28 February 2010

Transactional Disability and the Classroom

I've written on this before, but this week I introduced the idea of "Transactional Disability" to my class at Michigan State University as we discussed classroom strategies for ADHD. One major disussion the students had involved the question of whether ADHD was a "socially constructed" disability or a "medical condition." This was driven, in part, by an article we'd read looking at a comparison between Sweden and the US, and the vastly different rates of ADHD diagnosis and the very different ways this "disorder" is accommodated. It seems important, so I wanted to bring it up once more...

The debate between the “social” v. “medical” models of "disability" are endless and ongoing. This is often seen most clearly when international, or intercultural comparative studies are done. In the case of the ADHD study comparing Sweden and the US, the sharp differences in the number of children seen as having “a medical disability” (and thus needing medication for “symptoms”) in the two-nation study demonstrates both sides of the debate. Across cultures we see the “differences” and yet, across cultures, we operate very differently.

One of the things which began troubling the Disability Rights/Disability Studies movement in the mid-1990s was the question of “the body” in the social model of disability. This first emerged as the Queer Studies movement’s thoughts (see Judith Butler) began being heard within Disability Studies, and was amplified by Deaf Community Activists who made their physical/sensory differences the heart of their culture. “Where is the body [in disability theory?” asked both Tom Shakespeare and Michael Oliver.

In this question I think of Michel Foucault, who, according to my favorite Foucault scholar, wanted to investigate not identity, and not causes, but the movements - the acts - we make in the "spaces" between us when we interact. “Don’t look behind the text,” he suggested, look at what people are “doing.”

So, beginning in the mid-1990s Tom Shakespeare joined the social model of disability to the body directly, yet without resorting to the medical model. He wrote about disability occurring at the "intersections" - the "places" where our bodily capabilities meet the world "as it exists."

Last year, a Twitter-pal with a visually impaired child made this very clear to me when she wrote: "Going to get son to walk around lake with me in the dark - he won't need his cane, but I'll need flashlight."

Transactional Disability

Somewhere between "the medical model" - difference described as a medical illness the way North Americans do - "a person with cancer" "a person with a reading disability" - and the "social model" - difference described as only a problem created by societal norms, lies what I have begun calling "the transactional model." Yes, we are all different in various ways, including our set of capabilities. But these differences only become "impairments" when we - the differently capable - find that we cannot negotiate the world, or a specific corner of the world, the way others have set it up.

I may not be disabled when I watch a movie. Nor when I watch television, listen to the radio, listen to a friend or a teacher, listen to music, look at art. In fact, I think my capabilities are at least "average" or better when I meet these tasks. I become disabled when people choose, instead, to present information in alphabetical code. Those former information transfer systems I can navigate with ease. The alphabetical code leaves me tripping over myself. There is nothing "wrong" with me, nor is there anything wrong with the alphabetical code - the problem occurs in the transaction space - where print and I meet.

Similarly, I am fairly short. This is not a problem in most things, but at the grocery store, top shelf items are out of my reach. Thus, my height becomes a disability. At Aldi (no shelving units) this is not a problem. At typical Walmarts (very high top shelves) it is a big problem. Now, how do I deal with this?

One way is for me to climb the shelves to get what I want. I actually have done this many times. It gets you yelled at, as many of the ways kids cope in school gets them “yelled at” or much worse. (One group of university researchers suggested about 10-years-ago that Nicotine and THC were one excellent way to reduce the tensions related to ADHD (here’s one article) which may explain much of the ‘self-medication’ you see in secondary schools.) Another way is to wait and ask for help, but I think this diminishes me as a “whole human,” and over time saps my initiative and any sense of independence. But what if there were step ladders in each aisle, something library stacks often have? That tiny shift in the “transaction space” might eliminate “my height disability.”

The challenges of wheelchair shopping

However, this winter I have been in a wheelchair. This physical reality changes things in important ways. I can’t, for example, get into the MSU police building without help to buy a parking pass (just had to throw that in). But back to the grocery store: So now, Aldi is hard, but Meijer and Walmart become impossible. 90% of items are out of reach, and the cool stuff, “gourmet” cheeses, etc, and many fresh vegetables are completely out of reach, and sometimes out of sight. No step stool will solve this – perhaps an old fashioned “grocery grabber” hung in each aisle might help – but large parts of the store would need to be completely re-conceived to make independent shopping possible for me.

