GDS is a wonderful, thriving, generous institution. As I attended my 35th reunion a couple of weeks ago, I reflected on all that I value about the community. But I’m writing today to raise awareness of our school’s continued blind spot when it comes to a key component of social justice: disability.
This is personal for me. My son has cerebral palsy. He is also a funny, inquisitive and loving young man who participates in every aspect of our family’s life. He attends Ivymount School, a wonderful special education community that is best suited to serve his needs.
I feel the need to speak up to say that my GDS education provided me with little exposure to the valuable experiences of people with disabilities. Over the years I’ve encountered stated (and implied) reasons why those with significant disabilities are left out of the GDS community: “We aren’t structured to serve them,“ “They don’t fit our standards,” and “It will harm our reputation if they are accepted.” The haunting echoes of segregationist rhetoric from the time of GDS’ founding is impossible to ignore.
Short of radical structural change, what can GDS do to start addressing this cavernous gap between its mission and practice when it comes to the disability community? Here are a few ideas:
1) Integrate disability into parts of the curriculum. There is a rich disability rights movement in this country; it can be taught in U.S. history and other classes.
2) Better understand the experience of people with disabilities through current GDS families. I know that there are many families at the school who have children with a broad range of disabilities.
3) Consider reaching out to find students who can achieve at the “GDS level” and also have visible disabilities. When was the last time you saw a wheelchair user in a classroom? The new school is fully equipped and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant by law—perhaps take the next step to include people the school is prepared to serve.
There are many others in our community who have experience with disability and can contribute to this conversation. But wherever the ideas come from, by valuing people with disabilities in the curriculum and community, GDS can not just live up to its mission, but better equip its students for the lives they will live—among the able-bodied and those with disabilities.
—Doug Usher ’87
The writer is a GDS alumnus. Any reader may email firstname.lastname@example.org to submit a letter to the editor for publication.