Sunday, April 30, 2006
Blogging Against Disablism
As a child, I attended an experimental inclusive elementary school. Half of the campus hosted students with Down’s Syndrome. The remaining classrooms housed the neighborhood kids and children from across the district who had various disabilities.

There was no teasing, not because we were instructed to refrain, but because it didn’t occur to us to do so. If a newcomer uttered a negative word, it was put to a halt immediately – usually before any adult had to intervene. Like many of the students, I spent my mornings before school assisting in the physical therapy room and my recesses with a boy named Paul.

Paul’s wheelchair didn’t confine us to quiet play. We spent most our recesses together with a pudgley playground “Duty” (that’s what we called her) chasing after us, yelling, “Stop right noooow! You’re going to killllllll him!” upon which Paul would yell, “Go faster!” as we scram-tailed it down whatever decline we’d chosen to tackle. Scenes like this happened all over the playground. They were neither noteworthy or exceptional, nor were any of the students. It was our life. It’s how we learned, played and interacted.

The announcement came towards the end of my fourth-grade year. State officials decided to shut down our school. They told us most of our friends with disabilities would be routed to a new school, designed for “them” and a few would transition into another school with “us.” No one had ever sorted us according to our physical abilities. Formerly not part of our vocabulary, the words “us” and “them” became our first indicator that life outside our campus was different.

Our determination to keep the entire student-body together vamped into a fourth grade protest. We cared about each other. We did not want to be separated. Counselors arrived to “help with the transition.” Through their counsel, we learned the outside world was not like our world. We were warned our friends might not be treated well at our new school and encouraged to become “voices of change,” to stand up for our friends, teach students at our new school what we already knew and forgive their ignorance.

By the close of the year, we were optimistic, inspired and out to change the world. On the last day of school, local reporters converged on our classroom, selecting a few children to interview and photograph. I landed on the front page of our newspaper, quoted as stating “we’re gonna change [our new school]. The atmosphere will get better.” (Precocious little brat, wasn’t I?)

The new school year began without my friend, Paul, and many other friends who now rode buses to “their school.” But, it also began with my little brother. Like Paul, David had cerebral palsy.

They called him “cripple,” “sped,” “gimp” and “retard.” He was poked and prodded, kicked and pushed over (the latter happening especially often because it was so easy, given David’s difficulty keeping his balance.) And me, the eleven year old who planned to change “the atmosphere” at my new school, learned about hate, ignorance and apathy.

Hate spreads. It spread from a small group of bullies to a larger group of kids who discovered taunting my brother was a one-way ticket to social acceptance. It spread to our new school “Duty” who turned a blind eye. It spread even to the principle, who found paddling and suspending my brother following an assault easier than suspending the assaulters – or addressing the root of the problem.

Finally, after months of rushing to the playground every recess to stand guard over my brother, the hate spread to me too. When I saw my brother lying on the ground crying, the lead bully standing above him with a satisfied grin, I pounced. He wasn’t much bigger than me, but he was a boy.

And I pulverized him.

I’ve never been proud of that, mostly because I didn’t change the world as I’d been directed to do – as I believed I could do. I didn’t change the school. I didn't change one bully. My brother transfered to another school and I was instructed to make nice with his tormentors. I didn’t, but there was no more bloodshed.

My brother and I are now in our thirties. I went on to teach children with disabilities; he headed off to L.A. and carved himself a nitche in the music industry. Neither of us forget the contrast of what came before, and after, our inclusive school. I suppose it serves as a reminder to those of us who parent, teach, counsel, love or are, ourselves, persons with disabilities, both the power of compassion and the danger of apathy.
Rhonda Ruminated at 5:58 PM | Permalink |

19 Ruminations:

  • At 9:13 AM, Blogger Nikki

    Stupid blogger. I just lost my entire comment.

    Rhonda, your post touched me, as they so often do.

  • At 10:53 AM, Blogger Attila The Mom

    Beautiful post, Rhonda. I just loved this.

