Socialization in School Sets Long Lasting Patterns of Exclusion
I live with a disability. I use a wheelchair. Like many people with my disability, I have encountered numerous hardships as a result not so much of the disability, but the reaction of my peers to my chair. Although the societal barriers at the adult level are important, I will focus here on my experiences at the elementary school level.
First of all, just receiving standard transportation to school was a problem. My parents fought with the schools for my right to use transportation the other kids used. Without that advocacy, I very likely would have been required to take transportation that isolated me from the rest of my schoolmates. I also sat near the front of the bus, far away from most of the seats. This was not by choice, but by the location of the wheelchair straps, which held me in a position on the bus where I was unable to talk with my peers. I felt extremely isolated from the rest of the children on the bus, especially when I looked back and saw them laughing while talking to each other. That being said, I learned to talk loud enough so my voice was heard. I talked to the bus driver, asking if there was another way I could position my chair to allow conversation with people that I could actually see.
Social awkwardness has been one of the most frustrating problems I have encountered throughout my life. In school, I was frequently isolated from my classmates. I often pushed myself into groups because students almost never invited me. This exclusion led to understandable feelings of isolation and hurt. I often ended up asking the teacher if he/she would be my partner. One cannot underestimate, especially at that age, the effect that such shunning has on self-confidence. Imagine asking the teacher if he/she will be your partner simply because your classmates do not want to be your partner. Granted, this exclusion happened to unpopular kids as well. But even they had a distinct group that generally shut me out. Since I was actually quite outspoken as a child, I do not believe that my personality had much, if anything, to do with my isolation. Though I eventually developed some solid friendships, it took my own will. I had to break that fear and curiosity of the unknown.
I write this not in an effort to blame people for problems I encountered. The school system improved significantly in its dealings with me. I write to identify a particular problem area in which I believe the root of discrimination and misunderstanding lies: elementary school experiences. The elementary school age is where we begin socializing with our peers, and school is the primary way in which we meet new people at that age, given our limited access to society. If we are to eliminate some of the social confines that society places on people with disabilities, we must strive to change society at this very basic level