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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Stereotypes--Learning Disabilities in Higher Education

Louis Schmier posted this discussion on the POD Network listserv yesterday. Although it is long, I found it touched several important points in my life. Like Louis, I have a very bright and talented son who also is ADD. Throughout his educational career, I have seen how teachers' perceptions and lack of understanding of his "disability" impacted his learning--both positively and negatively. My sister is a special education teacher in Maryland. She also has three "special" children. All three are intelligent and capable. However, she has had to fight (sometimes tooth and nail) to get them the services they deserve. Luckily, she has the background knowledge. What about all those others who do not have that support? I became a teacher because I wanted to work with others in the learning process. I knew that this would not always be an easy task. We all learn in different ways--and we have to be aware of this when we step into the classroom. It's not about imparting our knowledge. It's about facilitating the learning process. We can all learn together. It is sad that there are still persons in academia that do not consider education an inalienable right for all persons. Perceptions. Sometimes they have the ring of truth--all because we think they are true, not because they are.




I interrupt my series on teaching with passion with an important reflection. I was in this South Georgia sweating and whiffing by my flower garden when my cell phone rang. It did not take long before I was listening with intense ears to an harangue, gentle in tone but not in meaning, from a professor at a university that was ironically a pioneer in special education. She called to tell me that she was "deeply disturbed" by the likes of you" and took issue with a Random Thought I had written about eleven years ago supporting accommodation for special needs students or what she called "learning and physically disabled students." She found my number! Called me!! On my cell phone!!! At my house!!!! Talking about pushing your own buttons! Anyway, she rejected my position insisting that it wasn't that she didn't think such students should be educated, but it should not be done on her watch. After all, she said, "they're letting anyone in....with all I have to do, I don't have the extra time to devote to such a person....I don't have tenure yet....It's an inconvenience......not at ease....not inclined to offer assistance....giving accommodation an expense we can't afford to spend....giving special attention to such a person an unreasonable disservice to others in the class whom I can better serve....they won't have a happy educational experience....special consideration skews the validity of the transcript?" And, so on she went.



She assured me with a patronizing "I didn't mean anything by it" tone that there is nothing "threatening" or "demeaning" in her view, and it is nothing "personal." Isn't it? As the father of a son with ADHD, I took her words very personally. I had heard all this before during the years of my son's struggle in schools from teachers and administrators while they were hacking off his pleading hands, cutting out his legs from under him at his supplicating knees, sucking the self-esteem out of him, diminishing his sense of humanity, and throwing him on the trash heap. Because of that, respectful as I was to this professor, I was not about to be coldly intellectual about it all, was not about to be clinically objective, and was not about to be distant with a spectator mentality or a passer-by un-involvement or a disengaged onlooker consciousness.



This professor's medieval views and mine are a collision of conflicting paradigms. Now, I do not believe she is an icy monster though I'm not sure about her sincere caring, her assurances not withstanding. Throughout her entire side of our conversation, however, she displayed a warped kind of benevolence and charitable mentality that categorized such students as pitifully "unfortunate" or sad "standouts like sore thumbs," or admirably "amazing," but not particularly as just another student. To her that accommodation document seem[s] to indicate that the student was another specie of human being, maybe an inferior specie. Anyway, waving aside everything I said, she believes that giving such students access to the classroom is setting them up for a fall by offering false hopes and expectations. She seems to assume that their "disabilities" somehow get in the way of their intellect and that they can't have a life well-learned. Because this view is apparently dominant in her thinking, it has become for her an undeniable self-evident truth. After all, the "disturbing" part takes place in her head, not in the classroom. What sets these students apart is her perception. The classroom, as life, is the way we see it and the way we perceive it and experience it. We read into others what we want or expect to find, and whatever we expect to find, will be there. At that moment, we ourselves have a learning disability and are unable to move beyond our own stereotypes and prejudices.



The flaw in her attitude is the unexamined, shallow assumption that "disabled students" cannot be enabled to become able, that such students who need accommodation inherently have less prospects of achievement and less possibilities of attaining a "successful and happy educational experience," that the disabled students' "irrational" and "unreasonable" preference for an education at a "regular university" must yield to society's "rational" economic limits, that caring and attention are quantitatively fixed, that the added attention given them subtracts from attention given to others, and that they somehow have lost their inner sacredness and nobility. This all too common prejudice taken to its logical conclusion leads to the kicking in a tragic of rejection of their humanity, of disconnection, of lack of community, of dismissal, and of selectively weeding out such "distractions." It leads to an infection of what I call a "Dick Wittington Syndrome." That is, bag and throw these intrusive students afflicted with LD and other disabilities off a bridge like the unwanted runts of a litter. The cure for this syndrome is to accept the truth that we are all challenged in one way or another and that the classroom, like the faculty and staff and administration, is filled with flawed human beings. We just need to have room for all the different challenges and flaws.