However, where (and when) I grew up, grocery stores were different. The clerks stood or sat behind a counter. You went in, handed them a list or told them what you needed, and they went back to the shelves and got your order. Or you could ring them, and they would get your groceries and deliver them. This was also true of the butcher and the green grocer and the pharmacist. In fact, one of my first jobs was delivering prescriptions, and as part of that I would go into the customer’s kitchen, and if they had arthritis or a broken arm, I would open the childproof cap for them.

In that world, the wheelchair was much less of a disability while shopping. Same physical facts, different transaction space, different result.

So there is no doubt that the mother and son in the Tweet at the top have actual capability differences. Their vision capability difference is not merely a trick of societal construction. Yet there is nothing "wrong" with either. This need not be a "diagnosis." As the mother knows, the description of "disability" changes as the light does - thus it changes as the seasons change - and changes as the location changes. Walking around the lake in the dark she needs Assistive Technology, her flashlight, while he needs none. Moving across a street in the daylight, he may need supports, and she not.

This is important. I really believe it is. Right now we describe both the son above and myself in pathological terms. There is something "wrong" with us. But who decides that? That is society abusing some to raise up the power of others. The person who can't translate a construction document goes through much of their life without problem. But when they end up with a pillar in the middle of their office (I actually saw this almost happen) they are having a "transactional" problem – we need not label them "a person with a construction plan disability." The person who cannot find their way around the NYC subway system is not described as having a “directional disability,” instead we put up maps for everyone to use.

Changing the transaction space in the classroom

Which brings us to the classroom. Consider the child who is "fine" until you ask him to sit in a chair for an hour. Is he disabled? Must he be diagnosed? There's nothing inherently wrong with the chair or the child, just what happens when they meet. Alter the transaction space, or the rules of the transaction space, and the facts of the "disability," the actions of the “disability,” may not exist.

The child who can not decode alphabetic text, Is she disabled? Must she be diagnosed? What if she can understand and work with any information given to her auditorally? There is nothing wrong with alphabetic text, or the child. But the transaction as defined by the "space" - the teacher handing her the book - is failing. Text-To-Speech software and audiobooks might change that space, and that failure may not exist.

I once sat in an IEP for a fourth grader labeled ADHD and EI. “He does really badly on all of our timed math quizzes,” the teacher said, “he gets all nervous and then starts acting out.”

“How does he do if the quiz is untimed?” I asked. “They’re all timed,” she told me, “all the kids like to race.” “Well, not all,” I muttered.

So, a student with, perhaps, a definable brain difference. And a transaction space designed for other types of people. And the result is “disability.” We moved this child to another school with a Montessori type program. I checked in after his first week. The teacher came and met me in the hall. “You said he had IEPs at [x],” she said, “why?”

Change the space, the transactional area is altered, and thus the actions themselves are altered. If we follow Foucault's dictum and, as this new teacher did, and refuse to look "behind the text" - refuse to see anything but how the student is acting/functioning now, the disability has become non-existent. It has not just vanished - it has never existed in this new space.

- Ira Socol

17 February 2010

Sarah Palin's Disability Disability

Sarah Palin hates people with disabilities. I knew that before I knew anything else about her. She introduced herself to America by holding up her baby and telling all the world everything that was wrong with him.

That's despicable.

If she really viewed her infant as a human with real potential she would have either left him and his siblings at the hotel (like a responsible parent) or simply introduced him, rather than claiming some kind of hero status because she chose not to have an abortion (a choice, by the way, which she implied was hers to make).

That plus the simple facts that Palin opposes a universal health care system (the only thing which would actually move the "disabled" toward equality), opposes adequate educational funding, opposes hate crime legislation, and opposes federal regulations which might ensure that people are treated equally in America. She also, of course, opposes parental leave laws and increased welfare benefits which might make it possible for parents to care for high needs kids.

