Friday, October 5, 2012

What Is The Importance of Person-First Language?

            I want to keep writing this week about the meanings behind person-first language, and about some of the implications of this kind of language in terms of best educational outcomes for students. 
            The emphasis for person-first language has been on not saying, “Ishmael is disabled,” but rather “Ishmael has a disability;” not “Christopher is autistic,” but rather “Christopher has autism,” or “Christopher has ASD.”  The political reason for this – what I’ve heard said, derogatorily, as “PC” – is that no one is disabled, that nobody is defined or essentialized by his or her disability.  However, this also means that a disability becomes something that you have – we have transitioned from talking about disability as something that you are to talking about it in terms of something that you own.  Disability, in this sense, becomes property. 
            On the other hand, dis-ability means quite literally the absence of a property, of not having the ability to do or to grasp something.  So a disability becomes something that a person has that is marked by a lacking or an absence.  (This makes me think back to my Collaborating with Families class, and how many mothers of persons with disabilities talked about their feelings of guilt and of loss when their children with severe disabilities were born.)  My student Baldur has a physical disability, it is something that he owns, but he has it based on the criterion of what he cannot do – walk down stairs without assistance, run for long distances, etc.  So why should we talk about his disability as if it is something of value that he has, hung around his neck like an albatross?
            What does this look like in the classroom or in the community?  I still want to be thinking about disability as something that is context-dependent, and therefore not a permanent or unchanging state of being.  But this perspective gets challenged by thinking about disability as a property.  I am responsible for my property – for my clothes and books and food and school supplies.  I also have certain rights because of my property – I can tell a teacher if someone steals my pencil, I can use the money I earn at work for snacks off the snack cart, I can shoot someone for breaking into my house.  But then, what rights and responsibilities do I have for my disability?  Thinking about disability in this sense gives students a basis for advocating on their own behalf because they can point to their rights and responsibilities that they have because of their disabilities.  On the other hand, this also means that students with disabilities can’t easily “pass” from one environment to a different one and leave their disability behind; it becomes something, something that they have ownership over, that they have to carry with them from place to place.  And so, in this way, disability, which we thought we had demystified through the practice of person-first language, becomes reified as property. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

More on Disability and Etymology

            One of the advantages of conducting community-based instruction with students with disabilities is that you get to see how these students “perform” across different environments and in different contexts.  This is a part of conducting environmental inventories for your students; in each of the disparate environments in which the student is likely to be, you need to be able to know what assets are at-hand for students, and what situations can best emphasize their strengths and abilities.
            When we approach special education from this perspective, it helps us to rethink how to consider disability.  We talk a lot about the importance of “person first language,” but often do not interrogate why this is important, or why we must mean what we say.  Because a person is never “disabled” – this is not some kind of essential or fundamental part of an individual’s identity. (Or, perhaps more accurately, this shouldn’t be the case.)  Rather, being disabled, in the verb usage of the word, not the noun, entails being in a context where there is something lacking at-hand. (“Able” comes from the Latin habilis, which means “easily handled,” “easy to be held,” “apt,” and “fit for a purpose.”  Our English words “handled” and “habit” are related.) We are disabled when we literally lack the tool necessary for the purpose at-hand.  I have said this before, but a short person is disabled when he needs the brand of detergent on the top shelf; the tall person is disabled sitting in coach class on an airplane.  A student with a reading disability is disabled when she has to read Romeo and Juliet; she isn’t when she watches it on stage. 
            This is, of course, also true with students with “severe and profound” disabilities, and those following alternate, life skills curricula. My student Odin has autism and a cognitive disability.  But he knows how to use the internet, how to conduct a Google search and check his e-mail, and he’s memorized all the lyrics to the songs by Meek Mill.  My student Forseti is mostly non-verbal and has a hearing impairment.  But he can work the school snack cart almost entirely independently, and memorize routes for us to take as we go door-to-door selling chips and soda.  The question, then, is how we apply these students’ abilities to other environments, how we enable them to possess the tools they need to for the purposes they will encounter.  (This is part of my attempt to trace disability back to the concepts of ownership and property rights.)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Something About the Meaning of the Word "Occupy"

            Occupy (v.) - "to take possession of," also "to take up space or time, employ (someone)," irregularly borrowed from O.Fr. occuper "occupy (a person or place), hold, seize" (13c.) or directly from L. occupare "take over, seize, take into possession, possess, occupy," from ob "over" (see ob-) + intensive form of capere "to grasp, seize" (see capable).

