behavior. Are the pieces starting to fit together now?
You do not tell a disabled person or person with a disability to "get over" his or her disability. That remark is as ableist as the n-word is racist. It is inexcusable and unacceptable. For an educator, it is appalling and ignorant.
Do you remember what you said to me last fall? I hope you do. And I hope you never repeat it to anyone else ever again.
Blessings and peace,
For those who are curious, the letter was in fact sent to the teacher, and the teacher responded, initiating a dialog.