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What My School's 'Equality Day' Missed About Disabilities

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My high school prides itself on being cutting-edge, inclusive, and as diverse as a small-town school in Wyoming can be. After all, this is the Equality State. And for Wyoming Equality Day, better known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we celebrate this with a school-wide assembly.

As the daughter of white middle class Americans, equality is something I easily took for granted. Until I was diagnosed with a debilitating neuromuscular disease, and experienced ableism first hand, I never considered that equality is something the disability community is still fighting for in multiple areas — education, the workplace, and society at large.

The inequality is staggering.

So, when the school announced the Equality Day assembly would include the topics of “women’s rights, Hispanic-white relations, and disability awareness,” I was thrilled. While feminism and racism frequently make headlines, disability is more often shunted to the side, despite the fact that people with disabilities are the largest minority in the US. As a young disabled person living in a rural area, hearing my school would address the topic directly felt like an incredible gift.

That is, until I learned how they would address it. I was sitting in Spanish class 10 minutes into a grammar lecture when one of the school staff came in, pushing a classmate of mine in a wheelchair. The entire room turned to look at her. (Let’s call her M.) M is an active figure skater and dancer, so I my first thought was to wonder if she was injured. No cast, boot, or brace, though. I decided to ask her after class if she needed a hand with anything.

“What’s wrong with her?” one of the girls next to me asked. As much as I hate hearing this question when it’s about me (there’s nothing inherently wrong about disability), I was curious what had happened. But I reminded myself it was none of my business if M chose to use a mobility aid, and that I should be listening to the Spanish teacher.

By happenstance, our student body president was sitting next to us. “It’s for the Equality Day assembly,” she said quietly. “M is supposed to spend the day in a wheelchair to experience what it’s like to have a disability, so we can all learn about it.”

All thoughts of Spanish verb tenses flew out of my head. Experience what it’s like to have a disability? My vision darkened for a moment and I clenched my fists to keep myself from laughing at the absurdity or yelling at the injustice. I’m not entirely sure which.

For starters, a school day using a wheelchair can hardly teach someone what it’s like to live with limited mobility. Seven hours in an accessible building doesn’t even scratch the tip of the iceberg. Plus, M had adults helping her, was fully excused from being late to class, and could stand up and walk as soon as she needed to.

I do not use a wheelchair often. This is partly because the muscle weakness caused my disease affects my legs and arms equally, so a wheelchair is only an option when I have someone else to push me. Instead I use a cane, and on days when I can’t walk the short distances required to get to class, I stay home.

The stares, the rude comments, the unsolicited advice are all things I have learned to deal with as a young person with a semi-invisible disability. I get dressed on the floor, shower with a stool (when I have the energy), and struggle with high shelves and kitchen counters, all before 8 A.M. A quiet panic steals into my stomach when all the disability parking spaces are taken, when the elevator is broken, when an “accessible” entrance has several stairs and a heavy door. Counting spoons, planning out my day in excruciating detail, scoping out ramps and elevators and the nearest place to sit — there is so much more to having a disability than M will be able to understand after a single day.

During the entire class, she sat without participating, staring blankly across the room with a martyred expression on her face. She stage-whispered to her friend, “I want to die.”

At that point I nearly got up and left the room. Disability is not a way to get attention, and it’s not something you can switch on and off when convenient. It is something I have lived with day in and day out for years. I had to wrestle with the ingrained belief that my life was no longer as valuable, no longer worth living, because of my disability. And here someone who was charged with debunking that myth in front of the entire school was instead reinforcing it.

I appreciate that the school has decided to tackle disability alongside other issues of equality, especially knowing not everyone has the luxury of such an inclusive environment. I’m incredibly thankful, and proud. I was excited that the school wanted to broaden students’ perspectives and raise awareness for the challenges students with disabilities face. But to me the manner in which the school administration and student council decided to do this was incredibly offensive.

The worst part was not even that they decided to invent a disabled student for a day, or that the student tasked with this role had a shameful lack of conscientiousness about it. The worst part was they had completely ignored the school’s actual disabled students. There are students with learning disabilities, partial deafness, blindness, chronic illness, chronic pain, and more. There are students with power wheelchairs, crutches, feeding tubes, and hearing aids. I have used a cane for three out of my four years here. I know every member of the student council by name, as well as the administration. And yet they decided to ignore us all.

Despite the fact that the school district has funded bilingual programs, an alternative high school, and a laptop for every student, it has yet to improve the public high school’s one glacial-paced elevator and hire a full-time nurse for 600+ students. I had to lobby for every classroom accommodation, defend every doctor’s note, and even explain my parking placard. Equal opportunity for people with disabilities is near and dear to my heart.

So please, do not speak for us — listen to us. We have a lot to say, and a lot to contribute. And we’ve been here the whole time.

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Lead photo by Thinkstock Images.

Originally published: January 23, 2017
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