Why We Need to Teach About Disability in Schools

Back to school with Easterseals. Photos of disabled children in school, with friends and with teachers.

by Rachel Handler

When I work as a disability-rights advocate and begin my talks on disability inclusion, I always start with a personal story about my time in the hospital. At twenty-four years old, I had just graduated from Westminster Choir College with a musical theatre degree and could NOT wait to start auditioning for Broadway. Since I was six years old, my dream was to perform in Broadway musicals on a big Broadway stage. My parents spent so much money on dance classes, acting
lessons, and voice training. Once I turned that tassel on my cap, I was ready to make them proud.

Rachel wearing a white blazer, and skirt, showing off her sparkly gold prosthetic leg and smilingBut before I had the chance to find an agent and book a Broadway show, my dreams came crashing to a halt. A car accident less than two short years after graduation permanently altered my body, thrusting me quite unexpectedly into the disability community. As I was lying in the hospital bed, fluttering in and out of consciousness, I had no idea what my life would look like as an amputee. I had never even seen a prosthetic leg. I had never really thought about disability,
disability representation, or the lack thereof, until it directly affected me.

Now, I proudly flaunt my leg as I speak at schools about diversity, equity, and inclusion. How I wish my school didn’t shun students with disabilities into separate classrooms. How I wish I’d seen disability representation on my screen and in my favorite theatrical shows. How I wish films like Crip Camp were required viewing in all schools and educational platforms. How I wish things had been different 10 years ago when I was lying in that hospital bed, and how I wish it was even more different for kids today.

Disability inclusion and awareness has progressed tremendously over the past few years in educational settings, but there is still so, so, so much more work to be done. If I were an amputee during my high school years over a decade ago, I do not think I would have considered a career as a musical theatre artist to be a viable option. Just ten years ago, there was no Ali Stroker, and there weren’t disabled bodies in commercials, or good, authentic disability stories on my favorite TV shows. But if I were a high schooler right now with a prosthetic leg, I would absolutely go for it — study musical theatre and chase those Broadway dreams! That is progress, that is the power of diverse representation. However, by choosing to have a career as a disabled artist, I also know that my auditions and opportunities will still be far more limited than my nondisabled peers.

When I speak at schools about resilience and overcoming challenges or finding opportunity in challenges, the students quickly want to know my leg story. I openly share the details of that day, while reminding them that every person with a disability is different and some may not want to talk about how they became disabled. For a lot of us, that question could be asking us to talk about the hardest day of our lives. But once the students hear the leg story, so many new, more thoughtful questions arise. One of my favorite questions from a 1st grader was, “what was the hardest part about losing your leg?” What a doozy! And what a gift to receive such a layered question. Children are so thoughtful and curious. When given a bit of knowledge about equity, diversity, and inclusion, their perspectives often shift and they instinctually embrace our unique differences as humans.

The only time I ever thought about disability in school was when two boys with Down syndrome started swaying back and forth in their chairs in the auditorium during study hall while everyone else was quiet. When I look back on my schooling, especially my high school experience, I am furious that disability inclusion and disability history was nonexistent. It wasn’t even an afterthought, it just didn’t seem to exist. Even in college, my campus was completely inaccessible. In all of my seventeen years in school, I never had the chance to experience a thoughtful presentation or discussion of disability. To be fair, I don’t think there was much attention paid to serving awareness and advocacy for any underrepresented minorities at my schools. Which is also a complete travesty.

Headshot of Rachel, long brown hair and looking at the cameraIt brings me immense joy to be invited to speak to so many schools and colleges throughout the year about disability awareness and inclusion. I feel excited to be part of the disability pride movement and inspire our youth to keep the progress going. One fourth grader mentioned that she was sick of so many talks about anxiety and depression, and appreciated me speaking about other types of visible and invisible disabilities. I couldn’t help but smile at her complaint; what an amazing problem to have — too much information and discussion on mental health! I think the college students I speak to could have used those discussions when they were in middle and high school. Often, college students are so busy and overwhelmed that they only come to hear me speak about disability awareness when it’s part of a class or for extra credit. Some students may also just not care — this is probably because, like me before my accident, disability isn’t even on their radar.

Up until the 1970s, there were Ugly Laws in America that aimed to keep poor people with disabilities hidden away. Those laws don’t exist anymore, but in a lot of ways, that mentality persists. Especially in schools. Isabel Mavrides-Calderon recently asked disabled students to share their experiences with emergency drills in the classroom. I will end with some of their horrifying responses:

“I am a deaf college student. I can’t hear alarms. I have no way of knowing if there is a fire while I am in my dorm alone. At the beginning of the year, I asked my college to have someone designated to check in on me if there was a fire. They told me this wasn’t needed because my friends could just do it. During a real fire, everyone evacuated and no one checked on me in my dorm. I don’t blame my friends; it’s an emergency situation and they aren’t trained for this. I wish the school would listen to my needs.”

“I was ten when my school had our first active shooter drill. Students were instructed to get into the closet. I’m in a power wheelchair, so I was left out, alone. Teachers and classmates told me it wasn’t a big deal because it wasn’t real. But then, it was real. We had a threat of an active shooter at my school when I was thirteen. Once again, everyone got in the closet and I was left out, terrified. Luckily, it was a false alarm. But it showed me how dispensable my life was to
others and that they had no real plan for my safety. I still don’t feel safe going to school.”

About the author: Rachel Handler is an actor and filmmaker based in NYC. She won the AT&T Underrepresented Filmmaker Award for her short, “Committed” and the Sundance Co//ab Monthly Challenge for her script, “The A Doesn’t Stand for Accessible.” Since joining the disabled community, she’s found a passion for writing and producing, and advocating for inclusion in every project she creates. Her writing credits include the award-winning short films, “HOW MUCH AM I WORTH?” “Andy & Kaliope,” and “Authentically Me,” which won the Reelabilities 27 Second Film Competition and screened in taxi cabs throughout NYC. Handler’s films have screened at Slamdance, Hollyshorts, Bentonville, Heartland, Newport Beach and more. Handler’s TV acting credits include “Law & Order: SVU,” “New Amsterdam,” “Interview with the Vampire” and “NCIS: New Orleans.” She just finished performing Off-Broadway in “The Lucky Star,” and other favorite stage credits are Marian in “The Music Man,” Lady Anne in “Richard III” and Maria in “The Sound of Music.”


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