How I Learned the Meaning of Ableism | Rebecca Riley

It was my first week of grade five at a new school when I learned the word that would haunt me for years to come. One morning, I got off my bus and walked around the school to the back. A girl approached me and said, “You know, you’re in the retarded class.” Then she walked away. I didn’t know what “retarded” meant, but I understood that it wasn’t good. When I eventually made friends, I told them about the girl’s comment and her teacher found out. One day during recess, her teacher gathered both of us together and asked if she had said that.

“Rebecca, I would never say that,” the girl replied.

The teacher didn’t look further into it, but the girl never bothered me again. However, I gained another bully. Every day, he called me “stupid,” “idiot” and “retarded.” I became afraid to attend school. I told my educational assistant and she accompanied me to the principal’s office. After explaining the situation, the principal said, “Well, his mom died of cancer, and his dad travels a lot for work, so his older brother takes care of him.” His brother was notified that I had complained, but no serious measures were taken. The bullying continued for two years, until I graduated.

This happened in 2002, when bullying wasn’t taken as seriously as it is now. But my experience had an additional aspect: ableism. Ableism is discrimination against people of different physical, psychological, or mental abilities. At age five, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I had up to four hundred seizures per day. However, I am not, nor have I ever been, disabled. I had a neurological disorder that prevented me from being able to learn while I was sick. However, it didn’t cause irreparable damage that would determine my capabilities. I had an extreme case of epilepsy, but the medical community never treated me like a lost cause. It was only the educational school systems that considered me a problem. By grade five, I was healthy but due to missing school I was labeled developmentally delayed and placed in a General Learning Program (GLP), a special education class. I was considered to be inferior to my “normal” peers because I was in this class. The bullying continued due to the ableist assumption that I deserved to be called retarded—because, to them, I was. I didn’t know at the time that ableism would later define my life. The word “retarded” became so normal to me that I felt like I had it imprinted in red on my forehead for anyone to see. I knew there was something wrong with how I was treated, but for the next decade I was unable to place a specific word to my experiences.


The next significant time I experienced ableism was in grade eight when I was deciding what to do for high school. I was still a GLP student and was supposed to attend a trade school where students in GLP and similar programs were sent. To call it a school is misleading; it’s more like a training centre. Upon graduation, students receive a certificate instead of a high school diploma. At my previous school, the GLP supervisor recommended I attend a trade school, but it wasn’t based on my academic performance. My teacher spent more time with me than the other students because she recognized that I had potential. During grades seven and eight, my performance soared. My parents had an assessment done and I was labeled average intelligence. My parents then attempted to register me at other schools, but on my file they were able to see that it was “recommended” I attend a trade school. As a result, the schools refused to enroll me. My only choices were to attend a trade school or to switch school boards.

So, I left.

What I experienced are human rights violations. Section twenty-six of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone is entitled to an education, and that parents have a right to choose the kind of education their child receives. Both of these rights were violated due to ableism.

After transferring to a different school board, my new school wanted to place me in a special class in the morning and regular classes in the afternoon. Fortunately, the class filled up before my parents were able to register me. My vice-principal was opposed to me attending and tried to convince my parents that the other school would better suit me. He told them about his own child who was disabled and attended a private school.

I enrolled in regular classes, but found the transition challenging since I didn’t have the same background as my peers. My grades were in the sixties to low seventies, but the school didn’t help me catch up. Instead, they made me feel like I performed poorly because that was all I was capable of. I was placed in college pathway classes, so when my grades eventually improved I asked my guidance counsellor to switch into university classes. College is geared towards job training through certificate and diploma programs. I wanted an academic education and career, though, so university aligned with that, but in order to attend university I needed six high school university-level credits. Regardless of my grades, I was never allowed to switch course pathways. This was also ableist, and another human rights violation. The UDHR states that higher education should be available to everyone on the basis of merit. My grades were good, and if I had received the right support I could have accomplished more. To my counsellor, though, taking university classes was never a possibility for me, and as a result, she never allowed it.

I attended college after high school, because my guidance counsellor had said I could gain admission to university after a year. When I went to apply, I learned that college wouldn’t help me. I gained entrance to university through a program that accepts students who don’t meet entrance requirements. After a year, I earned an average that landed me acceptance into my degree program.

Due to my experiences growing up, I had an Individual Education Plan and was told to register with the university’s centre for students with disabilities. I complied because I thought I had to. However, since I didn’t have a disability, at the end of the year I would need to have testing done to continue my involvement. I declined when I was offered the testing. After several phone calls, I agreed. I knew this was going to end badly.

