My Privilege to Learn: Accessibility and Empowerment at UC Irvine School of Law
Sandile, a ten-year-old boy who lives in South Africa, has a daily schedule that is very different from other children: On Monday afternoons he is not on the playground with friends, his Wednesday nights are not occupied with reading or arithmetic. Sandile has never been to school. He is deaf and has a visual impairment, and he is kept out of the classroom, away from his peers, because stigma and lack of access to inclusive education deprive him the human right to learn.
Like Sandile, I also have a disability. Unlike him, I start graduate school at UC Irvine School of Law today. As a student with a disability in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other legislation have provided the legal protections to ensure I receive the reasonable accommodations I need to excel. These include handouts in larger font, a front row seat, and other modifications that do not impose a burden in the classroom, but instead help me to understand the material and keep up with the coursework. Practices like these have followed me since early childhood in elementary school. Yet it was not until I contacted the Law School a few weeks ago that I felt so invited and empowered to accept them.
When administrators and technology specialists spoke of the range of services they could offer to help me, they made me feel a part of the law school community. Their flexibility in making books accessible and navigating campus, and responsiveness to my concerns about the reading load and participating in class showed they want me to thrive both in and out of the classroom. I did not feel stigmatized or different in claiming these rights. Rather, I felt comfortable and appreciated, feelings easily taken for granted, but which make all the difference in creating a sense of inclusion.
My experience with the Law School is remarkable. To obtain the accommodations, all I had to do was provide the proper paperwork and ask. Imagine if it were that simple for Sandile.
Around the world, millions of children with disabilities are either excluded from the education system entirely or attend schools that segregate and isolate them from their peers in the community. In other instances, even if they attend school, learners with disabilities do not have the reasonable accommodations necessary to facilitate their understanding of the course material.
For instance, in Russia some school administrators have refused to admit children with disabilities based on assumptions that they are unable to learn, are unsafe around other children, or engage in disruptive behavior.
In China, students with hearing disabilities have said they could not follow along because the teachers walk around while lecturing and do not to provide written notes. Making the problem worse, most mainstream schools fail to provide the sign language interpretation that would allow these students to participate. Students who are blind or who have low vision are not provided with magnified printed materials or tests.
Over 150 countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which requires states to provide people with disabilities a quality education just like everyone else. Imagine how the world might look if states met this obligation. Imagine the physician who is deaf and pushes hospitals to be more accessible for her patients. Imagine the architect who uses a wheelchair and advocates for better ramps and more elevators, not just to help himself, but also the elderly couple who live in his building. Imagine the lawyer with a visual impairment who understands what power the law holds to transform and better the lives around him.
Children with disabilities have the capacity and the will to learn. They can complete high school, attend university, and move on to graduate studies. I am proof of that. When I received my accommodations last week, I thought of the millions of children just like me who will not have this type of opportunity. It is a privilege to study the law. So when I attend my first law school class today, Sandile will stay on my mind. Education, and the sense of empowerment I feel at UCI Law are things every child deserves, so they too can endeavor to realize their potential.
The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of UC Irvine School of Law.
Shah is a former Gardner Fellow. This post first appeared on the Huffington Post Blog.