Opinion | The American school system is built against people with disabilities

By Sarah Liez, Senior Staff Columnist

The smartest person I know is my best friend, but she has never been a great student. Despite her high intellectual abilities and love of learning, her grades were always average at best. 


In elementary school, she was noted as “gifted,” whereas I was not. Whenever I saw her throughout middle and high school, she was in the middle of some classic piece of literature. When we talked, the conversation often turned to the more nuanced aspects of society that our peers didn’t seem to notice. 


I’ve always considered her smarter than me, even though I’m characteristically a straight-A student. Yet she could never match me in so-called “academic ability.” You may be thinking that this situation is ironic — for someone to be so smart yet not be able to perform well in the classroom. 


To me, the answer is simple. Our system of learning is not conducive for people like her — people who are neurodivergent and struggling with their mental health. As a young woman with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and social anxiety, she’s been at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to traditional learning environments.


The American school system is built against people with disabilities. It often doesn’t grade students on their intelligence, the quality of work or engagement they produce. Instead it’s typically focused on ableist metrics, such as a person’s ability to meet deadlines, stay organized and memorize then regurgitate information. The aforementioned elements are better measured by assessing a student’s logical and rational thinking, social awareness, abstract thinking or problem solving — aspects interpreted through effort put forth into assignments, communication with teachers and in-class preparedness.


Students experiencing a variety of disabilities such as dyslexia, ADHD, speech impediments, anxiety and additional neurodivergent disorders are at a disadvantage as they are reprimanded for their atypical behavior at disproportionate rates. As a result, these students are not only unable to experience the same quality of education as their fully able peers, but are often dissuaded from pursuing an education altogether — because the system works against them when it should be working for them, or at the very least with them.


The smartest person I know recently made the decision to drop out of university largely because she did not receive the education she wants, needs or deserves. She is motivated and loves to learn, yet she can’t maintain focus or motivation in a system seemingly pitted against her. It is incredibly messed up, to say the least.


In understanding this issue, we must first examine its foundation. The current American schooling system has origins in the industrial revolution. Students learn in a factory-model classroom, where groups of roughly 20 to 30 students, each of about the same age, are taught by one teacher in one classroom. Students follow a rigid system of pre-determined curricula with pre-determined grading scales, credit requirements and physical specifications that shepard them from subject to subject as if they were sheep instead of children.


An institution is ableist when it is not made to work for everyone. If schools worked with students, those students would not necessarily be considered disabled because they would be empowered to have a quality experience in the classroom equal to that of neurotypical students — simply by altering the system to meet their needs.


The inherent structure of our schooling system values the ability to obey orders over intellectual or personal growth. Despite the best efforts of well-meaning educators, students are subject to social and moral conditioning that tell them to follow directions, remain punctual and docile as well as respect authority and tradition without question. While these are excellent markers of success for workers in a factory, they should not be the primary values for students in a classroom. 


Students are trained to be like-minded followers rather than independent, creative thinkers. They are made to listen and answer rather than think and speak.


As a laborer to the American schooling system for over 16 years myself, I can assure you that I have not been graded primarily on my intelligence. Most of my grades have come from meeting rules and regulations. I have been able to succeed on my ability to stay organized, to meet deadlines, to take timed tests, to memorize and regurgitate lines from a textbook. I am lucky in my natural ability to accomplish these tasks.


While these methods of grading work for me, they work against many others. A Twitter thread from @sadeyesharrow lists different ways that the school system is severely ableist — losing marks on something because it was handed in late; forced physical education; public speaking and group work; reduced marks for stuttering, fidgeting and messy handwriting; requiring students to sit still and isolating students with disabilities in “special education” courses, among others.


Standardized tests also exemplify these problematic grading criteria. In order to be placed in higher-level programming, get into the college of your dreams and feel like you’re smart, you usually must ace an exam. Exams such as the ACT and SAT, for example, do not truly measure a prospective student’s learning ability — they measure one’s ability to take and perform well on a test.


In the summer before my senior year of high school, I nailed the ACT. While friends and family marveled at my high score — at my supposed level of intelligence — I told them all it was not personal ability that aided my grade. Rather, it was how often I took practice tests, trained myself to work well under pressure and familiarized myself with the exam structure. My score did not reflect my ability to solve real-world problems, but to follow the rules of taking an exam.


Students with mental disabilities struggle with sitting still, meeting time constraints, taking tests, public speaking, writing and interpreting texts, socializing with peers and many other elements crucial to our method of education. These disabilities inhibit an individual’s ability to follow instructions and meet rigid criteria, thus putting them at a significant disadvantage to receiving a meaningful education.


Not only does this make it more difficult for some students to learn, but it also dissuades them from pursuing an education altogether. If the system has made it this difficult for you to learn and flourish, as it has for my best friend, then why work helplessly for a system that works against you?

Sarah Liez writes primarily about gender issues and social phenomena. Write to her at [email protected].