A Person with Feelings, or a Visual Aid?:”Using” People with Disabilities to “Teach ‘Them’ a Lesson”

Hello, readers,

You may recall that sometimes on this blog, we talk about how people with disabilities are often viewed through the lens of certain double standards. Such as, “I, an able-bodied person, can use my dishwasher, but Jane, who has a disability, must wash her dishes within 20 minutes of eating or lose the right to live independently.” Or the one that says, “A child who has trouble with reading needs a tutor, unless or until that child is diagnosed with some form of disability. Then we pull out resource rooms, special education, and in the most severe cases, life-skills curricula until the child ‘ages out’ at 22.” Well, today, let’s talk about another of these double standards. This one occurs when a person with a disability is used as a visual aid.

What do I mean by that? I’ll show you. As you know, I sometimes get inspiration from other writers’ blogs. One of my favorite authors is a woman named Ginny Yttrup, and on Facebook the other day, she posted a link to a blog she likes. It’s by a woman named Jamie, and it’s called “The Worst Missionary.” Now, as far as I know, Jamie is probably a great missionary, whether she means that in the sense of traditional foreign missions or within her own neighborhood or state. However, she does have a lot to say about the way people, especially evangelical Christians, treat others. One of her posts dealt with the way mainstream, middle-class Christians tend to view and treat those who are impoverished.

Jamie describes the situation as one where parents or relatives may take a child or teen who has, up to then, been privileged, to a foreign country on a mission trip, or even to an impoverished American area. The parents view this as an opportunity to teach their middle-class children that they are fortunate and need to be grateful for what they have rather than constantly asking for more. In itself, not exactly a bad thing–Americans are spoiled, and if we’re smart, we’ll admit it. But here’s where the intentions break down. The “missionaries,” however you want to define that term, approach their impoverished counterparts and say, in words or actions, to their own kids, “See? Your life is great–you could be living like this.” Then, as Jamie describes, the adults in the picture say, through words and/or actions, “Here, have a package of food, a toothbrush, and a pair of used shoes”–while their own kid stands there in brand-new Nikes.

That did something to me as a Christian. Days later, I’m still questioning our motivation behind taking kids and teens on that type of mission trip at all. Is it simply to shame them, rather than for the purer motives we claim? Evidence would suggest we’re all just pros at guilt trips, not mission trips. But I’m not a pastor, and I’m not Super-Christian. Nor have I ever been to a Third World country, so I don’t feel qualified to make judgments about this issue. In fact, I’m not qualified to make judgments about much of anything, which I have to remind myself as an advocate and a writer. Thus, I’m going to present my next point as non-judgmentally as I can, but I hope it causes you to think.

How many times have we, or do we, do the same thing to people with disabilities?

Of course, we all say we’re too polite, and too politically correct, to come right out, point a finger at a person with a visible disability, and tell ourselves or our children, “At least you aren’t like that!” But how often do we think it? How often do we use that rationale to make ourselves feel better when we have a bad day because the washing machine’s on the fritz, we took a pay cut, and darn it, Starbucks got our coffee order wrong again? People with disabilities even do it to each other; I used to look at people with more severe physical disabilities, or mental disabilities, and feel not much else besides relief.

Besides which, we often try to “help” people with disabilities by handing them the equivalent of used shoes and a toothbrush. “Oh, you want a job? I know a sheltered workshop downtown,” or, “I know an employer who’s looking for help–if you have a job coach to monitor you.” Or how about, “You want leisure time? Here, go to this animated movie”–as an adult in your twenties. Or, “How about going bowling”–for the twentieth time. (I don’t recall if I’ve asked this before, but what’s the connection between people with disabilities and bowling)?

People with disabilities are being used, folks–as visual aids for what the general population does NOT want to be. That in itself is disturbing enough. What’s even more disturbing is, the “visual aid” mentality WORKS, because so many disabilities live artificial, monitored, limited lives that none of us, given a choice, would ever want. Why can’t we, instead, work together to change the picture, so that people with disabilities are presented as successful, intelligent–darn it, happy–rather than comfortable and cared for, but pitiable?

They’re not objects, folks. Quit using these people as negative examples. And then give them, and yourself, some real help, by changing the picture.


No More Dead Disabilities: Changing the Perception of People with Disabilities in Fiction

Hi, readers,

As you know, I love books. In fact, I’ve got stacks camping out on my floor right now thanks to a mishap during spring cleaning that resulted in a broken bookcase (one of those cheap things you find at Wal-Mart that was more than a little flimsy, anyway). These days, my literature choices are geared mostly toward adults, but I still adore adolescent literature. I have a whole wish list on amazon.com that I plan to make into a “student library” if I go back to teaching in any capacity.

