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Challenge: Back to School 2020

The dangers of oh-so-subtle ableism

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The following is an actual, real online conversation:

FB Momma: It’s pretty sad special education children are allowed to attend five days a week but other children can only go two days!

FB Response: Because they can have spaced areas to learn vs a class of 25-30. Can’t maintain 6ft per the guidelines schools were given.

FB Momma: It’s very easy to manage the class size and have them all attend. Not going to debate this with you. The kids that are going further in life aren’t the special ed kids sorry to say but it’s the truth.

FB Response: So you’re saying kids in special ed don’t deserve to go 5 days a week because they are kids that aren’t going “further in life”?

FB Momma: ding ding ding we have a winner! Also when I say special, I mean head-banging, screaming, throwing fits, special. My child is going a lot further in life than those children and should be the one going five days a week not two. If you don’t like that truth I don’t know what to tell you.


This exchange found its way to me on the internet last week.

It took me time to gather my thoughts because, well, this goes so deep.

This is not about one ignorant person or one unfortunate comment.

It is so much deeper and hurtful and dangerous.

What this momma is exhibiting, clearly and even proudly is called ableism.

The definition of ableism is “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.”

Ableism suggests that people are defined by their disabilities and inferior to the non-disabled.


Say that out loud please.

Here, this is a picture of my daughter Isla who has autism and is in a self-contained unit.


Try to say this out loud, “Isla is inferior to my child because she has autism.”

You can’t, can you? It’s too hard. It feels wrong.

Because it is.

(By the way, does all of this sound familiar? A population of people who are being dehumanized? Seen and known as “inferior” beings? Yeah. All too familiar. In fact the civil rights movement was the catalyst for what we know as the IDEA act. But that is a history lesson for another day.)

But my friends before you bash her... before you put a mad face or angry comment on this post... you have to understand this momma is voicing what many people think... secretly... quietly.

So let me address this brash momma and those of you who agree with her even if it’s hidden behind the facade of a disapproving face.

You see she actually said it with clear, strong words... special education students are inferior. They are not deserving. They are not worth it. Not worth the time, energy, and space.

So before you say you would never say or think that... let me share some real life scenarios where this blatant ableism is a little more subtle... a little more quiet.

  • When students with autism are referred to as “AUs”.
  • When blanket statements are used like “All AUs lack common sense and are selfish”.
  • When you pity someone immediately upon first glance without knowing their story.
  • When "special ed" is used as an implied insult, ie. "you are so special... special ed" or someone makes a mistake or does something wrong and is laughed at and called "special ed."
  • When there is not a single special education student in the commercial trying to attract new families to a school district.
  • When a school district spends millions of dollars on specialty schools for science or fine arts or business or whatever and that same district does not have a single sensory room, inclusion playground, or transition program.
  • When a school works super hard every day to teach social skills to special education students so they can “appropriately” interact with general education students but has zero lessons, zero curriculum, zero opportunities to teach general education students how to “appropriately” interact with special education students.
  • When a “problem” educator who misses work a lot or has poor performance or a list of complaints is “transferred” (aka: hidden) in the special education department.
  • When an administrator tells a special education teacher to focus on the accommodations for the student with invested, present parents. If the parents don’t care, let’s not waste our time.
  • OH! Don’t forget about benevolent ableism. Benevolent ableism is when that one student wasn’t given a permission slip for the field trip because “they wouldn’t want to go anyway”, and you know “it’s too loud, too crowded, or not the kind of place they would like”. That’s just an attempt to mask the expected inconvenience with fake consideration.

As a special needs family, subtle widespread ableism of all kinds frustrates us way more than one blatant example of ableism makes us angry.

Subtle ableism is dangerous. It hurts humanity. It hurts people. It hurts families. It hurts the most innocent and vulnerable. It hurts the children with no voice. History has proven time and time again that hurt people hurt people and round and round we go. (PS oh so soon you will hear the roar of the collective mommas of the voiceless. wink*)

If you are feeling a heavy conviction after reading any of those scenarios, my friend, that is good. Your heart is good and right. Let me be the first to extend to you bountiful grace.


Encourage others to change.

Especially if you are a teacher or an administrator or anybody in education. Your voice is powerful in your workplace. Powerful.


In regards to “going further in life...” that actually makes me smile.

Hey momma, what did you mean? A degree? A job? Who will make more money? Who will contribute to society more? Hum... all of that is up for debate.

All depends on how you define “success” and “contribution”.

I guarantee you our definitions differ.

No professor or teacher or scholar or doctor or professional has contributed to my life more than my daughter. The one you say will not go as far in life as your child. Through Isla’s life and story she has been pretty successful at building radical empathy in her community.

All I can say is... don’t count Isla out just yet. Knowing Isla, she is rooting and cheering for your child regardless. She only knows love and could teach you so much even if she had your attention for only two days a week.


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