Until I was in fifth grade, I never questioned the fact that other kids could pee at school, and I could not. As a kid with a chronic physical disability — a tiny speck of a redhead curled into a wheelchair, slumped on a walker, or sagging between a pair of crutches, depending on the year — the rules were different for me.
I knew that if I had to use the bathroom midday, I would have to go to the nurse’s office and say my stomach hurt so that my mom would take me home. This, in turn, meant missing the entire rest of the school day rather than having her bring me back to class, which would mean facing the possibility of someone asking where I’d gone. That was the deal. From kindergarten on, I looked at each carton of chocolate milk, each astronaut pouch of Capri Sun, with the same calculated thought: Could I afford to drink this now and still stay at school all day with my friends? Probably not. My choice, then, was between meeting my human need for liquid and participating fully in my own education.
I started public school after the passage of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the 1975 federal law mandating that children with disabilities receive “free appropriate public education,” but a few years before the passage of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 — the civil rights law requiring, among other things, that all public buildings be made accessible to people with disabilities. This legislative gap meant I was fully included in my local public school classrooms, but the classrooms were in schools that had no accessible bathrooms for me to use.
The ADA passed when I was 10. On TV, I saw a girl near my own age crawl out of her wheelchair and up the inaccessible steps of the Capitol building to demonstrate the need for such a monumental piece of legislation. People with disabilities deserved to be included in society as full citizens. We deserved to be treated as human beings. That we weren’t was something I had already internalized as an immovable fact. I cried in front of the TV that night at the thought that there would be an accessible restroom at my school by the time I started sixth grade. I cried because it hadn’t occurred to me, before that moment, that I could belong in this way.
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