As a disabled person in a mainstream high school, life is not easy or simple. There's always things that seem impossible to deal with, things that are not supposed to be so complicated. But, I guess that's the life of a young disabled person. I have been living with this kind of attitude for my whole high school career. It's hard to live with it everyday, and I can't anymore.
Three weeks ago the new term started. I couldn't go to school. I felt immensely unhappy. For two days I did nothing but cry and eat Nutella (it's my comfort food). I couldn't be in a place where I feel unwanted and unnecessary.
So, my mom suggested to me that I write an open letter to the school, sharing everything that I'm feeling. It took me 4 hours to write this letter - not because it was long enough to warrant that amount of time, but because it was really difficult to write all my feelings in one place. After I wrote it, i felt a weird sense of exhiliration, like it was finally time for people to actually listen to what I had to say and do something about it. I sent it to various people at the school, because it was addressed to everybody. I sent the letter on the 23rd of July. I'm still waiting for any kind of response or acknowledgement of receipt. I don't know how long I'm expected to wait...
Here is the open letter that I wrote to my school:
OPEN LETTER TO THE BERGVLIET HIGH SCHOOL COMMUNITY
Dear BHS management, staff and pupils
I don’t know how you are going to receive this letter but I think it’s important that I send it. Not just for myself but for any other people who might feel the same as I do.
Let me start off by saying thank you. I want to say thank you to all of the people at the school who help me with various things. I want to say thank you to all the boys who have helped me – and the boys who will be helping me – up and down stairs on a daily basis. I am always going to be grateful to you for being such gentlemen and being so helpful in a seemingly small way that is actually a huge act that allows me to exercise my right to an education. Thank you a million times. To all the people who have helped rally the troops on my behalf, it’s an awesome thing that you’ve all done. You’ve taken some of the stress of my disability away from me. Thank you.
Then, I want to say thank you to all my teachers. I don’t know if you realise what an impact you all have had on my life at school. I believe that you are the people who have made my school experience bearable. When I’m in your classrooms I feel like you have an understanding of my needs. It’s a great relief to ride into a classroom and not have to worry about what people may say because I know that you will make a plan. I don’t think you can ever truly understand how much I appreciate your attitude. You’re amazing!
But now I need to share with you the reason for this letter. Every day when I come to school I feel as if I am just one of the many that make up the school population, which is strange because you would think that I would feel like I’ve made a difference to the school, that I’ll be remembered for my contribution to the school, because the school is seemingly more inclusive and accepting. I don’t feel that way.
I started to wonder why it is that I don’t feel this pride for my school that many others feel. I think I’ve found some things that could explain it. I’m a pretty average student. I have an average academic performance. I don’t play any school sport because I’m unable to due to my disability. I feel like many achievements I have in my life outside of school-life are gone unnoticed by the school. I feel that a student that does not excel in sport at school or have great academic skills is made to feel as if they’re at the school to make up the numbers. I don’t believe there is much of a feeling of appreciation or acceptance of people who don’t add value in terms of “A’s” or sporting achievements.
I know that every person at Bergvliet High School has something valuable to offer the school. If we didn’t, why would you accept us in the first place? I feel that many have forgotten the importance of telling a person that they matter, that if we weren’t there the school would be less because of it, that the people up top care that we are there. I don’t know how you can expect us to deliver a high standard of everything if we are never told that we did a good job when we do deliver. It wears a person down.
I feel like an outsider. I feel like when people look at me they are wondering what I’m doing at this school. People don’t say the words. It’s in their eyes. It’s in the way they act when they’re around me. I guess I should be used to it, with my being in a wheelchair and all. I have a good amount of resilience for this kind of thing, but when you have to live with other people’s eyes staring in your direction all of the time, your stash of resilience starts to run out. Mine is running out fast. School is supposed to be a place where your troubles go away because you’re in a place where you feel you belong. My being in a wheelchair makes stairs a problem – it’s difficult for me to get into a classroom. I can’t have an independent education experience because I can’t get into classes independently. It’s not dignified for any person to have to be assisted to a place of learning. I’m sometimes seen as rude when people help me because they don’t hear me saying thank you. I speak softly and sometimes it takes a little time for me to get right in my chair again, after the boys have lifted me, and by this time, the boys have disappeared. I feel that people expect me to be nothing but grateful for being given a space in the school. Sometimes I feel that I’m not expected to want the same educational opportunities, or to act as any other 16 year old does.
I thought a school was supposed to nurture and cherish its students. I thought a school was supposed to grow and assist its students when they have struggles or weaknesses and help them to become better people. I thought a school was supposed to be a place of enrichment, warmth and acceptance. Instead, I’m experiencing our school to be a place where students are not seen as adding value unless it’s convenient and requires minimal effort. I feel that students who have certain problems are passed off to the counsellors to “fix”.
I’m sad that I feel this way because when I started at Bergvliet in Grade 8, I was so excited that I was at this school. I end up here, in Grade 11, unhappy. I feel, with all my heart that my high school experience didn’t have to be this way. I also believe that I’m not the only student who feels this way. I understand that I have a unique set of circumstances, but every person at Bergvliet has a unique set of circumstances, and it shouldn’t impact our being accepted. It should be embraced. People shouldn’t be made to feel like outsiders because of being different.
I think it’s awful that I have to live my life at school quietly: unseen and unheard. I’m not speaking about the rules and regulations of the school. I’m talking about the fact that I have to fight to be accepted, I have to fight to belong, and if I don’t have the strength to fight, I just have to deal with not belonging because it’s doesn’t seem important enough for the school to address. Maybe you don’t want to know how many people at Bergvliet High feel like outsiders or feel that they don’t belong, but I think it’s really wrong for anyone to have to be unhappy because of the insecurities of other people.
I hope that by writing this, people who are feeling the same as I do have a platform to raise their voices, to share their problems and sadness. I hope they can share their feelings openly where they will not be judged for the way they feel. I hope the school will receive it with an open mind to finding solutions to our problems. The school always says that we need to show the world how great Bergvliet is. I believe this will happen when Bergvliet becomes open to accepting criticism and acknowledges the fact that it has flaws and commits to working at making them strengths. Then Bergvliet will be a great place to be, a happy place to be, a place where each learner is accepted, a place where each person belongs.