The Short Bus



To most people, the “short bus” term may come off as derogatory, but that is open to interpretation. As a person born deaf, I rode the short bus to school by default from the first grade up until my junior year of high school when I finally got my driver’s license. I never sat in a special education classroom, but did ride with those students. Some of them were one of the most creative, talented or brilliant people I’ve come across. Most of our lives, we have been labeled as “special” or “disabled”. The short bus emerged out of federal legislation, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975, which mandated that children with disabilities be educated in a public school setting. But there were problems — schools were not required to fully integrate students with disabilities, and a segregated system of special education programs were created. Then along came segregated transportation: the short bus while the other students rode the regular (or long) yellow bus. Thrown together under the rubric of special education, these passengers in the short bus included kids with physical disabilities, Down syndrome, learning disabilities, autism, as well as emotional problems. Special education and the short bus grouped together all these different students, expanding our culture’s definition of “disabled”. The short bus as a symbol of special education says as much about that culture — its values, beliefs, fears, aspirations, and injustices — as it ever did about people with disabilities. Interacting with those passengers riding bus gave me an early exposure to the their challenges. Disabled people, in my humble opinion, see the world differently and can adapt in many situations very well probably better than most ever could. I truly think if more short bus stories were told, the world would be a better place.

My experience being “disabled” was a classic medical textbook case especially in the early 80s when parents and disabled children were told that they were “broken”, and that their deficits should be diagnosed, treated, and cured. This so-called medical model gave the doctors all the power, which ultimately dehumanized the patient. In today’s society, there are lots of fancy diagnoses, a lot talk about disorders and disabilities, but not much has changed because we seem more disabled than ever. Disability is inherently a negation. In our culture, people with disabilities stand more for what they are not than what they are — not normal, not whole — a negation that calls into being its opposite: the normal. The normal looms all of our lives, an impossible goal that we are told is possible if: we sit still, we buy certain consumer goods, we exercise, we fix our teeth, we do this and that… The short bus polices that terrain; it patrols a fabricated social boundary demarcating what is healthy and sick, acceptable and broken, enforcing normalcy in all of us. What have we lost trying to belong to the other side? Disability and normalcy are ideas we create as a culture and society and something we can truly transform.

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