Office of Inclusive Excellence

Steep Steps: I Made it Despite Early Experiences with Ableism

March 22, 2022

By Victoria Verlezza

Growing up I didn’t always have the easiest time in school. I struggled and I struggled a lot. Many people said it was because I wasn’t smart or I wasn’t applying myself the way that they thought I should. When I was eight years old, my mother pushed to have me assessed for a learning disability. In the 1990s, young girls were not being tested for autism unless they showed the “classic” signs so my assessment ruled that I have auditory processing disorder (APD) and dyslexia.

This diagnosis meant that I was first held back in the second grade and second, I was marked. From that day forward, I was seen as the problem, the one who needed to be in special education, and was treated without respect by my peers and my teachers. Growing up in the 90s with a learning disability, or neurodivergence, as we now know it to be, was not easy, especially because of ableism and the oppression people with disabilities and neurodivergence face.

I couldn’t spell like the other kids, I would be taken out of my regular classes and brought into the special education classroom. I recall my special education teacher, to this day I remember her name, who was horrible to me. She was unkind and as a result of her own neurotypicality, she was ill-equipped to teach me and the others in my special education period that best suited our needs. As a result of being different and not having my brain challenged or taught appropriately, I acted out. Now looking back, I would venture a guess that the other kids in my special education classes also had something else going on that no one, at the time, was equipped to manage or navigate. We were just seen as dumb or unwilling to try.

School was always hard. I never had it easy until I started advocating for myself in college and graduate school. My early experiences with ableism have shaped how I see myself, mainly the negative self-talk or doubt I have regarding my brain or abilities. But it also taught me how to view the students I work with. I never doubt them and always am willing to meet them where they are.

As a result of my own challenges navigating an abelist, racist, sexist, homophobic educational system, I advocate for students, I listen to the unsaid requests, I notice if something is going on and give them grace rather than humiliate or shame them. Students are more than a body or mind in our classroom. They come to the class with so much suffering, joy, pain, privilege, disadvantage, hunger, abundance, family obligations, work, etc etc. We, as professionals, are required to see them for more than a number.