This week, instead of blogging, I got engrossed in a thread on The Whatever regarding homeschooling. If you want to slog through 178 comments, you can read what I have to say there. (I'm the one known--curiously--as "Lisa" over in them there parts.) And yes, I should have shut my pie hole around my third comment, but by that time, I had let it become sport.
Anyway, someone on that thread recommended the book, "The Underground History of American Education" by John Taylor Gatto. It is actually online in its entirety, so I've been engrossed in that. Gatto, you may know, is famous for quitting his 30 year PS teaching career with a scathing acceptance speech at his NY Teacher of the Year ceremony, and his book, "Dumbing Us Down," which I have read. This book goes entirely further into the history of compulsory education. He comes to it from quite a libertarian angle, so I don't agree with everything he says, although my experiences as teacher and student do not disagree with many of his conclusions. I am a weird amalgamation of socialist libertarian, if that is even possible. I think we should all take care of each other financially until every last one of us, including the earth, has our basic need for food, shelter, clothing, health care, community and access to education met. Then, I don't care what you do. You might say I'm economically a socialist but socially a libertarian. Or something like that. Anyway, the book is not only teaching me a lot of American History I did not know (and showing my how bad my sister's and my schooling was, even though by relative standards, it was quite good), but is giving me insight into such things as family issues, community issues, church issues, etc.
But I don't want to write about that until I've finished the book and had some time to digest it. Also, if anyone else wants to read it or has read it, I'd love to do a little book club style bloggity-blog-blog thing about it. Let me know if you are interested and maybe we can set a date.
Instead, I will answer an email. Gracious reader, Wendy, asks:
I have a 3 year old and am interested in your thoughts about talking to kids about obvious disabilities. The other day, a man walked past us using a cane and my son turned to watch him. After the man passed, I just said, "that man is using a cane to help him walk". We haven't encountered too many people in wheelchairs, although we've seen a few and I try to comment to my son in a low key way. My intention is to educate him and maybe prevent loud questions that could be embarrassing(more for me than the person in the wheelchair, I think).
So what are your thoughts? I know that it's different for you because your kids are used to seeing their dad in a wheelchair. What advice do you have for those of us that have limited contact with people with disabilities? Also, how do you suggest talking about mental illness or developmental disabilities? I have some thoughts but am interested in yours.
Well, first of all, I think what you said was fine. Second, my kids probably, in a way, know less about disability than you think. They are used to the accoutrement's of disability such as wheelchairs, hearing aids, white canes, IV pumps, etc. But they really have no idea that these things are in any way different than what most people use. But more on that in a sec.
I tend to not make a point to give a big explanation to my kids about anything unless they ask a specific question (or seem so perplexed and bothered about something they see that it would comfort them to have an explanation.) For example, I have not ever talked to my kids about race. And I don't expect to until the issue comes up by itself. They see people and play with children of different races almost everyday. They don't seem to think anything of it, so why make a big point to explain something that they don't see as different. Now this doesn't mean that eventually, when we start learning about American and World History, for example, that we won't have the hard discussions about race. But right now, it seems like pointing out that their little friend so-and-so has different colored skin than they do is kind of wagging the dog. I mean, I don't go around making a point to tell them that so-and-so has different colored eyes or is a different height or weight. What do you think? Is this the right way to handle it? It is hard to know whether you should be pre-empting any subconscious negative information they are getting from our culture about these things, or if by pre-empting it by pointing it out, you are actually putting negative subconscious information in their heads.
Now, they have asked gender specific questions and I have answered them matter of factly. Mainly things like, "mom, do you potty out of YOUR penis, too?" And then today Naim proclaimed, "Mom! You have BIG breasts! And I have little breasts!" So I just matter of factly say that women have bigger breasts than men, blah, blah, blah. But I haven't even gone around (as I've seen some parents do) asking, "There is Jane. Is Jane a boy or a girl?" I figure Jane can self-identify if it is important to her that they get her gender right. Besides, that stuff is so ingrained in our culture, they already can gender identify. I never had to say anything to them about it.
So with D's and my disability, I have really just explained things as they came up and answered their questions. They are just now starting to realize that D can't walk. They still don't quite articulate an understanding that I don't hear as well as they do. Yet, they accommodate me naturally by bringing stuff over to me or coming over to me to talk to me. Sometimes, they will say, "What's that noise?" And I will say, "I don't hear the noise you are hearing, because you can hear better than me. What does it sound like?" And then sometimes they will go into great detail imitating and describing every sound they hear for me. And it even gets out of hand silly when they start telling me they hear elephant sounds or space shuttle sounds in a fit of giggles. But I don't think it registers to them that I am different or less than in any way because of this. When they play "house," whoever is the dad has to find a wheelchair to sit in. Now they know that there are other men called dads and that they don't use wheelchairs, but in their mind dads use wheelchairs. Whenever they draw pictures of me (or moms in general) they draw hearing aids. Moms have hearing aids. End of story. When they draw their dad, he looks like a big head on top arms on top of 4 to 8 circles for wheels. But they draw themselves with legs. I have told them that not all moms have hearing aids and not all dads use wheelchairs, and I think they cognitively get that, but they don't use those images in their imaginary play. When they see other people who are disabled, they really don't seem to notice. It is just par for the course for them. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds for them to come to understand that we are the different ones. Or at least that is how we are thought of.
