I have many different experiences, both positive and negative, of going to an able-bodied school as a disabled teenager. But I have to say that overall: it sucks. Being disabled is tough but it’s who I am and I can handle it, but the battle of being disabled in the society that I live in was one I just couldn’t win. I am ashamed to say that I used to be an extrovert: proud, energetic and strong. But over the years I have shrunken into myself and started to doubt everything that I do to the extent that it has become easier to simply keep my mouth shut. I know that this is not always the case with able-bodied schools, but in my experience: Nothing will make you feel so alien, nothing will make you feel more invisible, nothing will make you feel more lonely.
When my classmates speak with their friends, joking in their usual silly way, they tend to include everyone but me, as if joking with a girl in a wheelchair would be taking it a little too far. As a result, they overlook and ignore me altogether – I am forbidden territory, a hunk of moving glass they all step around in hopes of not shattering.
I can also tell that I make some people uncomfortable: I spent most of the first day of school last year crying after a new student refused to even look at me after we were paired together to do an assignment. They just looked away and shuffled awkwardly until the activity was over. I also cry after primary children run away from my electric wheelchair, screaming and shaking with genuine fear.
I do of course understand – the school (and I guess their parents?) don’t really prepare students much for meeting me and I know that for a lot of them I am the first disabled person these teens will see on a day-to-day basis so they don’t know how to respond. I, of course, am not talking about my close friends, this is mostly just every other student in my year group.
Not only them – certain teachers have also not known how to deal with me. I remember once falling asleep in a teacher’s class after an entire night of studying. Instead of simply waking me up and telling me off, she panicked and called the school reception who contacted the person responsible for Educational Needs students so that they could send someone to the class to… wake me up instead.
Some teachers also aren’t very accommodating and don’t have much patience for giving me different things to do during some of their lessons which I can’t join in with. My mother, rightly so, once had a go at a teacher who wasn’t very nice about the fact that I would have to stay two hours in the library while the rest of the class went out on a trip. I guess the worst thing that happened recently was that I missed out on being in the year-book picture because my Year-Tutor forgot that my wheelchair taxi comes to school late on Tuesdays and no one had told any of us the time that the picture would be taken.
Our year had agreed to dress fancy for picture day, so I felt so humiliated arriving at school in a posh black dress with make-up on (which I normally never wear) only to be told that they had already taken the picture without me and for some reason were unwilling to do it again. I do have to mention that quite a lot of my teachers are absolutely brilliant and very considerate when it comes to being accommodating for me and have come up with some extremely creative ideas for me to be able to participate, I’ve only had a few who were slightly more confused by me.
How I Responded
Getting used to the fact that everyone was suddenly stepping around me like I was glass and that my body alone discomforted people was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Dealing with this sudden change of how people saw me as a young teenager was tough, especially for someone who used to be able to walk and had no prior experience with being so isolated.
School turned into a sort of game I had to re-learn the rules of. It was confusing, a contradiction: it felt like a constant battle to prove to students that I was just like them and that they therefore shouldn’t treat me any differently, but I still wanted to be different and unique at the same time. I would be devastated if I felt invisible because I was constantly overlooked, but there were also times where I wished I was invisible and could blend in with the constant flood of backpacks and trainers that flowed down every hallway.
So, I hid – I wouldn’t tell anyone about my quirkiness or my weird and different tastes in case they thought of me as too dissimilar to them and stopped speaking to me. I started to get used to hiding what made me special and being ashamed of it. I trained myself to blend and take any opportunity to prove how ‘normal’ I was, even giving a cheesy speech in front of the class to show them that I liked the same things that they liked and was feeling a little left out, which of course had no effect on anything.
I am not a fan of swearing and never do it in public, but when surrounded by a bunch of people swearing, I found myself using the words that they used so that they’d think I wasn’t the goody-goody bookworm they all thought I was. I told myself that if I was anyone else, I could have been myself, but someone like me just couldn’t afford to be. Everything that I did was an effort for people to look past my wheelchair to the person inside. But still, nothing I did was good enough.
When I was fifteen, when it got really bad, I would play these cruel little games where I would roll down the hallway with tears on my face and bet whether anyone would stop and notice, or count the number of words I said in a day. I was hardly ever stopped, and most days the count was under ten. It felt like I could stand up and scream and no one would notice or care. Because of my body, I would never be treated or viewed the same as everyone else, it didn’t seem to matter what was on the inside.
You can imagine how it must have felt: I truly did feel like a waste of space, unwanted by everyone around me. It didn’t help that this was around the time all of my sisters (my best friends) had all graduated and moved away to go to university. I was drowning in loneliness and started to have some really dark thoughts. I even turned to the internet, desperate for someone, anyone to accept me and be their friend, but all that came out of that was some really disturbing experiences with dodgy people online.
Now, I’m surrounded by a fantastic friend group who I’m sure would let me in, but I’m still so used to hiding that I’m having trouble opening up to them. My past experiences at school have scarred me so much that I freak out during most social interactions or just stay quiet, but I definitely don’t feel as lonely anymore. Loneliness is still something that I struggle with quite a lot but I feel as if I’m just starting to re-discover who I am a little bit more after so long of burying it. Now, I have:
- A supportive friend group. I just wish I could make them understand a little better. Maybe I should show them one of these blog posts XD
- A best friend. I find it much easier to get along with adults and have some extremely close relationships with teachers. During break time I’d usually find myself gravitating towards a teacher’s classroom for a chat before the lesson started when I was younger. My current best friend (other than my sister) is one of my old teachers who I sit and talk with every week.
- The written word. I may stutter over my words in social situations but I’ve always felt more like myself in my writing, like the writing I do for this blog. On Tuesday I’m going to be sharing some of my poetry with the school’s library. I hope that it’ll be a chance to show the teachers and students a little more of the real me.
And, of course, I have you guys! I know that I’m still a fairly new blogger but the support I’ve already received from some of you has truly meant a lot. See you next week!