I want to talk about the education system and how teachers are trained—or not—to work with students with disabilities and their families. I would like to premise this by saying I had many incredible teachers and support staff in my high school years. I owe my life to my high school, Leduc Composite helped me become the woman I am today.
However, that is not what I want to talk about. Thirteen years ago, I went to a Junior High school where the staff were so untrained and unequipped to help me it was incredible. There are many stories I could tell about how I was bullied by the staff at this school. However, I would just like to share a few.
As some of you know, I am visually impaired. My grade seven teacher didn’t quite understand what that meant. One day in class he was writing on the board, my desk was behind a big long table, which made it difficult to see the board. My educational assistant was out of the room—doing something for my teacher instead of helping me—so my teacher’s solution to this problem was for me to, and I quote, “try and see harder.”
One day my mother went in to ask [the Principal] for help for me and his response was, and I quote “how much longer is she going to live anyway?”
A second experience took place in Grade eight. We had a Science test and our teacher let us have cheat sheets. Which basically means we got one piece of paper to write as many things on as possible and we were able to take that piece of paper into the exam with us. Due to needing extra time I, along with a few of my classmates, were taken into a private classroom to take the test. My Educational Assistant—the same one from the story above—read the questions to us and we had time to answer; by which I mean about ten seconds. I didn’t even have enough time to find the answer on the cheat sheet, which I had spent all night the previous evening preparing.
The final in-depth story I want to tell is from grade nine. We had to build an electric motor in science class. Now, for someone with a learning disability this was quite difficult. My father even tried to help me and he could not figure it out. So, he talked to my teacher to see if the project could be adapted for me, but my teacher refused and ended up giving me a failing grade on the project. That same teacher also gave me a failing grade on another assignment because a family friend, who was also an educational assistant at an elementary school had helped me by writing down the answers for me after I looked them up; acting as a scribe for me.
“I spent those five years feeling like a shell of a person.”
These are only a few stories I have from my junior high school days. My educational assistant was truly horrible with me. I was forced to eat in the library with the other educational assistants instead of interacting with my peers. She would refuse to let me drink coffee even though my parents said it was okay. As well, in sewing class, she would force me to thread my own needle, knowing full well that I was visually impaired and could not see it. The principal at this school was no better. One day my mother went in to ask for help for me and his response was, and I quote “how much longer is she going to live anyway?” Later, when I had a crush on a teacher my vice principal’s solution was to suggest that my parents put me on Ritalin.
I spent those five years feeling like a shell of a person. The staff at this school beat me down so much that I actually tried to end my life in grade seven. Which brings me to the moral of this story.
I was fortunate. After grade nine my parents put me in a high school that changed my life. They put me in a high school with staff who lifted me up, who raised my self-esteem back up. They put me in a school that saved my life. However, what if that hadn’t been the case? They could have sent me to the high school in small town Alberta that was even less equipped for someone with a disability than the junior high. The point is, we need to do better. We need to train our teachers and support staff, to give them the tools they need to work with people with disabilities. I was lucky. I went to a new school with new teachers that turned my life around. But how many students with disabilities aren’t as lucky? How many students are bullied by teachers and staff that are not trained to help them? We need to do better, because it could save a life.