Categories: Teachable Moments
      Date: Apr 27, 2010
     Title: Disabling Prejudice

Understand, don’t label, kids with special needs

By Emma Kress

Health problems forced me to use a wheelchair for a few months and crutches and canes for years. While I am able to walk without assistance now, I do not take walking for granted. My experience awakened me to prejudice toward people with varied abilities. Later, I became a learning specialist, working mainly with students labeled with learning disabilities. Perhaps the most disheartening piece of my job was realizing how these labels gnawed at self-esteem, making kids feel stupid.



Health problems forced me to use a wheelchair for a few months and crutches and canes for years. While I am able to walk without assistance now, I do not take walking for granted. My experience awakened me to prejudice toward people with varied abilities. Later, I became a learning specialist, working mainly with students labeled with learning disabilities. Perhaps the most disheartening piece of my job was realizing how these labels gnawed at self-esteem, making kids feel stupid.

As a teacher, I began to develop ways of helping my students learn about abilities in our society. Here are some of my strategies for responding to assumptions.

Language matters.
I avoid saying “wheelchair-bound” or “LD kids” as that’s inaccurate. Sometimes students say: “I am ADD.” But ADD isn’t something you are, it is simply a label for a part of you. Labels are useful as they can help people get needed services or medical attention. But beyond that, they can be imprisoning. To say all people in wheelchairs or all kids labeled with autism are the same is like saying that all boys or teenagers are alike.

Abilities vary.
Even if a student is labeled with learning disabilities, she is quite capable of being very smart, even brilliant. In fact, I became a learning specialist because I noticed that some of my smartest students were not able to read well, and that intrigued me. Loads of famous people have had learning disabilities, from Robert Rauschenberg to Magic Johnson, from Whoopi Goldberg to Charles Schwab. Likewise, a person whose body requires assistance in some way or who looks physically “different” probably possesses capabilities that might impress us if we learned of them. Often, we assume that one piece represents the whole package, and that simply isn’t true.

Rethink your idea of “disability.” I have a story I love to tell that comes from Joseph Shapiro’s No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement, a life-changing book. For hundreds of years, Martha’s Vineyard was home to many deaf people. By the mid-19th century, in one neighborhood, one in four islanders was deaf. Since there were so many deaf people, all islanders learned to sign. Fishermen used sign language to communicate between boats and people even used it to talk in church. And because the state paid for the education of the deaf, deaf islanders stayed in school longer and were better educated. By all accounts, deafness was not a disability: It was ordinary. Everyone signed.

This story teaches us this essential truth: We create disability when we choose what to value. For instance, if our world were wheelchair accessible, using a wheelchair would not be inconvenient. If schools valued music over reading, a new set of students would be labeled with “learning disabilities.” 

Embrace the lopsidedness. Being “well-rounded” is considered valuable in schools. We want our students to pursue algebra, chemistry, world history, music and athletics. This is reinforced by colleges that compete for candidates. Yet the fact is, in the adult world, it is OK to be specialized and not good at everything. You don’t often see a mathematician publishing her works on the Constitution. We should encourage everyone to try hard and succeed in everything so that as many opportunities as possible are available, but we also must admit that it’s normal if kids aren’t great at math, science, English, history, Spanish, sports and art. The cool thing about being a grownup is that you get to choose a career that nurtures and makes use of your strengths, not one that highlights your weaknesses.

Be fair, not equal.
When a student questions why another student gets extended time, I don’t shush the question. Rather, I explain that in my class, every student gets what he or she needs. And we all need different things. Nobody would dare suggest that I drive without my glasses. Similarly, the DMV does not hand out glasses to everyone. Treating everyone equally is ridiculous, but treating everyone fairly is essential.

Shelve the pity. In Shapiro’s book No Pity, he profiles several strong disability rights movements across the country. One frustration shared by many with disabilities is that they are pitied. I am not saying that we shouldn’t feel empathy for people who suffer. Still, imagine if everywhere you went you were met with stares laced with pity. That is not the solution, either. Nor, Shapiro argues, should we worship those he calls “Super Crips,” people who in spite of their disabilities climb high peaks and accomplish great things. Neither pity nor idolization is normal. We need to treat everyone around us as different kinds of normal.

Open up the conversation.
You don’t need to hush your child when she notices someone using a wheelchair and asks about it. Evading the question will only make her feel there is something wrong with “those” people. Simply explain that different people need different things.

We have members of our family who are different in all kinds of ways: one requires tubes to breathe, one uses a walker, one is missing a finger, one has Down syndrome, one wears a wig and several wear glasses. But we’re also all mothers, daughters, fathers and sons. We have good moods and bad moods. We laugh and read and play. I bet if you look at your own family, you’ll see evidence of different people needing different things. Your kids need to know that whatever someone’s strengths or weaknesses, they, too, are normal.

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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