Now we have Sarah Palin vs. Family Guy, a cartoon politician debating an actual cartoon. And, well, I'm with the actual cartoon, and here's why:

Just as The Simpsons, for all the criticism leveled at them by America's right-wing, remains the only show on television where the family eats breakfast and dinner together daily and goes to church together every week, Family Guy and South Park are the only two shows on American TV which deal consistently with disability issues in the context of normal life.

Wheelchair-user Joe, on Family Guy is - by far - the most competent male on the show, but that's not the thing... the thing that Family Guy does is face the issues. Yes Joe is a hero cop, but it won't get him into the brewery tour (see above), and yes Chris can go out with a strong, determined girl, but people will still make fun of him for dating a... yeah, you know the word. That's a kind of reality brought into American living rooms which pretty stories on the Nightly News can not offer, and which all of Sarah Palin's whining about "haters" can not touch.

Just as on South Park, where Timmy and Jimmy are truly part of their school's community, of their town's community. They are not "surprisingly successful," because, damn, few of any of us are. Instead they are real kids who sometimes do things well, often can not, who are sometimes picked on, and sometimes befriended.

Let's bring in the Jeff Shannon of the Seattle Times here, commenting on a BBC Ouch! poll which found Timmy to be the favorite disabled character on TV in Britain:

"So why would disabled voters choose an animated, learning-disabled, wheelchair-using fourth grader as "The Greatest Disabled TV Character"? A misfit kid whose vocabulary is almost exclusively limited to garbled repetitions of his own name, yet who has gained a minor cult following as lead vocalist for a heavy-metal garage band called The Lords of the Underworld?

"The simple answer is that Timmy is downright hilarious, but for disabled "South Park" fans, closer examination of the character's popularity (like that of "Stevie" on Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle") leads to a startling revelation: Comedy Central's controversial cartoon series, featuring a foul-mouthed batch of fourth graders in the "quiet mountain town" of South Park, Colo., is the source of the most progressive, provocative and socially relevant disability humor ever presented on American television.

"With his jagged teeth and can-do spirit, Timmy appears, at first glance, to uphold the condescending disability stereotypes that are gradually fading from mainstream entertainment. But like everything else in "South Park," he's actually challenging preconceptions, toppling taboos and weaving his singularity into the fabric of the show. Insensitive, unenlightened viewers may laugh at Timmy, but the character's popularity is largely determined by those who laugh with him.

"That this is happening on "South Park" — a series routinely condemned by conservative watchdogs — comes as no surprise to anyone who understands what the show is all about. Co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who financed the excellent documentary about disability "How's Your News?," available on DVD) may seem like juvenile provocateurs with a liberal agenda, but "South Park" would not have become a pop-cultural phenomenon if there wasn't a method to its madness. Parker and Stone are equal-opportunity offenders, and when nothing is sacred — not even the seemingly unassailable image of the late Christopher Reeve — the satirical playing field is level, and timely issues become ripe for outrageously comedic scrutiny."

You see Sarah, holding up your baby for political gain is hate speech, bringing the disability community into the mainstream is not. I hope that when Trig grows up, Sarah, he explains that to you.

- Ira Socol

16 February 2010

What is Technology?

What is "technology"? What is "assistive technology"?

Before we can talk about accommodations in the classroom, we need to begin to understand humans and their tools, and thus, the definitions of technology.

The issue is that schools are not at all "anti-technology" - quite the opposite. Schools embrace all the ed tech introduced by Horace Mann and Henry Barnard in the mid-19th Century. Desks and individual seats with backs. Rectangular classrooms with windows on one side. Black-Boards (or their successors) hung in the front of the room. A school day in which everyone was expected to attend from "bell to bell." Printed books ("the most significant technological invention of the last millennium" according to The Guardian). The school calendar. The idea of dividing children by age into "grades" (a radical idea imported to the US by Barnard from Prussia). Maps on the wall, the flag in the corner. OK, yes, paper had been introduced earlier, pencils would come a bit later, but all of these were intentional inventions of humans who were designing an educational system. So was the "standardized test" - that 1867 invention of the New York State Board of Regents.

All of these technologies have been "naturalized," of course, so we no longer see them as technologies. And we need to wonder how fair that is to those who might do better, be more comfortable, with newer, or other, technologies.

So I asked my students to join me in a VoiceThread investigation of what "technology" and "assistive technology" means.

