The other night I found myself in a bit of a Twitter rabbit hole. I came across a blog post called “Disabled? Or disabled by Society?”. The post raised the subject of disability representation within the school curriculum and classroom.
This got me thinking about the representation of disabilities within my own education thus far. I came to realise that this was incredibly limited. On the rare occasion disability was raised in the classroom the instances fell into one of two categories; either highlighting the discrimination disabled people had faced throughout history or depicting them as some kind of superhero, defying all the odds, achieving so much despite their limitations. A particular memory that stands out was during an assembly in the build up to the 2016 Paralympic games. The assembly was about overcoming adversity, we had sat and listened carefully as a member of staff talked about how a collection of successful, able-bodied people had overcome adversity in their lives. The assembly concluded with us watching this Channel 4 short film. As we sat and watched, looking around you could see faces change, people were shocked at the skills these disabled people had. As the film ended the member of staff returned to the front and said the words “See, there are no excuses- if they can do it so can you”. The idea of disabled people being used purely to inspire us didn’t sit right with me, even though at the time I was able-bodied myself.
I began showing my first symptoms of ME a few months after that assembly. Being unwell myself brought the lack of disability representation in all aspects of life to the forefront of my mind. Suddenly, I couldn’t see myself reflected in the mainstream media anymore. There were no longer book characters with whom I could fully identify. No models in magazines showing me what the clothes they wore would look like sat in a wheelchair. In films portrayals of disability are often dodgy at best. Disabled characters (usually played by able-bodied actors) tend to fall into one of two groups: the superhuman, constantly overcoming their disability; and the person who is constantly miserable, asking “why me?”. That is of course if they make it through the film without dying!
As I progressed into sixth form the disability representation on the whole became even more scarce. However, around this time I began to feel more comfortable with my identity as a disabled person. I began starting conversations that I felt needed to be had myself, bringing the perspective of disabled individuals into class debates, offering to answer the questions of both my peers and teachers to the best of my ability. A stand out moment for me was educating my sociology class on the process of claiming disability benefits. They were extremely shocked to find out that the process did indeed mirror to a degree the scenes in the film “I, Daniel Blake” that they had deemed as “ridiculous” and “incredibly frustrating” when watching it in the lesson prior.
I deem myself lucky, to a degree, that I became disabled at an age where I could better understand why the representation wasn’t there and could articulate my feelings on the matter to educate others. But I can’t help but worry for the younger disabled children who won’t understand why they don’t have a character to dress as on world book day who looks like them.
Don’t get me wrong, things are moving in the right direction. I’m sure if I were to go back to my primary school the amount of representation will have grown significantly since I left 7 years ago. There are so many more books and resources promoting diversity and inclusion now that building representation of all minority groups into the classroom has become somewhat easier than it was. I am so hopeful for a future where we will no longer be surprised when the protagonist in a story is disabled and a spectrum of disabilities are represented in the curriculum as standard- not just because there is someone in the class who uses a medical device.
To any educators who may read this, please ask questions!
If you have a chronically ill/disabled student in your class or tutor group and have questions- ask them! Most students will happily answer or soon let you know if they aren’t comfortable doing so. I always appreciate when teachers take the time to ask questions in order to educate themselves a little more about my illness, it makes me feel seen. It also helps the teacher to support me better. Lastly, I guarantee that I won’t be the last chronically ill student you teach, with every question you ask knowledge is gained and that should make supporting the next chronically ill student who enters your classroom that little bit easier.