My greatest hope for our future is an inclusive education

| December 3, 2020

It has been my experience as a person with a disability, that a narrow education leads to a narrow mind. For any member of society, it can open or shut many doors.

I had my own perceptions flipped regarding disability, when I met Marlena in my early 20s. Two young women in wheelchairs at university, it really wasn’t that hard to find common ground.

We had initially bonded over not being able to find accessible toilets near our lecture theatres. However, we became good friends and ended up going skydiving together.

Marlena can’t speak because of her abilities, which I found quite confronting at first. I never actually realised before meeting her that I was prejudiced toward different disabilities.

I experienced a lot of prejudice growing up. Mainly from kids and adults who didn’t know any better. A lot of people are not very well educated when it comes to disability. Most people think all disability is one and the same. You’d think being disabled myself, that I’d be more open-minded. Turns out, I wasn’t.

I wasn’t actually sure whether Marlena could go skydiving. It was something I still wasn’t sure that I could physically do either, but apparently she’d already done it. So I went with her and learnt how to fly.

Marlena became the music journalist she’d been studying to be. Conducting interviews with hundreds of A-listers from across the globe. Always being among the first to try out new technology that would help her with interviews.

Breaking the mould was Marlena’s speciality. Frequently travelling to a lot of destinations that many people in wheelchairs, would deem too inaccessible. Adventure was a huge part of her life.

I think one of her greatest achievements was publishing her own book. Showing others how to rise above other people’s expectations. There’s no better illustration than Marlena’s own words:

“Given the opportunity and support, anyone can be anything.”
– Marlena Katene, 2014, ‘Dare to Be You’

Marlena never let her disability hold her back from chasing her dreams. I never chose to be disabled, but watching her approach to life is something that has helped me embrace the parts of me that I didn’t choose.

I was so lucky to meet Marlena when I did. Years later, I wound up living with many people with a disability. None of them had the opportunity of an education like she had.

It makes me wonder, if Marlena hadn’t had the opportunity of an education, would we have even connected like we did? Would she have even gone on to actively speak not only for herself, but for many others? Having been taught a different way to communicate than most of us.

Someone else who I greatly admire, and has had to learn a different way to communicate, is Helen Keller.

Born in Alabama during the late 19th century; Keller was both blind and deaf from birth. Her wealthy upbringing led to her unusual, but inclusive education.

I don’t even think that the word ‘disabled’ was widely used in Keller’s lifetime. Her wealthy parents had paid for her to be taught how to communicate. Therefore, her mainstream education was never a problem.

Keller’s inclusive education meant she was among the first women to not only attend college, but also to teach at that level. She then went on to become a highly regarded author and activist.

“After my education began, the world within my reach was all alive”
– Helen Keller, 1908. ‘The World within My Reach’

I know from firsthand experience, how difficult it can be to ask others for help when you need it. It’s not an easy path to navigate while speaking your mind, and a lot of time I relied on family to make sure my point was heard.

Helen Keller was very good at making her point heard, in a time without the technological advances of the 21st century. It was in a letter to her own teacher that she wrote one of her most inspirational quotes:

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even heard. They must be felt with the heart.”

These words are still used today, shortened versions like “felt with the heart”. I found her quote so inspiring, I went out and got her words tattooed on my shoulder blade.

If Helen Keller hadn’t received her education in the late nineteenth century, the world would have been deprived of her beautiful words. Which is truly a sad thought.

In the 21st century it feels like the world has only just started to realise that disability is not a choice. Now if we want a more progressive society, we need to make sure an inclusive education is a part of that. Not only for young people with a disability, but for everyone as well.

The differences in our society should be understood, and not shamed like they have been in the past.

This article was first published by Clickability and is published to mark International Day of People with Disability.