As I listened, I thought of grabbing my Shakespeare and reading to her Shylock's soliloquy. I thought of past disability discrimination and the once accepted illusion that we have the choice to educate or not to educate, and that we prefer the latter. So I ask quietly but forcefully: how dare any one of us? How dare we undervalue such persons? How dare we define what is "better" for such students by what is better and easier for us? How dare we create an inequitable caste system among students? How dare some of us have so little respect for such persons? How dare we see the entrance into college of such students as avoidable mistakes? How dare any one of us even engage in a discussion of whether another person's education should happen? How dare any one of us should think such an issue is debatable? How dare any one of us decide that certain people "don't belong" among us or who are among those we define as among "they're letting anyone in" are non-persons with no right to reach for their as yet unseen potential solely on market considerations or personal convenience? How dare any one of us draw the line between those who are "entitled" to our attention and those who are not? How dare any one of us count any one among the uncounted and unnoticed? How dare any one of us get annoyed or feel inconvenienced at the prospect of having to put in time and effort for all people to experience the fullness and the fulfillment of life? How dare we find it’s in our heart to deny any person, categorically, our empathy, affection, faith, compassion, and our love? How dare any of us presume to define the capability of becoming for anyone else, to set the value of an as yet "unprepared" person lower than our high and mighty degreed and published personna [sic], or to conclude that such a person lacks the potential for happiness and dignity because some of us are so arrogant, close minded, self-righteous, and self-centered that we cannot imagine how it could?



After all, what is the role of an educator but service and assistance? Too many of us selectively and conditionally assist others with our support, encouragement, empathy, faith, kindness, and love so that they can fully affect their choices. Why can't we do that unconditionally for each and every one? Why can't we deny that a "problem of disability" exists? Why can't we pick up the gauntlet of challenge? Each of us requires different modes of assistance. In that sense, every transcript is tainted. Shall we underestimate a person's capacity, ability, talent, and potential based on an accommodation letter? Shall we stare at such people with annoyance, pity, condescension, and hostility? Shall we weed out for convenience and comfort sake rather than cultivate? Shall we educationally euthanize them, or at best hide them away in darkened institutions? Shall we decide who shall go to the educational left and who to the educational right? The whole of academia has a stake in making sure each of us is not tainted by prejudices, myths, discomfort, and supposed inconvenience, emblematic of broader, deeper attitudes toward disability that sometimes slide from fear to disgust and from disgust to hatred.



I didn't expect to straighten out this academic's head and heart however I politely and respectfully tried. She would hear none of it. She, and others like her, think they know everything there is to know just by looking at someone's accommodation request. That's how stereotypes work. It deludes people into thinking they know the world of others. They don't ask who these people are and act as if they will always remain the same. It ignores the fact that each of us have a combination of gifts, strengths, weaknesses, and flaws so peculiar that they can't be measured on the same scale. She and others like her don't know that they're confused; they're ignorant to the fact that the presence of a special need, disability, or challenge does not predict quality of any aspect of life. She doesn't know how to look at such people beyond an accommodation agreement, a wheel chair, a hearing aid, a talking book, signing, or a reader other than as if they were curious or pitiful animals in a zoo. She is unaware she is marginalizing such people and rendering them invisible with selfish and self-serving prejudice and ignorance, and even oppression. She doesn't realize she has to be remolded with the constant pounding of a caring heart, with the shaping of respect, and with the working in of faith, hope, and love. She should learn what to make of such students. She should stop gawking and wincing, and learn to see. What is equally sad is that within educated people such as she resides an emptiness; they will not know what both the fullness and the fulfillment of life mean unless the consciousness of the kindred spirit that lies latent in their own very selves comes to life within them.



Make it a good day.



--Louis--



Louis Schmier


Department of History


Valdosta State University


Valdosta, Georgia 31698


http://therandomthoughts.edublogs.org/

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