It has been said that disability rights are the next great civil rights struggle of our time. I don't know how that statement is perceived by people who have been lucky enough to have never had their civil rights challenged. I do know that as a white person, lucky enough to have received an education -- taken it for granted, even -- to have lived a generally middle-class existence in America, to have believed in the fable of the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American ethos, our struggles with the public school system have been eye-opening; an intimate exercise in understanding the broad differences that separate classes of privilege and how deeply embedded they are in our society.
Things have been quiet here at Day Sixty-Seven. When that happens you can be sure that, rather than nothing going on, there is more. The transition to High School for my boy was fairly traumatic for everyone in our little green house and ended badly. In December, I withdrew Oliver from public school, returning to homeschooling full-time with a very heavy heart. Without going into specifics I will say that generally-speaking this failure hinged on the beliefs of one special education teacher, a whole system of lethargy behind her, and deeply entrenched ideas about who belongs and who doesn't. And despite laws that are meant to protect people with disabilities, and how egregious what happened to Oliver might seem to the uninitiated, it happens every day to students across the country.
With our return to homeschooling, our family focused on Black History for the month of February and watched the 2015 film, Selma. One scene, in particular, resonated deeply with me as it encapsulates so much about our own experience with power, marginalization and discrimination. In the scene, the character played by Oprah Winfrey, attempts again to apply for her right to vote. Although black men had been granted the right to vote according to the 15th amendment in 1870, and black women were granted that same right in 1920, local actions and regulations of disenfranchisement continued (and continues) in a widespread manner until the civil rights movement brought the issue to national attention in the 1960s. The movie, which took place in 1965, shows with breathtaking clarity how one person with privilege and power, backed by the sanctions of our society, can stand in the way of another person gaining access to his or her civil rights.
Throughout the entire fall, my son was denied his right to an education in this very same way. Hurdle after insurmountable hurdle was placed before him until we gave up and walked away. That same restrained fury and sadness that Oprah displays, the utter defeat that she bears, is ours as well.
During the period of time before I gave up, I spoke up. I wrote about it. I told everyone I knew that my son was not receiving an education, that he was not going to school each day, was not receiving any instruction and was being denied his rights.
People shifted uncomfortably in their seats. They made sympathetic sounds. They commented about how sorry they felt that we were having a hard time. But no one was appropriately outraged. And make no mistake, this inability to be outraged is how we enable systemic discrimination.
We have so othered people with disabilities that we don't believe their rights are as fundamental as those of everyone else. So no one stopped to wonder: What would I do if my child weren't allowed to go to school? because it would never occur to them that such a thing could happen, so confident are they in their privilege. (Note to reader: if you want to check your own biases, ask yourself if you're wondering about the other side to this story - what reasonable explanation there must be for a district to not offer instruction to a child.) No one approached the schools and said: My neighbor isn't in school and that concerns me. or My friend should be here, shouldn't he? Perhaps they felt that there must be some good reason why a child would not be able to access an education -- as if the problem were with the child and not the system of belief.
This is America, after all, we have a right to vote and a right to an education -- it's as simple as that, isn't it?