I was excluded at school because of disability – My experiences can teach us how to be more inclusive
Jacinda Ardern recently called for New Zealand to “build back better” as we recover from Covid-19. With this in mind, how can we create spaces that are physically and socially inclusive? Rebecca Dubber takes us through her journey from exclusion to belonging, so we can understand how to build better.
When I first started at intermediate, I didn’t notice the subtle rules that seemed to only apply to me. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that some girls would get off at a bus stop to go to the dairy before school, and I was told I had to ask the bus driver to drop me off right outside the school gate. I didn’t pay attention to how the other girls went to the bathroom at morning tea or lunch, but I had scheduled bathroom breaks during class time. I didn’t notice the other girls at school could put their bags anywhere in the cloakroom, but I had a designated hook with my name on it. I didn’t notice these things, but my peers did.
It started with snarky comments from my classmates; my teacher-aid made sure everyone knew it was time for me to use the bathroom, and this would draw attention to me and ensured my classmates knew that I was different. I tried my hardest to brush off their comments, at the time I didn’t think it was fair either that I had different rules to everyone else and I decided that maybe I needed to prove to them all how “normal” I was – by trying to be like everyone else. At one stage in our lives, we’ve all tried to do this.
One morning I decided to rebel, and instead of being dropped off right outside the school gate, I got off a few bus stops early to get myself and some friends some lollies before school. A couple of the girls in my class saw me rolling down the hill towards the gate and let the headteacher know. The headteacher then told me how disappointed she was that I would disregard my safety that way. I didn’t understand why I was in trouble, I wasn’t a little kid, and if all the other girls in my year were doing the same thing, why was I different?
Going to intermediate was the first time I began to recognise that my disability separated me from everyone else – I wasn’t raised in a home that treated me like I was different – but suddenly, I was in a world that did.
I vented to a small group of friends about how I was feeling. I thought they understood me, and I shared a lot about myself with them, personal things, about my disability, including how, at the time, I didn’t have control over my bladder, which meant I wore pull-ups to stay dry during the day. I didn’t realise these girls weren’t my friends at all; they were friendly with me so they could hear about this and find ways to make fun of me for it later. For an 11-year-old girl, there’s nothing more isolating than having every single one of your “friends” laughing about you behind your back.
I felt so alone when I realised I couldn’t talk to them about anything. I didn’t know who I could talk to, I definitely didn’t want to talk to a teacher about it, and I didn’t know how to speak to my parents about it either. So, I kept it to myself. Things changed later on in the school year when I had a surgery that would give me the independence I was craving. The only thing that helped me overcome the pain from the surgery was talking. I told my parents everything – about the bullying, how alone I felt, and how I didn’t like being different. I could tell they were worried, but they reassured me they would help make things better for me going forward. I started dreaming about a fresh start at a new school because I couldn’t fathom how things were going to get better for me. To my surprise, they did for a while.
During my entire intermediate school experience, I was included in mainstream education, I was in the same classroom as non-disabled students, but just because I was present in the same space as them, it did not mean I was included in a meaningful way or embraced for my differences. As a disabled person, I can feel isolated even if people surround me; and that’s an experience I know I am not alone in.
Inclusion is not just being present in a space, it’s feeling like you belong there. Eventually, I met some new people who showed me what it’s like to have real friends, friends who accept you as you are, stand up for you when you need it, and take every opportunity to remind you that you aren’t alone. I used to think I wanted to be like everyone else and that inclusion meant everyone was the same. However, I have learnt inclusion is being embraced for your differences and having autonomy over how you express yourself and navigate the world.
We give disabled people autonomy by creating an accessible environment and trusting – not undermining – the decisions disabled people make for themselves. You are worthy of belonging, and your disability does not imply otherwise. Remember that.
Artwork by Ruby Jones