Educational Indignities: Claire and Cyrus Mehta

by Lisa Bendall

"I remember a sense of obligation not to be disabled. "

When Claire Mehta was eleven years old, her mother got an unexpected phone call from the school. Claire's grade six teacher explained that the female students would be attending a special health class to learn about puberty, menstruation and reproduction. She presumed that this was not appropriate for Claire and recommended she avoid the class while the subject was being taught. Jean Kelly immediately asked why her daughter should not participate.

"Obviously, your daughter is disabled," exclaimed the teacher. "She's not going to be having her period. She might be upset with all of this talk."

The revelation that Claire would, indeed, be interested in the subject and find it relevant caught the teacher and the school utterly by surprise and likely embarrassed them. But the episode for Claire, who had a neuromuscular disorder and used a wheelchair, was just one more incident in the ongoing lack of awareness! she faced as she attended school in the 1960s.

So many myths and misguided assumptions follow people with disabilities to school, to the work place and into their communities that it is much more often public attitudes that are handicapping than the physical difference itself. Claire's sixth-grade teacher was not the first individual to assume that people with disabilities are not interested in or capable of ordinary life experiences. Images of incompetence and inferiority, and assignment of second-class status, have throughout history been associated with disability. It was, in fact, assumed that Claire would not even attend school. Had her condition not been considered seriously life-threatening, she may never have been integrated into regular classes.

Since she would not likely live, Claire's parents were told, they should educate their daughter at home. But come September, Claire watched jealously as her brothers and sisters left for school every day. "I used to cry every morning and say I wanted to go with them," she remembers. Her parents felt compelled to approach their neighborhood school, who agreed to accept Claire provided she underwent aptitude and psychological tests to ensure her competence, and on the condition that she could be expelled if things didn't work out. With this lopsided agreement, Claire launched her career as a mainstreamed student with a disability, an unequivocal rarity at the time.