TW: Systemic ableism and mention of suicide.
I remember everyone being so happy when we got to know that I ranked first in my class when I was in class I (one), including me, of course. And I think that’s when it all started: the inspiration porn, the ridiculously high expectations from family members, relatives, teachers, and even myself. I started believing that I must prove my worth in order to be treated as a “normal” person and that it’s only possible through academic achievements.
To be very honest, I wanted to be famous for being able to achieve great things “despite my disability”. I remember having a nasty emotional meltdown at school in class VIII (eight) when I was all alone in the classroom, trying to complete my notes from an English lesson about Evelyn Glennie, while the other kids were out for physical education class, because I felt absolutely worthless compared to the deaf percussionist in my book.
Because as I grew older, things became more complicated, answers became lengthier and my grades started dropping. I couldn’t keep up with the able-bodied kids and started losing my motivation because it felt like no matter how hard I tried, I could never control my body as properly as them and write lengthy answers in a short amount of time.
And it was all the more hurtful as I wasn’t told what my disability exactly is.
I nearly killed myself once, when my mother told me that she was absolutely disappointed with how I was getting less and less focused on my studies because I felt like I had lost the only thing that I was actually good at doing without anyone else’s help.
But then the pandemic happened, and during the lockdowns, I could get a much-needed break from school and actually started to learn about myself and my disability. Things finally started making sense as I got to know what my disability really is and how it affects my body.
And finally, it was time for me to give my HSLC exams, also known as the Matric examination, which I’ve always felt to be overhyped by every other adult that I know. They make it sound like the most important element of a student’s life and the high expectations from the people around me weren’t helping me feel better either, even though I understand that it was just their way of motivating me to do better. I almost cried during an exam upon remembering one of my close relatives, who had passed away due to COVID, because of how firmly he used to believe that I’d get a pretty high score in my Matric exam.
I had multiple tutors, who charged a hefty fee, which I felt a bit uncomfortable about, just for coming to our house for the classes, so that I could get their undivided attention. But for some reason, a couple of them stopped coming for classes without even finishing the course and another one stopped coming because I had an emotional meltdown and walked out of his class when he kept on demanding that I stop giving short replies, even though I told him multiple times that I don’t like speaking vocally because of my disabled speech. In the end, I just had to do all the work on my own.
After going from office to office collecting documents to “prove” the fact that I’m disabled, I realised that I wouldn’t get a scribe to help me during the exams; because according to the able body-minded people who have no idea what it’s like to be disabled, I wasn’t “disabled enough” to be eligible for getting a scribe. Although they agreed to increase the amount of time by an hour during the exams, they completely ignored me when I tried to tell them that I’d be exhausted, both mentally and physically, if I were to write for four hours. And very unsurprisingly, my family members and teachers just told me to eat more and do exercise in order to improve my stamina, as if it were that simple.
And as if I wasn’t feeling miserable enough right before my exams, I chanced upon the backside of my HSLC admit card (because of my habit of paying attention to random things in extreme detail) and noticed how terribly ableist the language in it is. Despite knowing that my disability has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence, I couldn’t help but feel violated by the fact that they used the r-slur directly when referring to my disability. And to add insult to injury, my family members told me that it’d be pointless to speak up about it because no one would care enough to do something about it.
Without much choice, I tried my hardest to momentarily forget about everything else and focus on my studies and just gave my all in the exams. Because despite being exhausted, we have to continue fighting for our rights in this world which isn’t designed for people like me.