06 December, 2009

How I Discovered Ableism

This is the story of how I first became a disability rights activist, before I knew what those words meant. I can remember the story clearly, and even now thinking about it fills me with inconsolable rage.

As some of you know, my younger brother has Asperger's Syndrome, an Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

When Adam was in year three, he was dealing with some pretty intense bullying. He often came home upset, had no friends, and did all he could at lunch to escape the tormenting. At this point, my father was in intense pain from his car accident and also in the midst of deep depression, so he was rarely seen out of his room where he slept all day. My mother was working nights to make ends meet, and so also spent a lot of the time asleep. They tried their hardest, but did not have the energy to do more than have a few phone calls to the principle, who was "aware of the matter, and looking into it".

I was 13, and has taken over the role of parent to the younger children (because my older brother is irresponsible). I made sure the younger children did their homework, ate enough food (Mum did grocery shopping while I was at school, but I often cooked). I made sure the clothes were washed, the animals fed, the eggs collected, the children got to school on time. So it's not really all that surprising when Adam came to me for help with the bullying.

Despite my mother's phone calls, the situation had continued to escalate. A situation occurred when some tormentors had followed him into the bathrooms after he ignored them, and continued to torment him there. He got upset, and yelled and cried at them, and they pushed him into his own urine.

I decided at that point that enough was enough, and I was going to visit his teacher after school and discuss it. I gave Adam a not to give her, so she would be expecting me, and told him to wait for me to pick him up after class. The next afternoon, dressed in my private school uniform, I made my way to the school to talk with my little brother's year three teacher.

I sat in front of her, my heart pounding in my chest, describing the series of events and how they had escalated. I told her about my mother's calls to the principle and how they had been ignored. I asked her what she was going to do to make this school a safe place for my brother.

Her answer? Nothing. She gave me all the usual excuses; "boys will be boys", "you weren't there, how do you know he didn't cause it?", "It would be showing favouritism to take his side". I was shocked. I was angry. My heart pounded rapidly, my cheeks became red.

"Three boys, against my brother. They ganged up on him. They pushed him into his own urine. How can you say that it's his fault?"

She told me, with not hint of irony, that it was his fault because of his Asperger's. He provoked them, she said. And if he could just be more normal this wouldn't be happening.
She said this to me. She told me that my brother deserved the bullying because he wasn't normal, that it was his fault.

I can't remember if I replied. I remember my eyes were clouded with angry tears. I remember feeling betrayed. I remember taking my brother by the hand and leading him out of the room. I remember not saying a single thing on the walk home, waiting until I arrived to rant loudly and angrily at anyone who would listen.

I don't know if anything official came from my meeting. I know that my mother was just as pissed as me, but I don't know if she continued to pursue the matter. I know that my other younger brother, who was nine years old and in year four, took it upon himself to become Adam's protector. Because the teachers did nothing, Josh stayed with Adam at lunch and recess, and beat up anyone who dared to say anything against him. After he beat up a group of four year 7s, people got the message and left Adam alone.

This incident has stuck with me. My little brother could not speak for himself because of the power dynamic inherent in teacher-student relationships. He was completely at her mercy, and they both knew it. I came in because I knew it. I was an outside party, not part of that school, not bound by that dynamic. But this was not enough, because she knew she could disregard him and get away with it. She knew she could disregard the safety of one of her students with no ill effects because of his disability.


This is why disability activism is so important to me. Because people like her are out there, in positions of power, treating people like shit because of their disabilities. And they're doing so with impunity. This cannot continue, and I will do everything in my power to try and stop it.


Spilt Milk said...

This is a really powerful story, thank you for sharing it. Your brother is lucky to have had siblings to stand by him but it's disgusting that it was left up to other children to do what school staff should have done - not only because it is their job but because they are ethically bound to act.

Treacy said...

This makes me heart break. I work in disabilities and unfortunately this shit just keeps happening andbecause the governments keep reducing the places in support classes and special schools it's just getting worse.

On behalf of your brother, thank you.

Max C said...

Thank you for sharing this moving and thought-provoking account. I am a disability rights activist in Cambridge Massachusetts in the US, and unfortunately bullying is a problem here as well. In schools, kids with disabilities are targeted by bullies much more frequently than nondisabled children. Educators, principles, and teachers need to be held accountable for their inaction in not addressing bullying issues when brought to their attention. Schools also need to have a robust disability awareness program, which incorporates bullying awareness as part of the curriculum. The consequences for not doing so are clearly illustrated by your story: the cycle of violence and oppression just keeps getting wider and wider.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this. What a good sister you are. I am almost 3 times your age and still find it intimidating sometimes to sit with a teacher or administrator and advocate for my son. Bravo!!

Mary (MPJ) said...

I followed a link here from Spectrum Beach. Great post! My son is autistic and nothing angers me more than when people in positions of power in the school choose to do nothing to ensure his health and safety at school.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. For some reason, I don't remember this incident. I remember getting pushed into a bin, though. However, apart from that, and a general knowledge of getting bullied, I can't remember much about any of this. In fact, I remember my childhood as the best time of my life (how ironic). In retrospect, I wonder if my subconscious has actually repressed these memories? I literally remember nothing about the urinal incident. I know I hate using urinals, but I can't tell if that was from this incident directly, or just having aspergers in general? Anyway, I love you for doing what you did, I just wish I could remember it.


Pharaoh Katt said...


I see you have found my blog. Thank you for your kind words. Unfortunately, memory repression seems to be a common trait in this family. Many hugs and I love you.

If you continue to read this blog, you will find out things about me that may upset you. Please bare this in mind before pursuing. Also, I would appreciate it if you didn't let our parents find out anything that is written here.



Anonymous said...

Don't worry, Kitty. I'll love you no matter how many dark secrets you hold. And I'll keep it away from Mum and Dad, too, if that's what you want.