50,000 (or More) Shades of Gray: Why Disabilities Have No Right or Wrong Answers

Hello, readers,

I have returned, after a long absence of readjusting to graduate school, doing homework, working with my online creative writing group, and nursing a blistered foot (ouch!) And I’m glad to be back, because lately, ideas for posts have been surprising me at every turn. For instance, the idea for today’s post came from that blistered foot, or shall I say, blistered toe.

Yes, that’s right. My entire foot hurts because its smallest toe has two big, bursting, bleeding blisters. That’s because I have a love-hate relationship with my pedometer, and often get far beyond the federally stated goal of 10,000 steps a day just walking around my campus. It’s also because, as I explained to a health center nurse or two, my case of CP means that all my walking pressure goes to my toes, not my heels.

The medical world would say–although thankfully, no one at the health center did–that this way of walking is “wrong.” In fact, for most of my life, I was told that. My way of walking was the “wrong” way. It looked bad. It wasn’t fast enough or good enough, or healthy. That’s why I wore leg braces, of various sizes and heights, for fourteen years, including, for a short time, in bed. (I do not recommend trying to sleep in them, even if they are patterned with pink, purple, and green butterflies). It’s why I went to physical therapy once a month for fourteen years and was assigned “special” exercises, why my parents nagged at me to walk heel-toe in public and private, and why, for a brief time, I wore straps around my legs.

Now of course, some of you are probably saying, “What’s wrong with all that?” And some of you might even claim that, without those interventions, I wouldn’t be walking at all today. Some of you might even wonder if I set myself up for my current pain because I didn’t respond “correctly” to those interventions. And if any of that is going through your head, that’s fine. The tools I mentioned are based on medical research and can, I suppose, be somewhat helpful. But the problem here is not with the tools themselves. It’s with the medical model of disability. The one that says, if you don’t walk a certain way, you have to wear “special” braces that hold your feet in the right position, so it can be “fixed.”

But what happens when you take the braces off? Right–your feet return to their original position. I would argue, the natural position.

Or, let’s look at the example of a person with a disability who has a mild to moderate speech impediment. They’re made to go to speech therapy and sit, watching the lips and tongue of a person who talks the “right” way, until they can imitate that person’s speech. But often, the speech is still imperfect–and still gets corrected. Or, when that person goes home, they will either stop talking (because they’ve received the message that they shouldn’t bother), or return to talking in the way that is natural for them.

Or, let’s look at the person with a disability who has trouble with what is sometimes called “adaptive behavior.” This often crops up with diagnoses of cognitive disabilities or autism. Understand, I’m not talking about aggression here; if a person with a disability is hurting others, then that does need to be corrected in as natural and gentle a way as possible. I’m talking about, for example, a person with autism stimming–rocking, spinning, or clicking a pen, for instance–as a self-comforting mechanism. I’m talking about people with mental disabilities who may not understand finances or job skills the first time they are presented. So, what do medical experts–and often, therefore, these persons’ families and friends–do in response? They tell the person with autism to stop stimming, and may discipline that person for doing so. They approach teaching the person with mental disabilities in “drill and kill” mode, and may reprimand, discipline, or shame that person for retreating to what they see as childish activities in response to feeling overwhelmed by their attitudes.

Now, of course, stimming can be disruptive. And yes, I would much rather see a person with cognitive disabilities, even severe ones, working at a job and learning to handle his or her own money than watching TV and playing with toys all day. But I still have a question: how much of these so-called “behaviors” are natural for those people, and why are we as a society trying so hard to stamp them out? I mean, if clicking a pen was the one way I knew to comfort myself, then darn it, I’d click the life out of that sucker.

I am a big believer in absolute truth. Truth like, there is a God, He created our world in seven days (exact time frame for each day unknown), and there is a right and wrong way to live, morally speaking, in our world. But in some cases, there are very few absolutes. Disability is one of these. For example, I believe it is an absolute that we must treat people with disabilities as people first, and give them the lives we would want for ourselves in their positions as much as possible. But who invented the “right” way to walk or talk? Who invented some standard that said having a nine to five job and making X amount of dollars, performing X skill set, was the “right” way to live one’s life? Who said there was a “right” way to learn, which involved sitting still and quiet at a desk? Are those things truly right? Or are they simply convenient for the majority?

Rachel Swords and Rebecca Wheeler are teachers who co-wrote a book called Code-Switching, which I am currently reading. In it, they examine the phenomenon of teaching English in the urban classroom, where so-called “Standard” English clashes with dialects and forms of English the students use at home, such as African-American Vernacular English, regional English (i.e., Midland, Southern, Southern Mountain, New York), or other languages whose grammar patterns don’t match those of English. (An example would be a Russian student who says “My father is big man” because Russian doesn’t use articles).

Swords and Wheeler write a lot about the “correctionist” model of teaching English in these classrooms. For example, a student says, “Ms. Swords, Chris need a pencil.” The teacher says, “What?” The student repeats the exact sentence, until the teacher says something like, “No. Say, Chris NEEDS a pencil!” Or even, “Don’t say it like that!”

See the problem? You guys are smart–I knew you would. That attitude assumes the kid doesn’t know the rules of English. In reality, he or she often does–in fact, most of the students who get corrected all the time at school come from a verbally rich environment; African-American kids in particular do, because as Swords and Wheeler put it, verbal acuity is “highly prized” in their homes and families. Yet, these same kids, who come up with great poems, lyrics, raps, and rhymes outside of school often get misdiagnosed as “linguistically deficient” or even put in special education, once they get into school, because they can’t “talk right” or “write right.” Such attitudes deny the fact that all these students–black, white, tan, whatever–have a home language that they do know, that is their first language, and that should be respected in school.

Swords and Wheeler then write about teaching kids English grammar in a way that respects these first, “home” languages. They teach the students there is a difference between formal language–what has been called “Standard” English–and the informality of the “home” language, which shouldn’t be used when talking to someone like a principal, but can be used in class at specific times, like say, for creative writing. After all, as these teachers point out, many authors, like Toni Morrison, make great use of formal and informal language in their books. They know how to code-switch.

So, I’m reading all this, and a thought occurs to me. Teachers–and other members of society–say that African American English, Hispanic English, and all these other Englishes need to be respected as a natural, wonderful way of speaking and writing. Yet, when a child with a disability talks “differently”–perhaps with a stutter or, in the case of some children with Asperger’s, in a stilted way–BOOM! “Get the speech specialist in here; this needs to be fixed!” And yes, if the child’s words are unintelligible or inappropriate FOR THE SETTING, help could be necessary. But again, the question: why stamp it out completely?

Same thing for the walking issue. Yes, there may be times when a student whose disability makes walking difficult does need to practice walking more “formally” if you will. For example, walking heel-toe for short periods feels unnatural to me, but sometimes I do it to re-distribute pressure points. But I no longer wear braces to help me walk “right” (my mother recently told me my dad was never a big fan of that, and I have to wonder if that’s the reason why). My point is: if we let other groups–groups without disabilities–have their own ways of doing things like talking or walking or writing–then why not people with disabilities, too? Within reason, we allow children to go ahead and say things like, “My dad, he big man” or “My mama be at home.” We allow people without disabilities to work largely at their own pace, without the “drill and kill” stuff (hopefully). Why are people with disabilities the last remaining group whose way of walking and talking through life is singled out as “wrong” or “bad?”

Maybe it’s time to do some more code-switching.

*Special thanks to Rachel Swords and Rebecca S. Wheeler for their book Code-Switching: Teaching English in the Urban Classroom.

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