21 January 2009

Re-imagining Ability

When I taught my class last semester (“Special Education Students in the Regular Education Classroom”), I ran across a roadblock. The future “Special Education” teachers who filled the room clearly saw a bright line between “able” and “disabled.”

This is not surprising. The field they are entering exists because of this perceived difference.

Early in the course I suggested that I could “disable” any of them. That I might speak in a language they did not know (I asked them to read and pronounce Irish, for example), or that I might speak using words they did not know, using, for example, British educational jargon rather than American, or that I might ask them to choreograph and perform an interpretive dance as their second paper.

For some these concepts got the point across, but not for most.

So I decided to try to get them to “re-imagine ability.” I gave them a series of possible “tasks” and asked what “assistive technologies” they would need to complete them. One was getting from a neighborhood on the Atlantic coast of Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan (near the United Nations). Another was bringing a refrigerator from a store into their kitchen. A third was getting from the street to a meeting on the 88th floor of the Sears Tower.

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Many of the students responded with comments about maps and map reading, about reading directories, about measuring doorways, but none understood the basic concept. They were all completely unable to perform any of these tasks without massive technological and human assistance. And the amount of assistance needed varied greatly across the student group.

But I pointed out to them even those they probably at least needed some kind of shoes/clothing to cross Brooklyn, at least some kind of assistance or at least a strongly woven cloth strap to carry the refrigerator, and if not the elevator, at least the stairs (a vary early assistive technology) to climb the Sears Tower. Not to mention a bridge to avoid swimming more than half a mile across a wild tidal strait in New York, or a truck for the refrigerator. Some, I'm sure, could have swum the river. At least two or three might have been able to, given enough time, have jumped and pulled and climbed up 88 floors without stairs. One guy might have been able to lug at least a fairly small (full-size) refrigerator from Sears to his house, and yet...

If they needed help would they be "disabled"? And what of the other four dozen?

This began to work on their thinking. Yet, every day they spend in our College of Education reinforces their traditional thinking about “ability.” “Ability” is everything “they” (the kind of students who go into education) do well. Reading, writing, speaking like a middle class protestant white person, answering questions with definite answers. “Ability” is not being able to attend to 25 things in a simultaneous mode, or entertain a class with jokes and stunts, or dream up really exciting fictional worlds, or a million other things that kids can be great at. No one is sent to the Resource Room because they throw a ball badly or can’t tune a violin or are unable to navigate an urban street scene effectively. I need special permission to turn some paper documents into electronic versions but the Dean of the College prints out her emails for reading without having to declare herself “disabled.

I'm not suggesting that individual differences in capabilities don't exist. I'm not very tall. That makes some things more difficult than if I was. Tom Shakespeare is right. It is not "all social" - we are born different, we end up different. Some of us struggle with things in ways others don't. Reading sucks for me. I wish it was easier. This month so does walking. And I sure wish that was easier. Still, I can fix my own computer (some of the time), and if you can not, do you need a government affixed label?

Back in May 2008 (on "Blogging Against Disablism Day") I suggested on my blog that we not allow anyone into an elevator without a note from a doctor, that we require that people with eyeglasses get special permission to use them, that we not let anyone ever convert digital text to paper, just to expand the realm of disability. Because as long as we think “disability” exists, it does indeed exist, and it limits who we are and what we can achieve

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

when the majority needs help with something, it's 'normal'. when the minority needs help, it's 'cheating'. when the cheaters game the system, it really is cheating (ie getting a disability tag for your car because you get pleasure out of getting over. those people do exist).

loonyhiker said...

What a great post! I think everyone in the world is disabled whenever they are unable to do something they want to do and needs help. I also feel like labels are unnecessary when we are looking at meeting the student's individual needs. When I teach my course, I try to explain that labels are more important to funding than to actual academic assistance. Many of my students (who are mostly general ed teachers) have a big problem with this concept.