>> Monday, April 30, 2007
Whenever I teach about cognitive schema theory in my undergraduate courses, I use the metaphor of a filing cabinet and tell students that schema are our filing cabinets and prototypes, stereotypes, and constructs are our file folders that help us organize our information. As detrimental as stereotypes might seem, they are often simply "necessary" to organize information -- stereotypes allow us to predict the actions, thoughts, skills, etc. of another based on their "group."
We need to know professors will come to class and teach, that firefighters will rescue us from burning buildings and that friends will provide us with support when we are down. Yet, stereotypes and their related schema are dangerous when we fail to question those categories when they take on a valence, either positive or negative.
So, what does that have to do with disability, particularly Trisomy 21? Ah, good question and though it is 2 am and I'm exhausted, I'll attempt to make a coherent connection. :-). We tend to think of stereotypes as "bad" yet the cognitive process, is by itself, "normal" and needed to make sense of our world. Yet, sometimes, we need to think about how "good" stereotypes can be just as harmful as "bad" ones.
Here is where I get controversial -- be prepared. What are angels? Well, for one, they are dead people -- or created without physical form to begin with. And, second, they are somehow closer to God than mere mortals, in Chrisitian beliefs. So, with all the talk that individuals of children with T21 and other disabilities, particularly cognitive, do about having their children included as part of everyday society, as part of everyday life, as part of "normal" with difficulties, it seems to me to be counterproductive to "deify" the very children we want to be seen as "fully included."
Deities are important, but angels are still not part of everyday life, in public schools, on soccer fields, and in dance recitals. Angels are "above" mortals, perhaps watching over us. Perhaps protecting us. Perhaps showing us grace. But, they are not a visible part of everday life.
I'm afraid that as advocates and parents of children with disabilities, we need to be careful of our attempts at image making for our children. If we truly practice unconditional love and want full inclusion, why do we fear saying, "my child learns more slowly than yours," "my child is not very athletic," "my child has a cognitive disability" without feeling the need to wrap it in a "blessing" or deification.
If we really want equality for all people with disabilities, I think we need to embrace all that is different as okay. It is okay that my child will never get a Ph.D. It is okay that my child will never be a graceful ballerina. It is okay that my child may never speak clearly or perhaps walk -- even talk. Why? Because he or she is a "gift" or a "blessing?" A "message from God" -- or an Angel?
No, it's okay because each and every person is inherently valuable -- brilliant or delayed, athletic or immobile, attractive or homely, loquacious or silent. At this late hour, I can't help but think of the student who turns in a paper with the preface, "I know it's not my best, but please consider my effort. I worked hard," as if I can grade effort -- and should. The student "wraps" the paper before I ever read it, and after that presentation, I can't help it, I look at the paper differently. And, sadly, I generally look for the faults the student has acknowledged.
I say it's time to say, typical is just that -- "typical." It is not better or worse. Let's stop trying to wrap disability as a blessing in disguise, a divine gift, an angel in action, or even, a secret we know that others don't. Now, in our hearts, we might be thinking, "of course we know we struck it rich," but that language -- those thoughts that we convey to others, might simply set us, and more importantly, our children apart from others rather than work for inclusion.
It's easier to include a child with significant learning disabilities in a kindergarten class than it is to teach an angelic being whose purpose is to show others grace and teach tolerance and acceptance. Heck, if someone is already an angel, why waste our efforts on worldy pursuits anyway?? Like any human being, all children with T21 are different -- images that convey a unified appeal or message decreases the individuality and increases the ability to separate and stereotype further.
And, though I certainly don't want to "go there" right now, angel imagery and "so loving" imagery makes it easy for some potential parents to "give an angel his wings," "not punish such a loving soul," and even "return a gift." It's much harder to say, "I don't like children with IQ's below 75, or I can't handle a child who won't talk until he is 2 or 3, even later." One focuses on the stereotypes, the other forces people to take responsibility for individual interpretations and expecations.
And, while, I'm on my reorganizing -- declutting of files, rearrangement of mental paperwork, and dusting of the cognitive cobwebs, I also think of the fact that we, even as parents of children with disabilities, are so eager to use words like "high functioning," and "low functioning" even as we say those words are offensive, point to our own need to categorize. Though dealing with indivdual papers may seem more cluttered than neatly labeled file folders, perhaps we need to "deorganize" and make things messier!
Rather than saying "I hate the term, but other's see child X as high functioning," why not just say, "Child X has strengths in verbal and fine motor skills?" All high functioning really means is "more normal appearing" to others. UGH. Those generalizations are useless. Certainly they are neat and tidy, but oh what they miss............ And, they serve only to divide the already marginalized.
Parents who have children who walk after a particular time, or who stay nonverbal, or use assistive technology, must deal with the further isolation of having a child who is "low functioning;" read: not as good as a "high functioning" child. Yet, in all reality, all children with disabilities are seen as "different in the same" way from the abled others. And, conversely, parents who have children who excel in some areas might hide achievement for fear of alienating those whose children do have greater weaknesses. Ah,,,,,it never ends. But, we can make steps by talking in specific ways, in specific domains, rather than in global terms.
I'll come back and edit for grammar, spelling, and offensiveness when I'm more awake :-).
May you choose to disagree -- to find my post outrageous --- that is okay. As we work to end disabilism from outside, I think we need to look internally to see what it is that we do to contribute to the ongoing bias. And, if you come to a different conclusion, GREAT -- let's start a real dialogue!