Editor’s note: This guest essay is part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Read more columns by local students here.
As a person with a disability, I’ve felt different from my peers since day one. I was slow at learning how to walk and talk. I had a tummy tube because my brain thought food that was given to me was yucky. It was later discovered I had a learning disability. The bullies, though few, seemed to feel squeamish around me, as though they thought people with disabilities were weird.
But people with disabilities are unique, just as neurotypical people are. To help everyone understand that, students and staff at all schools in Washington state should be required to have sensitivity training in the classroom. If we teach everyone about people with disabilities, they can learn that we are not different and perhaps also treat us better.
The training should mention all the famous people, such as the late Stephen Hawking, who have disabilities. Neurotypical people should learn from special-education teachers and parents of students with disabilities. They should also learn from students with different disabilities who could share their experiences. Neurotypical people could learn how to support their classmates, and teachers could learn how to support their students so they can succeed later in life.
I had low self-esteem when I was younger because I was struggling with my disability and with being small for my age. It was hard for me to convince people that I was a teenager. Sometimes, it is very hard for me to look mature and find age-appropriate clothes at a retail store.
Mostly, other students treated me with respect and never hurt my feelings. I was happy to be around those kinds of friends. There were times when I was bullied for being different — kids made fun of the words I used and boys didn’t want to date me. But I was bullied more by adults than by kids.
It is adults who keep mistaking me for a kid. It is adults who keep calling me a little girl because they look at me before they even bother getting to know me. It is adults who say, “You dropped your scarf, little girl.”
When adults treat me like a little kid, it makes me so angry because I should be treated like every other teenager. I should be treated with respect. I like musicals, history and Disney. I like reading and have a huge book collection. My goal is to get and read as many books as Thomas Jefferson had in his personal collection. But I am small and short, so people assume I am a little kid based on what they see, not based on who I am.
Sometimes, I want to swear at the people who are rude to me, just to prove that I’m a grown-up, too. But I know it is better to speak up for myself in a respectful way, and that if I swear, people might think all people with disabilities have an attitude. It isn’t fair that I have to represent all people with disabilities like that, but it’s just the way it is. It’s hard to be a normal person with a disability.
When I’m older, I want to become a special-education teacher or a pediatric nurse. As a special-education teacher, I could help students find their voices. As a pediatric nurse, I could help people by taking care of them. But it’s harder to advance on these tracks if people don’t take what you say seriously.
If teachers and students were required to take sensitivity training, a disabled person in the future could have an easier time meeting their goals. If I ever get married and have a kid who also has a disability, maybe the world would be an easier place for them. They wouldn’t have to face the same struggles I faced.
If the staff had sensitivity training, they would understand that not all students are fast-paced. Some go at their own pace. That doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Some people are just different.