Disability Advocacy and Unintended Consequences
Disability advocacy whose aim is to improve opportunities for children with disabilities is often focussed on raising funds for organizations that provide early intervention, specialized therapies, and inclusive recreational or educational programs. Raising awareness about the extra challenges babies and children with developmental delays, chronic health conditions or physical disabilities, is usually meant to show what a difference research, services and supports have made for earlier generations.
Because disability awareness and advocacy has long been fueled by medical and education professionals, family members, and others who have neither grown up with or experienced disability issues on a daily basis, the true diversity of the population is rarely recognized or acknowledged. Children with disabilities may never meet an adult with the same diagnosis living an ordinary life in the community. Disability history is not taught to them or their mainstream peers. That part of their cultural identity may remain invisible and unexplored well into adulthood. While children of color, those whose families are multi-lengual, and those who express the true diversity of our communities in other ways may have families who understand everyday prejudice and discrimination, children and teens with disabilities of all races and cultures experience the added layer of intrusion that they endure due to ableism.
While no one has grown up without feeling the wounds most common in childhood, there are small daily realities and insults unrelated to any disability that is clearly understood by young people who must tolerate an atmosphere of ableism that their families and mainstream peers could not imagine. Like racism, sexism, and other bigotry, ableism that seems as natural as the air we breathe is often difficult for those who exhale it to recognize it as systematic. Their everyday life is intruded upon by accessibility issues, and 'innocent' insensitive comments that are as vicious as the taunts of bullies.
While peer mentoring and other attempts to build interpersonal relationships between children with disabilities in both integrated and segregated classrooms are honest attempts to build a culture of acceptance for all students, it is still rare to find a school that is dedicated to a culture of inclusion. Mainstream students visiting a Special Education classroom and serial peer buddies in integrated classrooms may benefit from their experiences, but like voluntourism in impoverished parts of the world, they teach unintended lessons to the students with disabilities they temporarily befriend. The structure of the relationship teaches them lessons of ableism they internalize for the rest of their lives.
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