If you’re not familiar with what ableism is, you might be even more confused about why I’m describing our education system as being ableist. To put it simply, ableism is discrimination against disabled people and the favoring of non-disabled people. So why is our education system ableist? There are many instances where success in school is typically measured by factors that many disabled people can't work up to because of lack of accessibility and resources, stigma surrounding disabilities, and many people not knowing how to support disabled people. There are a few areas of ableism in our education system and I’ve had some experiences with them while having anxiety disorders, but I would encourage everyone to do additional research and dig deeper into how ableism shapes other aspects of our society and work towards unlearning and dismantling ableism.
Participation is what’s affected me most during my time in school, since I’ve had instances where I wouldn't do well in classes because I didn't speak up much. I've even had some teachers dislike me simply for not actively contributing, despite still doing well on all my other assignments. Some other instances of ableism regarding participation are taking points off of someone's grade for not actively participating in class, cold-calling students, pulling sticks with people’s names on them to randomly choose someone to participate, and not offering an alternative to oral participation. My anxiety makes it difficult for me to feel comfortable speaking up in class even if I know the answer to a question being asked, and it's always been frustrating that some teachers don’t understand why participation in class is something that's detrimental to me to the point where it can make me experience physical symptoms.
Penalizing students for missing classes and even reducing their grades for it doesn't take into account what they could be going through that led to them not attending classes. For me, I had several absences during my sophomore and junior years of high school because I had many appointments regarding my health and other responsibilities that would have to be taken care of during school hours. It's even made it to where many students would feel obligated to go to school even while they’re sick or not in a good state and have to prioritize their school attendance over their own wellbeing. I remember one instance in 1st grade where a student was given a reward for having perfect attendance (I have nothing against that student), and I found it a bit off-putting and unrealistic for most students to not miss one day of school. Though it would be difficult for students to receive an education if they're almost never at school, they shouldn't be penalized for circumstances they could have little to no control over.
The way grading tends to be structured can make it difficult for disabled students to succeed in the eyes of our education system. Some parts of this I’ve touched on in the previous paragraphs, but things like taking off points during oral presentations for not making eye contact, not speaking up, posture, stumbling on words, etc., making tests and other assignments timed, not offering extensions when needed, taking off points for messy handwriting, not allowing accommodations or alternative activities in physical education, and many other similar practices can be harmful to disabled students. I've had several instances where I've had my grade lowered for not doing the best in oral presentations because of not making eye contact or stumbling over what I say, not being as engaged with others as I should be in group work because of my anxiety, not having enough time to finish tests, etc. This isn't so much to say that there shouldn't be any type of standard in performing well in school, but it's important to note that everyone learns at their own pace, and though disabilities can impact a person’s performance, they should not stop someone from receiving a good education.
With all this in mind, it is crucial for non-disabled folks to listen to the experiences and requests of disabled people and to hold yourself accountable when you're in the wrong. Disabled people are commonly left out of activist spaces and it's important that we work towards eradicating ableism not just in our education system, but in the many aspects of our lives. This was a very broad overview of how ableism presents itself in our education system so please don't end your learning here and start or continue to listen to and advocate for the disabled community.