I began with this: from the discussion tab in Wiktionary - 

"Technology is a word that is made of two greek words. Techne and Logos.

"Techne is the greek word for Art. Logos is the Greek word for "reasonable language" or "reasoning about". Therefore a direct translation might be "the reasonable language of art" or "reasoning about art" . So this is not confusing we might substitute the word "technique" for art. For example, a technique which is an "art form" even though it is quite technical in nature. The resulting literal definition might then be "reasoning about techniques."

"Technology is therefore "thinking about the best way to do things. - Eric

"Etymology of these both words is more complicated than that. Techne (also spelled tekhne) means art as in skill or craft (if we want to see a difference between art and skill). Logos means "language", "reason", "reasoning", or even "world". Also, technology isn't just "thinking", it is also constructing and manipulating the world. wikipedia:Martin Heidegger saw technology as a mode of thinking where everything that is, is seen from the perspective of manipulation. He said this the prevailing mode of thinking today. - Nikke"

The narrowest point in the East River in New York City

On the VoiceThread, which you can listen to right here, each slide begins with me introducing a technological challenge. What skills, what capabilities, what tools do you need to travel between New York neighborhoods? To absorb a story written 90 years ago? To bring a refrigerator home? To get to the 88th floor of the Sears Tower? To write a story in a way that others can read it?

After we began our VoiceThread conversation, I sent my class the following note, title: "What is technology?" 

Let’s begin with the first VoiceThread slide, the trip from Canarsie (on Brooklyn’s Atlantic coast) to the Turtle Bay neighborhood in Manhattan (the UN area). I chose these because they are two places clearly settled long before Henry Hudson first sailed in to the harbor 401 years ago.

Imagine the trip in the present, then imagine it in 1609.

Manhattan in 1609 via The Mannahatta Project

In the top image here you can see the “narrow spot” in the East River, a fast flowing tidal strait that moves with the tide action. In the next picture you see a vision of Manhattan in 1609 (the shadow represents the current landmass – see http://themannahattaproject.org/). The “narrow spot” I just talked about is just out of the scene to the right, but if you look north you can see another opportunity for crossing, where what is now called Roosevelt Island splits the river. Of course getting to that spot from Canarsie might mean covering lots more forest, and perhaps crossing a major stream which we call Newtown Creek and which divides Brooklyn from Queens (you can just make out the entrance into the East River to the right of the picture).

I bring all this up not as a history lesson (though it is a fun history lesson), but to demonstrate how our ideas of technology change and “naturalize.”

In 1609 a Manahatta or a Canarsie making the trip – and make the trip they did (it has oft been rumored that it was the Canarsie who “sold” the Manahatta’s island to the Dutch in 1625) – would have considered moccasins technology, and the clothing that prevented brambles from ripping his/her skin, and surely the dugout canoe which probably beat swimming for it. Plus the trail that crossed Brooklyn from the shores of the Atlantic to the East River (now called Flatbush Avenue).

Today, we might not even see the roads, railroads, and bridges as technology, though just a bit more than a hundred years ago those items pretty much defined technology.

So, like the teacher who says, “All I need is a chalkboard, some books, and a classroom,”(1) we tend to assume that anything we are familiar with – anything “invented before we were born” – is not “technology” but “natural.”

In schools books, desks, chairs, pens, pencils, papers, chalk-boards, the school timetable, eyeglasses, the cars which bring teachers to school, even the stairs which make it much easier to get to the second floor, have all been “naturalized.” Yet all were once “introduced” into education, many controversially.

And my argument is that every technology both enables and disables – it simply depends on the individual.

So, the human “default” method of getting from Canarsie to Turtle Bay would be walking and swimming, protected by your own skin. For climbing 900 feet high it would be, yes, climbing. Carrying a heavy object? Picking it up and carrying it, or collecting enough other humans to join you if it is really heavy. Transmitting stories? You speak, they listen, or vise-versa. Everything else which “assists” is “technology” – from shoes to roads, from stairs to ladders, from straps to wheels, from paints for cave art to paper to radio.

But with each technological “advance” there are some who can take advantage of it and others who cannot. A person without eyesight is not nearly as “disabled” in a place of verbal information transmission as they are in a world of visually transmitted data (think Homer). The learner who cannot “sit still” is not “disabled” until the classroom and the chair are joined together.

