At school I felt wholly accepted by everyone, then it all went to shit. I hit 18, became weird and adults became terrified of me. But school was fun.
One teacher’s action summed it all up for me. It probably meant nothing to him and he likely forgot about it ten minutes later, but I still remember this ten years on. Every week or so in Physics class we’d do a class experiment and one of the kids would help demonstrate. The experiment would usually require delicacy of touch – tiny bulbs, wires etc – so I assumed I’d always just be watching. But then something came up featuring a battery and a spring and I was asked if I wanted to hold the spring!
It was intense. I didn’t want to let the teacher down so I held that spring so tight the blood stopped flowing through my arm. It got to the point where my friend was volunteering to take over and the teacher kept checking I was alright. I was fine. This was great.
At school I was always instinctively aware that this experience wasn’t normal, that I might not always feel so appreciated. I couldn’t go down a corridor without someone saying hello to me, and I couldn’t go a day without someone joking around with me. I think that’s what makes me feel so strange these days – too many people seem hesitant to joke around with me, they’re so scared of saying something wrong. It’s an adult thing. To be gently mocked means acceptance.
The teachers were cool. They always incorporated me into the class, and they all directed questions at me (some of which I’d have preferred to dodge.) I know this sounds like standard stuff but for me it was amazing. There was absolutely no difference in the way they treated me to my friends. And if I messed around too much, they’d let me know it.
I barely acknowledged my disability until I left school. I went to a college where nobody knew me, and few had encountered disability before. I’d feel extremely lucky and relieved to have someone say hello to me. I craved conversation and connection, but it was sparse to say the least. For the first time ever I started to resent my disability, as well as everyone around me.
I’d always assumed it’d be cool to play the outsider but it actually felt pretty awful. There were so many different groups around (goths, skaters, hippies) but I didn’t fit into any, not even the group of smelly outcasts. From my point of view, it was beginning to look so artificial anyway. My teachers noticed my alienation and suggested I write an article about how I felt to be read aloud to my classmates. I did so but it felt ridiculous that I’d had to take such measures. The message of the article was “talk to me ffs; I won’t bite your arm off.” I tried to make it humorous despite my burning rage at the world.
It sort of worked. Some students remained awkward but others at least started saying hello on a daily basis. I never thought anything good would ever come out of those two dragging years but looking back it taught me the importance of self-acceptance and that I needn’t rely on other people’s approval to prosper. I learned that it’s crucial to form your own ideas of the world rather than pick a group and agree with their every opinion.
Ignorance begins at childhood and if we want attitudes to improve we must expose kids to disability as early as possible. It helps if there’s disabled kids in mainstream classrooms – I believe that so long as children haven’t had fear drummed into them by parents, most will naturally engage with disabled classmates, stumping any urges to assume or stereotype. Teachers could also give lessons which would allow kids to enter the mind of someone with a disability, pondering questions such as “How might life be different?” and “What day-to-day difficulties might I face?”