My name is Kerry Purdy and I am advocating for people with disabilities in military and first responder careers, and also trying to understand special needs schools and organizations for what really goes on behind their doors. Right now, I am wishing to speak up for students at certain “special needs” schools-especially those who cannot speak for themselves.
First of all, I am a graduate of a school that was opened to mix in children with autism spectrum disorders along with “typically developing peer model students.” The school is advertised as combining the students with “disabilities” in with the “non-disabled” peers, with fair and equal treatment for all. This, however, was not what I saw during my years there. Attention was drawn constantly to the “peers.” It was the peers this, the peers that. The PEERS got student council. The PEERS got honors classes. The PEERS got all the fun and excitement of varsity basketball and volleyball. We were looked down on, not taken seriously, and spoken to as if we were two year olds. This also sent the message to the peers that as long as you are society’s definition of “normal” you can have everything handed to you on a silver platter, and it’s alright to treat people with disabilities as if they were below you. When they found out I had my driver’s license, they almost blew a gasket. There was, however, nothing wrong with the “peers” driving themselves to school every morning. (I am very willing to bet, that if high schools were still allowed to teach driver’s ed, it would be offered to the PEERS and the PEERS only-let’s face it-we’re supposed to ride the COTA bus. They don’t want to see us behind the wheel.) I want to share with you all several incidents that have happened to me:
Upon coming out as a lesbian to one teacher, she took me aside and asked me, “Kerry…why do you feel like you want to be that way? Is it because girls are easier to talk to?” (If anything, I think guys are easier to talk to.) First of all, this was an absolutely shameful thing for a teacher to say to anyone, “disabled” or not, as I spent the first half of ten years wondering why I felt attracted to girls when I knew I was supposed to be attracted to boys, and the next half trying to battle these feelings and force myself to develop crushes on certain boys, which didn’t work of course. Truth? She more than likely didn’t even have a problem with the L word being said in her classroom. She had a problem with a “disabled” person knowing their own sexual orientation. What if a peer student had come out to a teacher as gay or lesbian? More than likely, they would have patted them on the shoulder and went “It’s okay hun, we support you, we’re glad you felt like you could tell us that.” But as far as society sees us, we’re supposed to be asexual, and when you look at it, it’s intimidating for a “disabled” person to be any orientation other than that.
Since I was fourteen, I have wanted to serve in the military or have a first responder career. The teachers tried everything that they could to try to talk me out of this, making me feel humiliated and degraded-which in the long run, has simply made me more determined. A number of other ASD students also wanted to pursue military or first responder careers, and the school tried everything they could to talk them out of it. Let’s face it, as far as society is concerned, we’re supposed to be bagging groceries for a living, not serving our country, fighting fires, or enforcing laws. What if one of the “peers” was talking about a military or first responder career? They’d be clapping them on the back and going “Good for you, son/girl, we’re proud of you for serving.” The teachers started to tease me about joining the Irish army (which I HIGHLY doubt would even consider taking me, seeing as most of my heritage is from ENGLAND). One teacher went as far as to email my mother and claim that I had told him that I only wanted to enlist because “my great-aunt Sarah O’Malley flew to America on a plane in 1692 and joined the Army.” When I asked him about this email, he proceeded to give me this blank stare, deny that there ever was an email like that, and succeeded in making me feel like I had NO CLUE what I was talking about.
After socially graduating, I enrolled in the new “vocational” building to help out while I pursued firefighting, assuming that it would consist of the grad students and maybe the high school seniors, and that we would take age-appropriate exams, be given preparation skills for our chosen careers, possibly internships at sports centers, hospitals, day cares, fire stations, etc. This ended up being the biggest mistake I have ever made, and nine months of my life that I cannot get back. I entered the cramped, smelly, filthy building to find out that they had moved all the nonverbal, low functioning and remediation students into it, and put the grad students in with them. There was not a “peer” student in the building-HELLO! Now that we think about it, do you really think they would put any of their precious peer model students in this situation? We were all expected to do rudimentary first-grade level work…literally, when we were supposed to be doing college level work. Did they help me work on preparing for firefighting? Did they work with any of the other students on any of their wanted careers? No. We were dragged to places like TJ Maxx to perform unpaid labor there. Why? Because on our knees stacking shelves is the only thing society wants to see us doing. When I tried to speak up, because ALL the other grad students were just sitting there taking it, they shouted at me to shut up and do my school work. It was a degrading, humiliating, situation, and it got to the point where I was ashamed to be seen in that building. I very strongly believe that they *wanted* us to feel degraded and humiliated, to show that “disabled” people have NO place in society.
I do not want to sound like I am intentionally attacking or lashing out at anyone, as that is certainly not my intention. I do, however, believe that society could be more educated to our needs. We could be given more chances in challenging careers, and given age-appropriate schoolwork at schools. We could certainly be more accepted in athletics other than Special Olympics. (I can kick a soccer ball, but I can’t fix a computer. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around, as far as society is concerned?) They can also be more open to the fact that many of us do have sexual feelings and different orientations. Guys, we can’t take this anymore. We *cannot* let society walk all over us like this anymore. We’ve GOT to make a stand-tell society we won’t take it anymore. We are human beings, and have human rights and feelings just like everyone else. I want nothing more than to be a firefighter or enlist in the Army, and society wants me-and you-on our knees at a fast food restaurant or grocery store. LET’S STAND UP! We’re not going to take it, and we WON’T. Through the years, I have gone from timid and mild-mannered to speaking my mind and willing to take a stand, and I hope to be an inspiration to others. I am hoping that one day, in the very near future, you will see me in my Army uniform, and feel encouraged and inspired that YOU can do it too. Thank you all very much for your time. LET’S STAND UP!