Recently, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (CAHPERD) state conference where I delivered my speech, Disabling Ableism: The Modern Pathway to Inclusion, to thousands of physical education instructors from all over the state.
On receiving this booking request, it was an immediate yes for me, because this engagement offered an opportunity to have a direct impact on students and also to face my past struggles and triumphs directly, and up to this point in my life, there have only been a few times I have had the chance to do this. This was one of them.
This booking offered me the opportunity to revisit my feelings as a young girl in elementary school, a young lady in high school and a young woman in college when facing down my own experiences in participating in physical education classes and then eventually learning to instruct them myself.
Having grown much since those days and now having a stronger sense of self-confidence and a greater acceptance of who I am fully, disability and all. I felt ready to share my lived experience to those who are today directly working with and shaping the children who will lead our future tomorrow.
Physical education for me was both empowering and oppressing.
Mostly the oppression of being segregated into adapted physical education classes depending on the day, the situation, the task or the teacher, were the times that I sat on the sidelines dreaming of how it would be to play with the other kids.
However, there were times that I was included, as best as they knew how back then, and I was integrated into the general physical education classes. These were the times that I was able to feel like I was one of the “other” kids. I still remember how this was a big deal for me.
One of the most empowering things I remember from adapted physical education is when I learned how to become one with my chair through play and where I also learned how to take care of my body. My adapted physical education teacher “Mrs. C”, was the one who taught me to stretch my legs and how important it would be to maintain what flexibility I have for as long as possible in my life. The lessons she taught me back then I still use every night before I go to bed today.
I also learned about advocacy through “Mrs. C”, because she was the one who would fight for me to be included in the general activities when she felt it was appropriate back then. She helped me find confidence to speak up when I was so shy and embarrassed about my disabled body.
But adapted physical education was also where I felt left behind. This is a systemic issue in education that stretches all the way from our past and many times still into our present. It occurs when and where we segregate kids with disabilities from their peers.
This is done, I suppose, with good intent for the most part, to give them the extra support they may need to succeed but it also deprives kids with disabilities in so many ways.
Knowing that teachers are overworked and underpaid, I also wonder if it is done simply out of convenience as well. Recognizing as a society we have long accepted that we do not allot near enough resources to support our teachers and children in school, and so when we add inclusion into the mix in the classroom, I’m sure it seems daunting.
But who in the end suffers from this…the kids.
The children with disabilities feel left behind, excluded and singled out for being different and the able-bodied kids don’t have the exposure to diverse ability which ultimately perpetuates ableism in our society as these kids grow into adults.
So, to have the awesome opportunity to share the impact physical education teachers have on all the aforementioned was BEYOND exciting for me, and I consider this one of the most important things I have done yet in my advocacy work.
Sharing how it felt to be that kid, and how it took me into my 40s to be brave enough to say we need to do better by impressing on and calling out to these instructors that they are the catalyst to change was POWERFUL and needed.
I was approached by SO many educators after the speech that validated my message and encouraged me to continue on. Thank You, CAHPERD and all of the attendees for the wonderful time we shared together and for amplifying this message of inclusion. This is Allyship!