  • At 12:53 PM, Blogger frankengirl

    What an incredible story. What a precocious champion you were!

    “And I pulverized him.”

    I had a moment like this when I was young. I thought I could change the world by tackling a bully. It never works, does it? And yet, it seems impossible to stand by, doing nothing, especially when you realize that adults are turning a blind eye to the situation.

  • At 7:25 PM, Blogger Rhonda

    Nikki: Thank you. Your place is part of my daily routine now, so the feeling is mutual.

    ATM: Aw, thanks. I was actually iffy about it, so appreciate the feedback.

    Frankengirl: Nope, bullying a bully never works. Whoever said "We've met the enemy and it is us" must have flattened a bully or two.

  • At 8:47 PM, Anonymous Charlie

    . . . especially when you realize that adults are turning a blind eye to the situation.

    This is from FrankenGirl's comment because I believe it applies to your whole essay.

    First, the blind adults who closed your "old" school. Second, the blind adult counselors and the blind "new" school adults who tolerated bullies. Third, and most of all, the blind adult "parents" who raise bullies.

    What is it, I wonder, about mentally and physically handicapped children and adults that scares the shit out of supposedly "normal" adults, who then pass it on to their spawn?

    Disabilities, I guess, fall in the same category as being a different color, wearing different clothes, speaking a diffent language, etc. It is boldfaced intolerance, made up of equal parts of fear, shame, ignorance, and stupidity.

    And that's what you were fighting, Rhonda: boldfaced intolerance.

    (I have used my real name for this one.)

  • At 8:48 PM, Blogger Kathy


    Beautiful writing, as always. You were a gem, even then, and nothing has changed. Although it isn't always obvious, people like you make our world a better place to be.

    What a shame that you lost a good friend like Paul, because schools weren't ready to handle difference. I wish I could say so much has changed. If it has, I haven't seen much change.

  • At 9:29 PM, Blogger Rhonda

    Charlie: thank you for the thoughtful comment. Your analysis is exactly what I hoped the post would convey. Children, I think, are innately tolerant of all kinds of differences - until the adults they mirror display their, as you said, fear, shame, ignorance, and stupidity. To that list, I'd only add the word apathy.

    Funny, I intended to scan and include the newspaper article I referenced in the story. I spent quite some time trying to repair it's torn edges so it wouldn't look so tattered. Then, I read it. The reporter's own fear, ignorance and apathy shone through the article. It was, frankly, offensive - and not simply in the fact the language it used was outdated by today's standards. I couldn't post it.

    Kathy: I am sure I remember my first school as more utopian than it probably was, but that was because I was, in many ways, emotionally disabled in the same way others were physically disabled i.e., I don't think it was any great character trait of mine causing me to feel the way I did. And yes, losing Paul was a shame. I still think of him today. Thanks so much for the kind words.

  • At 4:45 PM, Blogger Mia

    I loved reading this. It was a story close to my heart on so many levels. You are a hero in my book!

  • At 6:52 PM, Blogger Marie Jarrell

    I agree with Mia. You are a hero. A hero is someone who doesn't follow the herd and stands up for the voiceless and shows a steadfast conscience and doesn't pass the buck...(gasp). What a lovely world it would be if it had more people like you in it.

  • At 10:04 PM, Blogger Rhonda

    Mia and MJ: Thanks, so much. If there is a hero in the story, it would have to be my brother. I was just the big sister :)

  • At 7:39 AM, Blogger BloggingMone

    Great post. I loved reading it, because it reminded me of my own experiences. I agree to Charlie, saying that parents of children do have a great responsibility. One of my teachers at school had a physically disabled son and found a kind of partner class for us at his school. We were in different places, but went on class parties together and had a lot of social activties together. Their physical disabilites didn't matter at all to us and we had a great time. I remember spending a week at a youth hostel, where we had to get our bread from a bakery in town every morning. The wheelchair users were complaining about us walking kids being too slow, so we ended up using wheelchairs to get the bread, no matter if we actually needed them or not. To us that was like using a bike.
    But then suddenly when we all became teenagers, some parents at my school demanded to put an end to these activities, because they were afraid that their "normal" sons or daughters would fall in love with "one of them". Tragically these parents did not realise that their own sons and daughters were completely upset and totally embarrassed by their own parents' behaviour.
    But this story in fact does have a happy ending. Our teacher did not give up and one of my class mates is still happily married to a woman with cerebral palsy from that partner class we used to have.

