Ableism Is Real / by Sophie Johnson

At the end of the wonderful, campy 2004 movie “Saved!,” Jenna Malone has this line that makes makes me cry every time, even though I know it’s coming. The stodgy-but-sexy pastor-principal at her all-Christian school is trying to kick her gay ex-boyfriend out of the prom (got that?), and he says, “The Bible is black-and-white about this.” In response, Jenna says, with her lip quivering but her shoulders strong, “Why would God make us all so different if he wanted us to be the same?”

I wish I could take a miniaturized Jenna Malone with me everywhere I went (and not just because she’s super hot, although also that) and pop her out from time to time to talk to people who may not even realize they are being xenophobic. According to Wikipedia, xenophobia is "the unreasoned fear of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange." We tend to use the term to describe our stereotypically American aversions to people from different cultural traditions than ours; or who hold different religious beliefs; or who come from different places. This week, though, I have been thinking about xenophobia in the context of ableism.

You may be thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Ableism? Do we really need another ‘ism’ to worry about? Aren’t racism and sexism and heterosexism enough? At some point, don’t we cross the line into politically-correct-to-a-fault?” And while I agree that political correctness on a nationwide level has gotten a little extreme (apparently, even the term "politically correct" is politically incorrect), I want to stand up for ableism. No, wait. I worded that wrong. I mean, I want to talk about ableism, and I want to advocate for the idea that such a discussion is not only necessary, but overdue. 

Special Education Scholar Thomas Heir defines ableism as the idea that “it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than Braille, spell independently than use a spell checker, and hang out with non disabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids.” I get that this might feel simple and obvious; surely most people are mature enough to hold all ability levels in equal esteem. I want to counter that assumption by telling a quick story about an ableist: myself.

Seven years ago, when I was applying for Teach for America, I came across an item on the application that I thought was odd. It was just a box that said, “Are you willing to teach Special Education?” You could check “Yes” or “No.” I couldn’t imagine anyone checking “No.” I mean, who wouldn’t be willing to teach Special Education? Wasn’t the whole point of Teach for America supposed to be that you filled teaching positions wherever there was a deficit of teachers and a high level of need?

It turns out that, no, that’s no longer the point of Teach for America, although those may have been among the founding principles 25 years ago. That’s another essay altogether. My assumption that everyone who applied for Teach for America would automatically check “Yes” on the Special Education question was ill-founded. I've heard rumors that TFA receives so few "Yes" responses to that question that anyone who volunteers is placed in Special Education de facto. 

I will never forget how I felt when I received my tentative teaching assignment as a special education teacher: I was repulsed. When I applied to TFA, I pictured myself alone in a classroom full of tough-but-lovable kids from the wrong side of the tracks who just needed someone to encourage them to write poetry and they would be saved. Maybe they didn’t look like me, but they had the potential to act like me after they became my students. (It bears noting how racist and classist my ideas about being a teacher in a low-income community were, too: I had basically stolen everything I believed about teaching from a late-night TNT screening of “Dangerous Minds.”) But when I thought about teaching Special Education, I was nauseated. I pictured myself in a small room that would reek of body odor, with kids who wouldn’t understand what I was saying to them. In my mind, it looked like babysitting, but less glamorous. And more importantly, I couldn’t imagine making a connection with children who were so different. 

I waited until the last possible moment to accept the offer from TFA. Had I been assigned to a general education classroom, I would have accepted immediately. I tell you this because I was ashamed to admit it then (honestly, I am ashamed to admit it now); but I think it's important to say out loud the shameful and scary things we think or feel. After all: this is how we learn to change. 

When I got to New Orleans, the first thing I learned was that “Special Education” means a lot of things. There's an incredible diversity of methods by which people learn; cognitive, physical, and emotional development can happen in all kinds of ways. Dan Savage recently Tweeted a picture of a handicapped bathroom with the caption, “I reject the able binary. It's a spectrum.” He was joking (in poor taste, I might add), but actually, that’s true. The second thing I learned when I moved to New Orleans was that everybody needs some kind of “Special Education.” It’s just a matter of how much and what variety.

The person who changed my perspective most profoundly was a student named Arthur, who I taught in my first year. He had fetal alcohol syndrome and suffered severe cognitive delay as a result. He couldn’t walk well on his own — he got around school on someone’s arm, or with crutches, or in a wheelchair. He was 21 and read at roughly a first grade level. He could count, but he couldn’t add. Using the bathroom was difficult for him, and so was opening containers or putting the caps back on markers. But he was the most charismatic, loving, and deeply intelligent person I’ve met in my life, hands down.

Arthur was committed to love and laughter in a way that I've never seen matched. He made jokes and remembered peoples’ birthdays; he asked questions and cared about their answers. When Arthur listened to you speak about your life, you could see in his face that he was really listening — which is a quality that I rarely feel among my college-educated, fully-able peers, who remain locked to their Smartphones, even in conversation. At some point, I had a revelation: I had assumed that because of Arthurs disability he was not fully living a human life. In fact, that perspective was keeping me from the very same thing.

Invariably, when I tell people I am a Special Education teacher, they say, “Oh, I could never do that.” When I ask them why, they say something like, “It would just be so hard.” But what about it is hard? Teaching is teaching. All teachers have to adjust and differentiate to meet the varying comprehension levels of their students. I don’t think that people feel like they couldn’t teach Special Education because they truly think it would be difficult. I think it is because they are afraid of what they don't understand. I think it’s because they are afraid of what is different.

I spent the week at the VSA and Kennedy Center Intersections (Special Education and the Arts) Conference in Washington, DC. The conference is amazing on so many levels — the presentations are engaging and smart, and the people who attend are full of bright ideas and intelligent challenges. But my favorite thing about this conference is that the people who organize it work really hard to make it physically accessible to everyone. They are careful about ensuring that the location has full handicapped facilities; they break "rules" around norms and expectations so everyone can meet them; and there are sign language interpreters on hand in pretty much every room. As a result, the space feels safe and warm and inviting. Instead of repelling what is different and asking it to fit inside this nebulous “normalcy” box, this group of people welcomes difference with open arms.

I think that we don’t talk about ableism as much as the other isms in part because language and writing are not always the primary ways people with special needs communicate. I feel I should mention that the civil rights struggle for people with disabilities is very much ongoing, with victories few and far between. Charter schools in particular are found guilty over and over again of (illegally) kicking students with special needs out without fair hearings. The consequence for the school (if a parent knows has been empowered to advocate for her child, which is not a given) is usually a stern talking-to -- but the practices continue. Los Angeles just decided to shave special education services by 15 percent next year. Even the Obama administration admits that special education resources in America are shameful

This hurts all of us. I probably don't need to tell you this. But at the same time, I do need to tell you this. The thing is, ableism keeps happening, and it never shows up on my Facebook newsfeed. We are not engaged in conversations around ableism like we need to be. Not just because civil rights for all people are important and ethical; but because xenophobia keeps us from experiencing and rejoicing in the amazing things we all have to offer.

We must stand up for each other, and see our advocacy as an exercise in translation. We are all human. We all want to be loved. We all want to be valued for what we bring to the table. Some of us bring high SAT scores to the table, and while that’s objectively profoundly boring, it can provide monumental social capital and societal sway. Others bring love and laughter and insightful finger paintings and exceptional rhythm and unexpected perspective to the table. Those are valuable assets too, though they may not always look familiar. We learn from each other, and benefit even from what we call “disability.” After all, why would God (or Fate, or Nature, or Science, or Time, or WHAT HAVE YOU) have made us all so different if He (or She or It) wanted us all to be the same?