One clever adolescent book I’ve read in recent years is called No More Dead Dogs, by humorous author Gordon Korman. The book concerns protagonist Wallace Wallace (yes, his real name; his parents must’ve either really liked it or been irrevocably stuck), a middle school student who has a problem with being brutally honest. I mean brutal, to the point that he tells a neighbor her cake tastes like vacuum cleaner fuzz, and that his cousin’s clarinet playing resembles someone strangling a duck. Yes, this tendency gets him into trouble, but never more than when he writes an honest review of Old Shep, My Pal for English class. Turns out, Wallace is sick of the dead dog motif that the illustrious novel keeps alive. (Yes, Shep dies). “Pick out any book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover,” he challenges his English teacher. “Trust me, that dog is going down.” His classmates get in on the act, citing famous examples like Old Yeller, Sounder, and Where the Red Fern Grows (wherein TWO dogs die; no offense to Wilson Rawls, but he must’ve been desperate for a Newberry Medal. And I never much cared for that book, either). Unfortunately, Wallace’s teacher doesn’t really get it. Turns out Old Shep, My Pal is the guy’s favorite book, so he assigns Wallace detention until he writes an “acceptable” review.

Now, without getting into all the flaws of public education and biased teaching that that presents, and with apologies to Gordon Korman, I’d like to apply his premise to another well-established literary trope. Heck, the trope is known in movies and TV, too, such that the TV Tropes and Idioms section on Wikipedia calls it Bury Your Disabled. You got it: literature in which a character with a disability dies, and seems to exist only to die at the end. But I’m not just going to give you examples of death here. I’ve noticed that in a lot of literature–not every book, but a lot–if there is a main character with a disability, he or she serves one of three purposes: to get Cured or Killed Off, or to serve as a Morality Compass. Let’s look at several examples, shall we? (Note: in no way am I saying I don’t like the literature presented. Some of it is actually quite good. But it has a fatal flaw that we’re going to expose and discuss).


The Secret Garden, Francis Hogsdon Burnett. One of my absolute childhood favorites; I read it until the cover threatened to rebel and fall off. But let’s be real here. Character with disability: Colin Craven (whose last name, unfortunately, means “coward.”) Not only does Colin spend the entire book acting like a spoiled brat and telling everyone he’s going to grow a hunchback and die, the other characters, except Mary and Dickon, totally buy into this. It is only when Colin is ostensibly Cured of his disability (physical and arguably emotional/behavioral) by learning to walk again, that he becomes a character that readers can truly cheer for. Yes, in his time with Dickon and Mary, he becomes less spoiled and unpleasant, but to that point, it’s a slow process.

Heidi. Johanna Spyri. Again, a childhood favorite, and again, the author was working off perceptions of disability in her day. But again: Klara Sessaman. Paralyzed, portrayed as fragile and somewhat helpless in the book, and portrayed, again, as a spoiled brat in the movie adaptations. In the 1993 film in particular, meeting Heidi changes Klara’s life, but she refuses to see the other girl as a person with her own needs. In the Shirley Temple version, Klara (Marcia Mae Jones) goes so far as to demand to be able to “keep” Heidi, as if she were a pet. What happens to Klara? She gets Cured, again, by regaining walking ability, and begins to grow up.

Pollyanna. Eleanor H. Porter. Porter somewhat ducks the trope because Pollyanna Whittier wasn’t born with a disability, but what’s the major turning point for her? Right–she falls out of a tree, nearly gets Killed Off, and goes into a depression until she is promised a Curing operation. Enough said.

Freak the Mighty. Rodman Philbrick. Two-for-one: Kevin Dillon has a physical disability known as Murqio Syndrome, and Max Kane has severe reading disabilities. But Kevin (who is known throughout the book as Freak) (???!!!), teaches Max to read, so Max’s disabilities kind of get forgotten. Whereas Kevin, you got it, is Killed Off at the end of the book. The film adaptation accompanies his death with an eerie letitmotif, snow, and Max screaming and running crazily all over town.

Handle with Care. Jodi Picoult. Willow, Amelia’s physically disabled little sister, dies at the end, after a long court battle over whether her birth was wrongful to begin with. I’m going to leave this one at that.

A Prayer for Owen Meany/Simon Birch. John Irving. I prefer the film adaptation, actually, but in either case, the kid with a disability dies.

Of Mice and Men. John Steinbeck. Poor, mentally disabled Lenny, gets shot in the head at the end. Both the attitudes toward Lenny, and the reason for his death, disgust me.

Little Men and Jo’s Boys Louisa May Alcott. Not to disparage her writing, but really. Double whammy–one death of a kid with a physical disability, one death of a kid with a mental one.

