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.

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