The Layers of Exclusion for Black Disabled students
To mark the start of Black History Month we have published an article by Katouche Goll, ALLFIE volunteer and member of our Disabled Black Lives Matter pressure group.
To mark the start of Black History Month, we have published this insightful article by Katouche Goll, ALLFIE volunteer and member of our Disabled Black Lives Matter pressure group, set up to address racial and intersectional inequalities.
When examining the experience of Disabled Black students, an understanding of intersectionality is important. Coined by scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality allows us to understand how multiple identities can exist at once in a person. Being Black and Disabled is a unique experience that has more oppression and stigma. In the context of school, this leads to a greater number of exclusions. The Timpson Review of School Exclusions reveals that 78% of excluded children are Disabled. It also reveals that Black pupils are more likely to be excluded than their non-Black peers. This likelihood increases when the child is both Black and Disabled. The high incidence of exclusion for Black Disabled children at school, speaks to the educational environment. Is it a conducive environment that prioritises the wellbeing and learning of all children? Or does it isolate Black Disabled students to the point of exclusion?
I speak from a place of privilege having attended a grammar school which in of itself is a form of segregated education. Nonetheless, the difficulties I experienced as a Black Disabled student speak to the widespread issue of barriers faced in education.
I still remember my first day, walking into the assembly hall with my three-pronged sticks and everyone looking at me like I had two heads. I attended mainstream schools. For most of that time I was one of the only Disabled students. I went to a girls’ grammar secondary school in Kent, where unlike my diverse primary school in London, I was one of three Black girls in my year. Being the only visibly disabled student in the entire school, I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Making friends proved very difficult. Despite my efforts it was clear most people were not interested in being my friend as much as they were interested in being friends with each other. Being one of the only Black students definitely played a part. As a minority at school you are expected to be a ‘digestible’ version of yourself for your white peers’ convenience. Not because of a particular difference in behaviour, but because we are scrutinised by our non-Black peers since being Black is considered inherently ‘threatening’. The pressure to conform at school exists for every student not least if you are visibly different from your peers because you’re Disabled or Black. Or in my case, both.
I had a learning support assistant (LSA) who helped me move around the school, which further differentiated me from everybody. Though I needed the help, having constant adult company meant that I wasn’t able to freely talk with my peers. Kids who perhaps didn’t mind my friendship were put off by their presence. I was not allowed to move around the school independently without my LSA. If I was taken to a particular place e.g. the canteen, I would have to stay there for the entirety of lunchtime even after others had left. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time alone.
In terms of my impairment I spent most of my time travelling from class to class than I probably spent in lessons. I would often miss important parts, e.g. homework tasks, and was always catching up on the work. Despite not taking any technical subjects for GCSE or A level I was forced to trek across campus with my two sticks. When I started to experience severe lower back pain and took time off school, my return was demanded plus the use of a wheelchair. Despite explaining that a wheelchair does not work with my impairment because it induces joint stiffness, I was very brazenly told that I should “swallow my pride and use a chair rather than make excuses.” Whilst using a wheelchair until my back recuperated, all my classes magically were on the same corridor and I could now learn in the once completely infeasible rooms.
I missed numerous school trips because the itinerary wasn’t accessible. I think the one that upset me the most was that I was not able to go on the exchange trip to Spain even though it was my favourite GCSE subject because activities were not inclusive.
Issues of participation and inclusion continued right up till sixth form. By this time, it was a little bit easier to interact with my peers due to smaller classes and an influx of new students. However, a moment that stands out was when my A2 Politics class organised a school trip to Switzerland that involved an exchange with a host family. I was told by my teacher that I would be staying in the teacher’s accommodation because they’d made an exception and added me as ‘number 17’ to the planned 16 places, therefore, a host family couldn’t be allocated. I was devastated and confused because I knew I had applied and received my place fair and square. I felt like the pattern of exclusion from what my peers were doing was going to continually follow me throughout life. It was eventually revealed none of the families agreed to host me because I was Disabled. For some reason, it was easier to tell me they’d accommodated my presence on the trip rather than pushback against blatant discrimination.
Reflecting on these experiences, I had no agency, my voice was not respected, and I could not make the decisions my peers could. My voice as a Black child had less value. I know now that the way I was made to feel in that environment was a reflection of the medical model, I had impairments so I was not an appropriate fit for the school and should pay for that every day. The barrier all along was their understanding of inclusion. It is the responsibility of the establishment and schools to implement the social model of disability by removing the attitudinal and environmental barriers disabled students face. Without this the belief that Black Disabled students belong outside of the mainstream learning environment will persist and there will be no equity.
By Katouche Goll, ALLFIE