Even Survivor did it, when contestant Vic Thatcher died in a house fire (he used a wheelchair). I guess people with disabilities aren’t meant to be survivors, huh? What a crock.

I’m sure you’re getting the picture. The trope may have died out in later decades (no pun intended), but in my humble opinion, it still happens way too much. Even if a character with a disability doesn’t die or get cured in the course of a story, they often serve as a morality compass for other characters (check out My Sister’s Keeper, where Kate Fitzgerald both serves as this AND dies, Just Call Me Stupid, wherein the main character, Patrick, decimates his own self-esteem, and Bad Helen, wherein the main plot concerns the character acting out, finding out her poor behavior stems from frustration with dyslexia, and boom, shaping up). This is just a sampling; there are plenty of others out there, such as Rules, where Catherine’s autistic little brother David serves as her compass, so she can learn there is no such thing as “normal” and David is okay the way he is. Or Out of My Mind, where Melody Brooks, who has severe CP, ends up shaming her classmates when they doubt her ability to be on a school quiz team, accuse her of cheating, and then leave her behind when the team goes to state–on purpose.

Again, not to disparage all these books and movies. Some are enjoyable, and in actuality, without them, we might not have the portrayals of disability we do at all, because a lot of people, especially those in the entertainment and book industries, would like to pretend disability doesn’t exist. They seem to think the real world is bad enough; why inject realistic disability stories into it? Better that the characters come on the scene, deliver their semi-holy messages, and die off or get cured like good cripples. Right?


Why don’t we see more realistic portrayals of disability? You know what I mean–regular kids, with regular friends, regular parents and siblings who drive them up the wall, and problems that can be solved without cures, death, or an Aesop-style moral? Yes, I know this is improving, and for that, I thank the people making it happen. But we could still do better. So the next time you see a character with a disability in fiction, ask yourself: what purpose does this person serve here? And if it’s a purpose like the ones outlined here, challenge that. Who knows? Maybe you could start writing yourself, and create new characters with real lives and purposes. I know I am.

*Note: Apologies for the typo–the book I referred to as Bad Helen is called Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You. The main character’s nickname is Bad Helen, which carries unfortunate implications in itself.

Life: It’s Where You Get those Social Skills: Misconceptions of Social Skills and Disability

Hi, readers,

I hope everyone had a wonderful Mother’s Day and enjoyed celebrating with and showing love to all the mothers, stepmothers, grandmothers, godmothers, and aunts who all make our lives so wonderful. (Quick shout-out: love you, Mom!) And now, back to the blogosphere.

I don’t know who started it, but there’s a vicious rumor going around that people with disabilities, particularly those on the autism spectrum, but really anybody with a disability, have no social skills, don’t like being around people, and are in general unable to show or reciprocate friendship, love, and respect. The rumor in itself is bad enough, especially when someone has the gall to voice it to the other person’s face. In fact, I heard a lot of that from my “mentor” teachers at my last job–“You have little or no social skills.” And let me tell you: (1) That hurt, and (2) I could say plenty about theirs–such as, they need a refresher course in social skills. However, the rumor gets worse.

It’s laughable when you think about it. I’ve recently stumbled across the Asperger Women’s Association Facebook page, and this morning, I came across one of their links. It’s to another Word Press blog, called Life with Disability, written by a woman who has a learning disability. One of her more recent posts was about social skills, and she wrote that someone once asked her, in all seriousness, “Where did you get your social skills? Were they from an IEP?” The first thing I thought when I read that?

Oh. My. Holy Goodness.

I’m sure you recognize the two inherent fallacies in such a question. The first, of course, is that social skills cannot be taught naturally to people with disabilities. The second is that they must be written up as “goals” or “behavior plans” or IEPs, so that the person with a disability can practice them and be “worked on” by a behavior therapist or other such “expert,” until that person determines that the person with a disability finally has social skills. It makes me want to vomit just writing it.

Besides the two immediate fallacies, there are other problems with this construct as well. First of all, what, exactly, are “social skills?” We treat “social skills” as a set of abilities that are fixed and can be checked off a checklist one at a time as they are learned. However, social skills are not fixed. For example, in America, children with autism are looked upon with suspicion and disapproval because they can’t or don’t make eye contact with other people. They’re seen as rude and disrespectful. But in China or Ghana, that same child would be looked upon as rude and disrespectful if he or she did make eye contact without permission. American parents and teachers expect children to demonstrate “social skills” by smiling and greeting adults when prompted. Again, in other places, it’s considered rude for a child to smile at an adult–smiling in general, especially showing your teeth–can be considered disrespectful or even threatening. Also, isn’t it funny that we prompt children to greet adults when we tell them to, but in other situations, we clearly say, “Never talk to strangers”? Social skills are not unchanging–yet, when it comes to people with disabilities, we behave as if they are, and that to fail at one social skill is to fail at all of them.