I know this isn't exactly what you are asking, but I mention it because people ask me sometimes, in serious hushed tones, how we are "handling" teaching the kids about disability issues. The truth is, we aren't. We are just living our lives and not shoving it down their throats that we are so unique or different. But yet we do answer all of their questions honestly and matter-of-factly.
So, that being said, I don't know if it is necessary to say anything to your kids about people with disabilities unless they ask or seem uncomfortably confused by it. I used to do these "disability awareness" thingies at kid's schools, and I still do them from time to time, but I've come to think of them as sometimes doing more harm than good. It is like putting a big, fat sign that says "THIS PERSON IS DIFFERENT. LEARN THAT!" on us, when kids might not have thought we were all that different before, just more of a curiosity. Now, when I am invited to do kid awareness things, I say that I'm not going to stand in front of the class and tell them how different I am. Nor am I going to do the "I'm just like everybody else...except" dog and pony show. Now I try to set it up just so I spend some time with the kids doing something that they are already doing, like an art project or something. I will introduce myself with a 30 second intro about me, like anyone would, and I do say that I cannot see or hear very well. And then I just interact with them. And they ask questions in the process and I answer them.
Also, I will say, that in the disability community, kids get a pass. I don't like to speak for everyone in the community about this, but I have found that to be universally true in my experiences. Kids staring or asking questions is really no problem. Unless I am in a mad rush somewhere, I will always happily answer any kid question. This "PASS" is in response to the backlash that happens when kids are shushed and pulled away and told not to stare at us by their parents. That is the perfect way to ensure that your kid thinks we are freaks. We look different, we are doing things differently, kids should stare. It is only natural. If they are yanked away and scolded for staring, all it has done is enticed them to view us as fascinating freaky people that are so bad, we make mom uncomfortable.
Also, I personally would rather have the kid come up to me and ask me a question directly, rather than have their mother shush them till I've passed and then give their own explanation. Because often, their explanation is wrong. I'd rather they just get it from the horses mouth. And also, if I find their question to be too personal, I'll politely tell them that it is too personal. This way, they might actually grow up understanding that they don't have the right to ask disabled people anything they want to know. And if I am too busy to answer, I'll say something like, "That is a good question, but I don't have time to answer it right now." So then they know that it isn't my JOB to stop and educate them, but I will do it voluntarily if I can.
When I had my guide dog, I heard parents say all kinds of things to kids that made me sort of cringe. One was, "She can't see the traffic lights so that dog takes care of her and takes her across the street." Well, actually, no. No guide dog can see traffic lights or knows when to cross the street. We tell them when it is okay to cross the street by using our skills and hearing, just like white cane users do. Where a guide dog can help is to find the straightest path across the street to the opposite sidewalk, and to help us know which way to dodge an unruly car should it come careening around the corner. The other thing that happened all the time was when I went anywhere with D, people made up whole stories about us to tell their kids. That man can't walk so he has a dog to catch him in case he falls out of his wheelchair and has a seizure and that woman is his nurse who takes care of him. Okay, whatever. But do people know they are just making shit up? It is always about how we are poor things that need someone (dog or human) to take care of us.
Worse yet is the people who talk to their kids is very value judgment-y ways like, "That person can't see. Aren't you lucky that you can see? Doesn't that make you feel bad that she can't see? Maybe you can use her as your community service project for today and go over and annoy her until she lets you help her with something she doesn't need help with." I think it is very important that parents aren't using us as their kid's feel sympathy and be grateful for what you've got feel good moment of the day. I mean, why not just take a whole bag full of prejudice and intolerance and ram it down your kid's throat?
The thing about kids and people with cognitive disabilities is that most of the time, kids just don't care. Sometimes if a person is displaying some kind of socially unacceptable behavior like drooling, kids will ask or stare. And then I'd just say that all people are different and have different abilities and some people aren't able to control their saliva very well. But if it is just that a person that a kid comes in contact with who is not acting as intelligent or mature as typical for his age, I'd just let them get to know the person. Or if it is a passerby, say nothing unless asked and then I would do the "everyone is different with different personalities" line. I think the main idea is that kids pick up on how comfortable YOU are in the situation. So if you really want to portray acceptance of people with disabilities, I'd start with yourself first. And in the meantime, explanations should be short and sweet and factual, and most especially value-neutral.
So, in summary:
- Work on your own attitude first, then your kid's. Always try to model comfort and respect around us.
- Don't point out differences that your kid doesn't even see.
- In the disabled community, kids get a pass in regards to staring, asking questions. It is our way to try to undo the mess the parent is about to create. So don't worry too much about it.
- If appropriate, let the kid come up and talk to us about their concerns. But know that we aren't obligated to educate them, spend time we don't have with them, or cross our personal boundaries with them. We are providing a courtesy that hopefully serves both parties well.
- If not possible for your kid to talk to us, answer their questions in matter-of-fact, value neutral ways.
- If you don't know the correct answer just say so. If the kid is still curious later on, do some research by going directly to disabled self-advocate sources, NOT professional service provider or medical sources. You will get a WAAAY more real life and accurate answer that way.
Readers with disabilities? Feel free to add your opinions in the comments. Disagree with me? Agree? Have other ideas? Let Wendy and me know.