For the first time in my 50 years on July 28, 2016, I heard my disabled childhood described through the civil rights lens by a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. She centered my childhood where I would have: on education and public schools.
It’s difficult to explain the magnitude of hearing my disability identity described in the language of equal rights and not special needs. As meaningful as it was to see a woman accepting the nomination, the tectonic shift I felt was in Clinton accepting me as I am: as a person who deserves respect and can serve the greater good. Not as a diagnosis who has nothing to give or a vote to cast. Certainly not as a target to mock whose vote is irrelevant. Because I have gained my right to an education, I gladly accept the responsibility that comes with answering these two questions:
In using the education that Hillary Clinton and other disability rights advocates fought for, I have a shot at becoming a role model who works together with others rather than being labeled an “inspiration” who is kept at a distance.
The story of childhood is the story of education. The access to and quality of education determines whether that story is one you want to retell over and over, or one that threatens to scare you into silence. The school-to-prison pipeline and the violence that students of color with disabilities experience in the name of “discipline” are the education issues that need urgent action today. I appreciate Clinton’s past work because I see potential in it for protecting the rights of more children and youth with disabilities.
I was incredibly lucky and remain greatly privileged to have had a superior early childhood education experience. But education is too important to entrust to luck and to limit to the privileged few.
The pre-school/kindergarten I attended from 1968-1971 was an anomalous private one with standards that remain out of reach to vast numbers of children with disabilities. Our family always called it “the Al Sigl Center.” I was lucky to find an online history that explains how the vision was for a physically and programmatically accessible center for the cross-disability community, and that was also transit-focused. It happens that this vision pretty much describes the Ed Roberts Campus (ERC) in Berkeley where I work everyday. It’s amazing to me how forward-thinking my early education was, and how clearly it grounded my future in school.
It helped me get through one brief but traumatic experience in an experimental school where I was sent because our “regular” public school assumed that a child with cerebral palsy (a misdiagnosis, as it later turned out) was literally a non-starter. Instead I was bused to a school where two overwhelmed teachers tried to manage over 40 first-graders, a mix of severely disabled, more moderately disabled, and non-disabled children. Combined with a 2 hour round-trip each day, I was breaking down within months in the way girls — including girls with disabilities — often do. I withdrew, I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t want to go to school. I was scared at school, the other kids were rough and unchecked. More importantly, I was terrified of failing to do my work even when I couldn’t do it because pencils, etc. were snatched away from me.
One day, my attentive mother showed up to observe and, I think, it was that evening in our little living room that my parents asked me if I’d be okay going to see the principal at my brother’s school. The one three minutes from our house and the one that had a black and white rabbit mascot named Pugsly.
As I’ve written before, my memory is of “auditioning” to go to public school; my job was to give an excellent performance of a “regular” child who reassured principals that whatever help I needed would be minor and non-disruptive. By the time I was 10 in 1975 when the Education for Handicapped Children Act was passed, I had auditioned for at least three small public schools in New York and Connecticut. (I changed schools only because we moved.) The law never completely eliminates barriers and stereotypes but it establishes the idea that certain attitudes and behaviors constitute “barriers and stereotypes.”
If you don’t like what you’ve just read, blame Hillary Clinton.
If you don’t like that I can read and write, blame Hillary Clinton.
If you don’t like me talking about me reading with others of my kind, blame Hillary Clinton. Because she, and people of her ilk, fought for my right to the same education that my brothers were getting.
Don’t get me wrong. If you asked me whether I ever enjoyed a bag of Cheetos from 1970-1975, I would have said, “Yeah!” But even as a kid, I certainly recognized that no bag of Cheetos trumped me getting to go to school. Which is why I, as a proud woman with a disability, now urge you to choose Hillary Clinton over a lying sack of junk food that insults people with disabilities. It’s the educated choice.