Disabilities in a Nutshell and How We Approach Inclusion as a UWC Community

by Anabel Ropero Gutièrrez, United World College Maastricht
26th of May, 2018

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he perception of what a disability is and how it should be treated has changed positively in the last decades. All over the globe, we have become more aware of them and, slowly but effectively, we are leaving superstitions and misunderstandings behind. However, we haven’t reached the point yet where we can claim to have achieved the so-called inclusion. By this, I mean making the same opportunities accessible for everybody by providing materials and structures for people in need. It is understandable that this need of inclusion is not noticeable for a big part of the population. When talking about equality we often mention race, sexual orientation, religion or economic class, but the conversation on disabilities is often left out. As a consequence, it is difficult to feel empathy towards the people affected, given that we are not aware of their need of inclusion. While walking in the street, we don’t think about how different, or even challenging, the experience of a deaf person is. Another barrier to create real inclusion is the insurmountable distance between theory and practice: even though in some countries the Constitutions admit the right to equality for people with disabilities, there is no help, no accessibility and no awareness that this problem exists. For instance, you have the same right to obtain education, but you have to get yourself through high school and university without the necessary support.
Something else to discuss is the term disability itself. How should it be called? Disability? Condition? Different capacity? Well, I have always been against euphemisms: why shouldn’t we call things by their names? Why should people feel uncomfortable because of a simple word? Then I realized this is not that simple. The same thing that makes you “disabled” in one field, makes you more capable in another one. An example is the increase of hearing ability experienced by people who have been blind since they were little. Saying this, I am not denying the difficulties that “disabilities” bring. However, considering disabilities, as mere disadvantages, implies that we, as a society, are only able to see one side of the coin.
Now then, disability is a huge term, as an umbrella under which we can find many categories, stages and labels. Every case is different and so are the problems, stories and personalities. People with disabilities are not to be admired or to be felt sorry for. People with disabilities are not less or more intelligent than others. They are not to be defined as a whole. If you want to define them you have to take the time to get to know them. Prejudices here are out of place.
Also, disabilities are not always visible and there are a lot of people struggling with them without letting their social circle know. This surely has its reasons. I strongly believe I can understand why people wouldn’t want to be identified with this label, but on the other hand, if nobody knows about your problem, nobody will help. Some time ago, I got to meet a man who was diagnosed with dyslexia when he was in high school. Before that he could not understand why he was not able to learn as effectively as his classmates. However, when he discovered what was happening he didn’t tell anybody. He managed to finish high school and even university with good marks. He later got a job in a really prestigious organization. Nowadays, he still hasn’t told anybody at work about his dyslexia because he thinks it could be used against him in his current position. The question I would like to raise with this is whether all the effort he did in high school, university and his work is actually necessary? Is it worth it? Isn’t it better to solve the problem at its roots by, as a society, eliminating misconceptions and offering help?
I do not know up to what extent this topic is familiar to you, but I would like you, as a UWC member, to look around and try to identify these situations in our own community and also in your countries. In our school, stated as part of the UWC values is the commitment to diversity. Yet, the number of people with disabilities seems to contradict it. (Furthermore, it has been stated by a staff member that in the past people have been pressured to rethink their choice of studying the IB diploma in this school due to disabilities.) Are the school buildings and the residences accessible for anybody? Have you ever considered the possibility that any of your classmates could have a disability which they are afraid to let you know about? That the learning support that they need is not available for them? People with disabilities usually need to engage on alternative paths to achieve the same objectives. These may be longer but equally valid and lead to the same result. Many projects and initiatives need to be started and we are actually able to do so. In UWC we are proud of our diversity but we have a long way to go to reach inclusion.