  • At 7:41 AM, Blogger sume

    Nicely written, as always Rhonda. I remember when my daughter volunteered for Lifespan. It's a program where she assisted kids with disabilities. She was suppose to be tutoring them but she'd come home with stories of things she'd learned from them.

    She became very protective of the kids in her group. One day she came home and told me of confrontation she'd had with a bully who'd been teasing a boy because of his disability. I'm all bragging and stuff, but I'm really proud of her.

    I think we're all "disabled" in some way or another anyway and it's not always visible to the eye.

  • At 8:45 AM, Anonymous Ruth Dynamite

    Thank you for sharing this story, Rhonda. Love your blog.

  • At 9:29 AM, Blogger Rhonda

    Bloggingmone: Welcome. I'm so glad you dropped in and just love what you've contributed to the comments. What a great story. Hope you stick around.

    Sume: You should be all bragging and stuff. That's just brag worthy. It's such a great thing to realize you've brought children into the world who possess compassion. And, I agree we are all disabled in some way.

    Ruth: Welcome. I'm enjoying your blog too!

  • At 8:19 PM, Blogger clew

    Hi Rhonda! Thanks for visiting me! I can tell already you're going to become a regular stop for me :) i think this post is exquisite!

    I'd like to invite you to check out an old post of mine ... I think you'll like it. Please check out "Beauty", in the "Best Of" section of my sidebar. :)

    See you again soon ~ Hugs ~~

  • At 9:12 AM, Blogger Rhonda

    Clew: I'm so glad you popped over and are planning to stick around!

    I read Beauty and it is beautiful. I just love your writing style.

  • At 10:49 AM, Blogger russelllindsey

    This is one of the most moving entries I've ever read... Unfortunately, it reminds me a little too much of what I had to put up with as a child.

    Although I'm sure I didn't go through anything as awful as your brother, I was harassed all of the time in elementary and junior high school. I have Turners Syndrome, which isn't a big deal at all (never really affected me much physically or mentally) - but it was IF kids could sense that I was different. And yes, as a girl with TS, I was short and pudgy (that, along with infertility, are forunately the only affects I've had to deal with), but that was enough.

    My Mom is a kindergarten teacher (and has been a teacher for well over 20 years) and has seen the change to "mainstreaming" children with disabilities. Through what I've heard of her experiences, I have hope that children will learn - as you did at a young age - that there is NOTHING to fear. Hopefully, it will help things.
    But please note - I don't believe that mainstreaming is the best option in all cases.

    Anyway, thanks for such a wonderful, heartwarming post!


  • At 11:13 AM, Blogger Rhonda

    Lindsey: Wow, thank you. And thanks for the pointer over at your place, too. I am about to head over and read, read read.

    And, I thank you for sharing your story, and your mother's story, here. I don't think the damage of being the victim of playground bullies can be compared between one person and another. It is terribly crushing, no matter the severity.

    I also don't think mainstreaming is the answer for everyone. But, when I hear parents arguing for or against it, I hear a lot of statements about it "taking away from" children without disabilities and never, ever hear all the ways it enriches the experience of all students.

  • At 12:30 AM, Blogger russelllindsey

    I agree completely. By the way, I wasn't trying to compare what I went through with what your brother went through; once again, you're correct - you can't compare. It just taught me the lesson that it really doesn't matter what you have to offer, kids will and can pick up on ANYTHING as far as teasing is concerned.

    By the way, I was reading you latest post! I have TONS of questions...

    More later.