Social skills cannot be checked off a checklist. Again, we behave as if they can when we give certain skills as “goals” to people with disabilities. But they cannot. For example, let’s say that an “expert” gives a four-year-old child with autism the goal of being “socially acceptable” by using good table manners, and nine times out of ten, that child does so. But the tenth time, he or she spills something, or makes a mess with food because it’s difficult to hold or cut up. Bang–it’s suddenly like those other nine times flew out the window. The kid didn’t meet the goal and is still not socially acceptable, so that goal remains on the checklist–until when? Until someone else arbitrarily decides it can be removed, that’s when. Meanwhile, the patron at the next restaurant table, who does not have autism or any other disability, splashes guacamole on himself from that messy taco–and nobody bats an eyelash at that.

So now that we know what doesn’t work in terms of teaching social skills, let’s talk about what does. I think you might know where I’m going with this. People without disabilities don’t go to school or out in public with a paper trail of IEPs, IHPs, and goals attached to them. So how do they learn social skills? Right–naturally! Who taught you how to say please and thank you? I’m betting it was Mom, Dad, or another caring relative or friend–whoever you grew up with. Who taught you that we wipe our mouths with napkins, don’t reach across tables, and say “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, sir” when speaking to teachers, employers, or other adults in authority? Right again–you probably learned that at home, and had it supplemented at school. Even if you grew up in a home where fighting, cursing, bad manners, and all kinds of other socially horrible behavior was the norm–and if that is the case, you have my deepest sympathies–you learned those “good” social skills somewhere, and it wasn’t from a packet of paper. Even if you, say, had a counselor who suggested you work on social skills 1, 2, and 3, I’m pretty sure he or she didn’t call a meeting with your guardians and teachers every time you “failed” to speculate about whether you’d ever have social skills at all, and if you needed to be placed in a different environment to learn them.

Yet, this is exactly what we do to people with disabilities! As with so many other areas, when it comes to socializing, we set the bar where WE think it ought to be, and then blame THEM for not reaching our goals–when in fact they probably did, just in a different way. But we can’t accept that, because we’ve been conditioned to think that different is bad. We can’t accept that life naturally teaches anything to people with disabilities, because then we might have to rethink our reams of papers and plans. (IEP, IHP, IFSP–do you see how each of these end in the word Plan? But whose plan is this, anyway? I’ll give you a hint–it’s never the plan of the person it’s aimed at).

Plans are good–but in many areas, particularly the area of social skills, they might be doing a lot of harm. Let’s reexamine what our beliefs about people with disabilities and social skills are saying. And then, let’s dare to teach social skills–by being naturally social, with real people who just happen to have disabilities.

Independence Chick RETURNS!

Dearest readers,

If anyone is still reading this blog, bless you. It has been a long and arduous four months.

I spent those four months student teaching at the same schools where I was a student (middle and high). I spent most of the semester under attack from the colleagues who were supposed to mentor me. Everything I said was deemed as “arrogant” or “calling other colleagues’ experiences irrelevant.” I was told I did not care about my students–but when I asked point-blank for evidence of this, I was told, “There are no specific examples; it’s just how they feel.” I was told that the questions I asked about teaching, particularly a specific testing policy that would affect students with reading-related learning disabilities, were “appalling.”

Worst of all, I was eventually placed on observation status in my mentor teacher’s classroom–at a desk facing the wall. The teacher said, in front of students, “See, she can be effective” (subtext: when she wants to). What was worst, however, was that my Christian faith was called into question, and I was demonized, told I had an attitude of wanting to be served because I asked for help and reasonable modifications. It was “suggested” that I work only with kids who had profound disabilities, on mini-lessons and mini-activities.

My family and I are still looking into how to handle this flagrant display of discrimination and general nastiness. As you might guess, I haven’t felt much like writing for a long time. But rather than let this blog die completely, I wanted to get back to it and nourish it again. So, prepare for new posts, new topics, and hopefully, new learning opportunities.

As for my teaching career, it’s not kaput–I’ll just be looking at options outside my local school system. Actually, public school in general has me pretty turned off right now. I’m also going to become a published writer this July and am working on a second novel, so I’m going to be focusing more on that. Most importantly for this blog’s audience, though: my above-mentioned experiences have made me even more eager to pursue disability advocacy and be the best advocate for others possible. This may mean softening my stance on some things and hardening it on others. (For example, keep your eyes open for a post on how and when self-contained classrooms can be beneficial–if handled correctly). But whatever else my experiences mean, they mean I have returned, and am glad to be back. Blessings, all.