Is there a difference between “technology” and “assistive technology”? What is “unassistive technology”? Is it technology which does not help “you,” the individual?

How does our definition of technology impact how we view “disability”? If the only way from Brooklyn to Manhattan was swimming, and for survival reasons you had to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan, would the “disability” label be applied to different people than it is right now?

It took Europeans over 260 years of living in the New York area before they managed to bridge the East River (here the Manhattan Bridge – the bridge closest to that “narrow point” is under construction in 1909)

And for those of you who were going to drive to the 42nd Street and First Avenue area of Manhattan: if it costs you $65 to park there, does that change your capabilities? What if you could not afford the $4.50 round trip subway fare? In other words, how does socio-economic status impact our ideas of “ability” and “disability”?

If you have the wealth to own and insure a car in New York City (and to have paid to get a drivers license) and the wealth to pay for Manhattan parking, the inability to walk 20 blocks at a time, four times a day, is not “disabling,” but if you cannot afford that, and you had to walk from your home in Canarsie to the bus stop, then climb the stairs from the bus to the subway, then walk from the subway to your job through a very hilly part of Manhattan, then do it again when work was done, a little “shortness of breath” can keep you from your job. But we would rarely call a car “assistive technology.”

I often say this: I am “disabled” if you give me paper and a pencil. I have dysgraphia. I am disabled if you give me an “ink on paper” book to read or you ask me to read your handwriting on the chalkboard or whiteboard, I have dyslexia. I am disabled if you expect me to sit in a chair, in a room, for 40 minutes straight, I have ADHD. But if I am working on my computer, able to move as I need to, with the TV on at home or, say, dozens of people chatting around me in a coffee shop, I am not disabled at all. I am very able.

What about your students?

- Ira Socol 

(1) "All you need to teach English are books, desks, paper, pens, and a chalkboard. You don't need any technology--just use what's there." - a university professor quoted in Steven D. Krause. "Among the Greatest Benefactors of Mankind": What the Success of Chalkboards Tells Us about the Future of Computers in the Classroom."  The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 33, No. 2, Computers and the Future of the Humanities (Spring, 2000), pp. 6-16.

08 February 2010

The future of information (a Super Bowl post)

Most of the Super Bowl ads sucked this year, let's just agree on that. Misogyny and with "men in underwear" jokes that were stale in 1959 are, hopefully, simply extreme wastes of marketing money and opportunity.

My personal favorite was probably the Volkswagen ad, a very slick transgenerational bit of minimally explained comedy...

but no ad said more than Google's...

The Google ad owes something to Michael Wesch and Kansas State University's Digital Ethnography class videos, but it also breaks out to fully explain the full reach of our contemporary information gathering tools, from the academic to the frivolous, from the mispellings ("louve") to the mis-searched (needing to add "France" to Paris is one search), from the maps to the photos to the comments on a location. This, for all those wondering what "students need to know," is what students need to know.

The Google ad was completely platform and device independent, which is key because we now search everything everywhere. What restaurant? Where is that customer? What is that professor interested in? What has this potential employee created? Is the florist open so I can bring flowers? Where do I sleep tonight? Can I make train reservations? What does ethnography mean anyway?

Whatever it is, we need to know how to efficiently, effectively search, and we need to know how to be searched, and how we, and our works, and our lives, will be searched. We will need to know how to participate as well. Who put that picture of the Parisian church up? Who put up the reviews? What is "slug bug"?

Don't tell me these are genetically encoded skills of the "digital generation." That is nonsense. I see enough teens and young twenties to know that most know very little of this, and many, nothing at all. That's because their education has failed them. They've been battered with information on footnotes and citations and APA style and MLA style, and borders and type-sizes in the schools which were supposed to be educating them for their futures.

But the schools were training them in mapping skills for the last century, and they come to universities not knowing that Google Scholar exists, and not knowing what you can find on the discussion pages of Wikipedia, and not knowing how to even refine a Google search. They are strangers in their own land because they've been led by educators still locked in some ancient time.

Let's change that. A year in which the New Orleans Saints become champions is surely the start of a new era, right?

- Ira Socol