            This semester, I will be working with my students on the skills that they need in order to transition into independent living as autonomous adults.  These students are no longer following the general curriculum that most high schoolers are on; no algebra or trigonometry, no physics, no AP French.  And, honestly, if they were in these classes, it would most likely be a waste of their time.  Rather, we work with them on the skills that they need, and we focus on three main domains: domestic, community/vocational, and recreation/leisure.
            I’m currently writing assessments for two of my students who will be working on several goals related to their vocational and leisure domains.  These are young men – 16 and 18, respectfully, both with cognitive disabilities who are on an alternative curriculum – who have very definitive concepts of what they want to do after they graduate.  And so much of it revolves around how they want to spend their time.  “I want to have a job.”  “I want to start a blog.” “I want to hang out with my girlfriend.”  “I want to play the drums in my basement.”  These sentiments have an effect on how we plan our curriculum; if a student wants to start a hobby of playing the drums, then he’s going to need how to get to the music store, how to ask the clerk about the differences between the products*, and how to budget for buying what he wants and needs. 
            The key concept that I want to take away from this is that a major part of focusing on a student’s right to self-determination – the belief that the locus of power in a student’s life ought to exist with that student– is dependent upon how that student chooses to occupy his or her time.  From where they work to who they hang out with to what their hobbies are, students with disabilities need to have the know-how to make use of their time in a way that the see fit.   

NB: I wrote this for class, hence the slightly different voice. 

* I don’t really know anything about drums.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


This semester, I am working in a functional life skills classroom at one of the local high schools.  A lot of our class day is spent on "community based instruction," which entails traveling about the community, working on skills such as buying goods, riding the bus, making plans for future trips, ordering in restaurants, etc.  Today, Robyn pointed out this nice post from Crooked Timber about a father learning to cope with his son's increasing independence in New York City. 

Oh, and to keep the old-school philosophy blogs rolling, Brian Leiter at Leiter Reports has an excellent perspective on the Chicago Teacher's Strike:

Of course, it would be hard to generate enthusiasm among hedge-fund billionaire busybodies for doing something about the economic environment in which the victims live, so instead we are presented with the absurd idea that if only the teachers were better, everything would be dandy, as well as the destructive idea that to make the teachers better, we need to measure their performance based on standardized test results.

As for me, I've got a bunch of backed-up blog posts talking about the strike, property rights, teaching vocational skills, and teaching to the common core state standards.  But I also have, you know, work to do.  And it's college football season.  So I'll try to get more interesting reads out shortly.  Happy Sunday!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Images of Disability in Twin Peaks

Happy 20th Anniversary of David Lynch's "Fire Walk With Me".

Going to teach a functional life skills class after watching a bunch of David Lynch clips. I am the best special-ed teacher ever. 

Speaking of which: Who's written about Lynch and images of disability? 







Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Big Business of Charter Schools

CNBC, from :

Tuesday Links

Orientation at the high school today!  Oh boy!

People with Autism and the Budget Crisis -

"Preservation of the most essential programs for people with autism, intellectual, or developmental disabilities is vital. Medicaid is a lifeline for the majority of people with autism and other forms of significant disabilities. Medicaid is the largest funding source of long-term family and individual supports in the state and federal developmental disabilities systems and is, for many people, their main source of health care payments."

"The policy says, essentially, that only students with severe cognitive disabilities and English-language learners who have been in the country for less than one year should be excluded from taking the exams in reading, mathematics, and other subjects.... As it now stands, states that exclude more students with disabilities and ELLs have a record of posting better scores than states that are more inclusive."

Getting the Most out of Working with a Learning Disability

"Madaus polled 500 university graduates from three different schools, and found that while 100 percent of these students disclosed their disability in college, only 55 percent did so on the job, and of that 55 percent, only 12 percent asked for workplace accommodations. Furthermore, 20 percent of the students who disclosed reported experiencing negative consequences such as lack of respect, lowered expectations or confidence from others, lost job responsibilities, and exclusion from promotion."