“Uneducable”: Why Don’t We Give People with Disabilities a “Learning Curve?”

Happy June, readers!  We are now returning to our regular Tuesday blog post schedule after a couple of weeks of chaos, including an insightful, joy-filled writer’s conference. I love spending time with other, more experienced writers because it gives me the opportunity to share the ideas that simmer in my head but that I often don’t have many people to share with. I also enjoy these opportunities because they mean I can learn. Writing is my passion, and as such, a lot of people say I’m pretty good at it, but as many wise people also know, you can always learn more.

Unless you have a disability, that is.

I’ve been lucky–no, blessed. My disability is mild enough that I was never stuck with that ominous label “uneducable.” Well, except when it came to some misguided coworkers, but since they themselves needed education, I don’t count them. What I’ve noticed, though, is that this is often the case for people with other disabilities. Now, we think we’ve gotten past the days when we said that children with disabilities couldn’t learn and thus labeled them with words like “educable,” “trainable” (as in, can’t learn but, much like a pet, can perform basic tasks and commands if constantly supervised) or even “uneducable.” Thanks to a bigger push for inclusion in our schools and workplaces, most of us now agree–or at least admit–that PWDs can and do learn. For some of the most stubborn and downright bigoted among us, though, the “uneducable” label still exists. The rest of us? Well, we’re not off the hook. Why? Because many of us have replaced the idea that PWDs are uneducable with the idea that they don’t get, and don’t deserve, what we call a “learning curve.”

Let me explain what I mean. In almost every school situation, students and even teachers are said to be on a learning curve–an estimate, if you will, of how long it will take to learn a new concept and how well those people will do with that concept. On the curve, you will always have those who do quite well, those who fall in the middle, and those who struggle and thus need extra help. Depending on what’s being taught, different students can end up on different points of the curve. For example, I never wanted to know my spot on the curve in algebra and geometry, because I’d faced it long ago–I was terrible. In English and foreign languages, however, I often got good-naturedly accused of wrecking the curve for everybody else, because I did well enough that my teachers made their grading curve stricter than it would’ve been if I wasn’t in the class. But there was one other learning curve I was supposed to be on that I never would’ve wanted my classmates to know about.

You got it–the disability curve. This is the curve you’re on if you go to occupational therapy (OT) or physical therapy (PT) after school to learn how to walk “right”, to cook and bake when other girls your age have been helping Mom for years, or to style your hair. (Thank heaven for pixie cuts). Again, I was blessed. I had therapists who treated me like a person. Yet, sometimes I felt like I was being told, “There is no learning curve here–get this skill right the first or second time, or it will be written in black and white as another thing you cannot do and will prevent your independence.” Leaving aside the ridiculous standards that “independence” involves, I have to say, that hurt. And it didn’t just happen in therapy, either; there were plenty of incidents at home. Once, when (as a teen) I spilled some milk on our counter, my dad suggested I pick a favorite cup and only drink milk out of that from now on. Well-meant, but was he CRAZY? More to the point, would he or any parent have done that to a teen without a disability who spilled? And where was the learning curve? Where was the slack? If temporarily able-bodied adults can spill drinks without being restricted to one receptacle…you get the picture.

Again, I got off easy. And I was able to communicate. I was able to say to Dad, not in those words, “Hey, that’s insulting,” and he backed off. But what about the PWDs who can’t say that, or aren’t allowed to say that? What about PWDs who are being told, and shown, that they can’t move on from simple tasks because they have not sufficiently passed the curve? And what if there is no curve? For instance, let’s say Zoe has a mental disability and wants to improve her reading. The powers that be in her life agree. They may even make it a “goal” for her to improve in a certain way, and as we know, that has its own pitfalls. But if, at the same time, they say, “Zoe cannot move on to books until she is fluent in these 25 sight words,” and then do not give her sufficient time to learn them, they have denied her a reasonable learning curve. If you tell someone after one or two attempts, “That’s it, you can’t move on, you fail”–which is essentially what happens to PWDS–then who has really failed? Right. I’ve said this a lot. If you wouldn’t do it to someone without a disability, don’t do it to someone who has one.

So the next time you’re working on a new skill, take a minute to appreciate the learning curve. And remember to give one to those around you–temporarily able-bodied or not.

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