In May, I was tested over several days. The first day, I met with the supervisor and the intern. The purpose of this meeting was to gather information about me to assist in the results. One important question they are supposed to ask is if a client has experienced any type of trauma or has mental health issues, since these can affect a person’s performance. This was never asked.

At one point, I was asked about what I would like to do for a career.

“I would love to be a motivational speaker and leadership facilitator for Me to We and Free the Children. I want to go into schools and educate students about global issues,” I replied.

“Oh, so you want to get others to do all the work,” the supervisor snapped.

I was silent for a moment, stunned at what he just said.

“I also like managing people, being involved in lots of things and taking a leadership position,” I continued anyway.

“Oh, so you’re bossy,” the supervisor said.

The supervisor then asked me about my parents’ occupations. I replied, not sure of how this related to me, and listed their blue-collar, not-much-education-required jobs. As the supervisor recorded this, I felt that this was a classist inquiry.

When I left, I was uncomfortable and felt a lump in my stomach. We met again a month later to discuss the results.

“You have a learning disability,” the supervisor stated. Yeah right, I thought. I’ve had six other tests done, and now I magically have a disability. Sure.

As the supervisor continued to talk, I started to cry. I had been right.


My grades dropped in my classes. I knew this would be the outcome, but I was in denial. When I tried to talk with my coordinator, she avoided my concerns. The centre’s staff repeatedly told me that to have a disability you must have at least average intelligence. However, the report had been inconclusive about my intelligence. I started seeing a counsellor on campus, but, according to him, “Other people go through things too. Some girls your age go through breakups.”

After several months, I stopped attending counselling. I reached out to centres on campus, but no one took me seriously. Trying to deal with the initial incident, combined with my past experiences, falling behind in school, my failed attempts for help, and general student pressures caused me to breakdown. On campus, I would find somewhere isolated because I couldn’t stop crying. The university that once saw beyond my past experiences had become the unbearable reality that despite what I do, I am not safe. I cried on campus around fifteen times; five times I had to talk with officers from the safety department, other times someone would find me and bring me to their office. Sometimes I wouldn’t be found.

After my fifth encounter with safety, I received a message from a university official, Eric Parker*, requesting to meet. The next morning I sat in the waiting room of his office. I began to cry. A front desk staff brought me some tissues.

Parker yelled at me and didn’t listen to me, stating that my behaviour was “extraordinary” and “inappropriate.” At one point, I asked, “Did you ever think my behaviour is extraordinary because I’ve been in extraordinary circumstances?”

“Rebecca, people who have been physically and sexually abused come here and are fine.”

Near the end of our meeting, I was still crying. Suddenly, I felt like my lungs had collapsed. I couldn’t breathe.

“Unbelievable. Rebecca, your behaviour is extraordinary.”

I later received an email from Parker that outlined what he told me during our meeting. When we had spoken, he told me that I must reply and agree. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be allowed to continue my studies for the winter semester.


In the beginning of the winter term, I went to the university’s human rights office. I had met with a staff member at one point in the fall and she had said that the comments made by the disability centre staff were wrong. She told me to come back when I knew what I wanted to happen. I met with a different woman this time, and told her that I had been there before. She said she would talk with the disability centre. Instead, she called Parker and told him what I had said.


I hardly encountered Parker again until the following summer. I’d taken a class and hadn’t submitted my research paper. I tried to talk with my instructor after the grades had been submitted, but a miscommunication led him to call Parker. Parker contacted me and we met a few days later. He presented me with a behavioural contract and said I must sign if I wished to continue classes. I told my tutor, who I’d been working with for a year and knew about the situation, and she emailed a letter to Parker advocating on my behalf. Parker replied to her, but never got back to me.


In my first year of university, I saw a button that read, “Challenge ableism”. When I looked up ableism, it was defined as “discrimination in favour of able-bodied people”. I didn’t understand. But over the past two and a half years, I’ve come to terms with what ableism means, and realized that it has significantly affected my life. My university is known internationally for being one of the most accessible universities in Canada, and is often praised for its numerous student support services. I know many students who benefit from these programs and initiatives. However, my experiences highlight the lack of staff understanding and training in systems of oppression, and the importance of this for student success. Ableism still affects me, but I hope that through learning my story people will better understand and recognize it.

[*Name changed]

Rebecca Riley is a writer in Ottawa, Canada. Follow her on Twitter at @_RebeccaRiley.



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