Monday, January 31, 2022

Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover

I've never liked the word "disability." I understand that whoever came up with it probably meant well, but it gives the impression that there are some folks who have abilities, and some who don't. I've got a similar problem with the term "special education"-- again, the intention was to create a more positive word than what it used to be called in generations past, but let's be honest-- does society really treat these kids as if they are special? Their teachers and advocates certainly do, but out in the world, too often the kids who are perceived as "different" are undervalued; in some cases, they are also mocked or bullied. Too many people penalize them for what they can't do, rather than rewarding them for what they can do. 

There is still an unfortunate tendency in our culture to violate the rule we were all taught as kids, the one about "don't judge a book by its cover." I've seen people make assumptions about kids who have Down Syndrome, or kids who have autism. And I've seen similar assumptions made about kids who are blind or hearing impaired. I find it puzzling that in 2022, too many kids are still being stereotyped as incapable of achieving: if certain kids are treated like their abilities are limited, those kids may come to believe it must be true.

But what if it's not? What if the kids who are underestimated and undervalued have a lot more potential than some people think? Agreed, not every kid is going to Harvard, but is that the standard for deciding if someone is successful? I've seen numerous kids with so-called "disabilities" far exceed what they were supposed to be able to do. I've seen numerous kids acquire skills they weren't supposed to be able to master. Because someone believed in them, they came to believe in themselves.

I'm the editor of the school newspaper at the university where I teach. Last semester, I was contacted by an advisor from Threshold, our non-degree program for young adults with diverse learning, developmental, and intellectual disabilities. Two of the students were interested in our newspaper and wanted to work for it. I had never had any Threshold students as reporters before. But it certainly seemed like an interesting possibility, and I wanted to give them a chance. 

There was a slight learning curve, but you can say that about any student anywhere. Gradually, they learned what was expected, and what we needed them to do. (I didn't treat them any differently from any of my other reporters. The only difference was they had their own support system in place, to help them with learning how to write in a newspaper style, and to help them edit their articles before submitting them. They did all the rest themselves.) I found them both enthusiastic, eager to learn, and eager to take direction. Whatever I asked, they went above and beyond.

The other students welcomed them too, and they became part of the team. When they had a problem doing something, there was someone to show them how. They learned quickly. And they really blossomed. In the end, they each wrote several articles, and took their own photos. They seldom if ever missed a class. And I wish you could have seen the smiles on their faces when they got published for the first time-- it was like I gave them a million dollars.

Theoretically, it shouldn't have worked. They were not enrolled in an undergrad journalism program, they had learning differences, they hadn't been on a college newspaper before, etc. etc. And yet, it worked out just fine. I was so proud of them-- and they really made a positive contribution to the newspaper. (And no, I'm not just saying that. With a little support and a little encouragement, they did everything that I asked... and more.)      

And if there's a moral to this story, it's that every time we decide ahead of time that someone isn't capable of X, we diminish that person's possibilities. Agreed, sometimes things don't work out. Sometimes the person couldn't do it after all. But what's the harm in letting the person try? Why not give them a chance, why not treat them like you'd treat anyone else?  So, yes, I'd like to see a better word than "disabilities." I'm not sure what it would be, and I'm not looking for another euphemism. I'm looking for a word that describes kids who may have certain challenges, but who absolutely can--and should--be allowed to succeed in their own way.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Conversation We Never Seem to Have

Early on Saturday afternoon, we heard the news that an angry man had burst into a synagogue not far from Fort Worth, Texas, and he was holding a rabbi and several other congregants hostage. The man was demanding the release of a convicted Muslim terrorist. In this case, fortunately, the hostages were finally released unharmed, but I can only imagine what their ten-hour ordeal was like.

And no, this frightening incident shouldn't immediately devolve into online comments about Muslims. It wasn't that long ago-- October 27, 2018-- when an avowed white supremacist, whose social media indicated hatred of immigrants and hatred of Jews, attacked a Pittsburgh synagogue. On that day, he murdered eleven worshipers. 

Both incidents share a common thread: an angry guy who decided to take out his anger on a group that had never met him, in a place where he had probably never gone before.  And many of us might ask: Why attack Jews at prayer? Why take out whatever grievances you have on people whose 'crime' seems to be that they attend synagogue? 

These kinds of attacks have become more common in the past few years. We saw Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, carrying torches and chanting "Jews will not replace us." And if you spend any time on social media, chances are you've encountered anti-Jewish comments. I've seen this happen on social media more times than I should have to. Yes, it's only words, but it still can hurt.

After an attack on a synagogue, or some other antisemitic incident, politicians issue the usual regrets and offer thoughts and prayers. But here's what usually doesn't happen-- the media rarely refer to antisemitism. It's usually framed like the perpetrator was some disgruntled guy who was angry about Israel (umm, no offense, but what does that have to do with threatening people praying in a synagogue?). Or they say it was some Muslim extremist. Or some white nationalist. In other words, it's often treated like a one-off. An exception. In no way part of any larger trend.

But it IS part of a larger trend. Agreed, many countries are far more tolerant today than they used to be. But let's be honest: many are not.  In too many places, kids are taught antisemitism from childhood-- and no, that's not just true of Muslim countries. Nationalism-- often Christian nationalism-- is on the rise throughout Europe, and there is little tolerance for anyone perceived as "other." Countries that used to welcome the stranger, including Hindu and Buddhist countries, are now treating the stranger as an enemy.

And in America, while most churches no longer teach overt hatred of the Jews, I can speak from first-hand experience that too many people are still learning it somewhere. I still meet lots of folks who only see me as someone who must be converted; or who believe the Jews are going to hell; or, worse yet, who still believe the Jews own the media or run the government or are to blame for [insert social problem here]. 

It would be nice if we could talk about this, rather than downplaying it.  It would be nice if church leaders, mosque leaders, and leaders of other faiths, would take an objective look at what kids are learning about Judaism. It would be nice if politicians would stop making Nazi and Hitler references whenever they disagree with some government policy. And it would be nice if the media would tell the truth about where things are: there really has been a rise in antisemitism in the US, and it needs to be called out. Pretending everything is fine isn't working. Ignoring prejudice doesn't make it go away. It's time to have an honest conversation, and come up with some strategies, so that people can go to synagogue or wear a Star of David or express pride in being Jewish without worrying about whether it's safe.