Words, words, words, words

“Something has to happen to change the direction
What little filters though is giving you the wrong impression
“it’s a sorry state” I say to myself”
– from “Words”, Missing Persons: Spring Session M (1995)

It seems a lot of people are wondering about words. Words are for communicating, right? I mean, what else would you do with them?

Well you could play with them. Puns, anagrams, double entendres are all ways of playing with words. But even these word games depend on the same thing that clear communication requires, that words have weight. Some words are moonbeams and others sumo wrestlers.

Those metaphors only work because we have knowledge in common; the same force that gives words meaning.

Logicians will tell you that words don’t have inherent meaning, that they aren’t the things they describe. Cow doesn’t give milk, its just a name for the particular mammal whose milk most people drink. Say or write ‘cow’ and everyone has the same general idea. Our common agreement about words appends meaning to them.

I bring this up because of a little debate about what particular words mean is going on at Kate Says, my friend Kate Olson’s blog. The debate started with an item from the Traverse City Register I posted on Twitter:

I am different, not disabled,” is written by a young woman named Kim Kelderhouse who tells about how transferring to a school that used different words changed her attitude about herself and her education.

This article affected Kate enough that she blogged about it. That blog post generated some comments, like this one by Marcy Webb,

“To me, a learning difference = how one learns. A learning disability = a biological event which interrupts or disables learning.

I want to be part of the solution, too, but I think we need to call things what they are, and not sanitize them. There’s already too much of that.”

And one by Karen Jankowski that started this way,

“I use the terms interchangeably and do not believe it is sanitizing. Students are not labels; adults use the labels to help the students receive the specialized instruction they need to make effective progress, but the kids are not their labels. And often times, it is the curriculum that causes the ‘disability.’”

There were a few other comments, most along the lines of Karen’s.

Here’s what I had to say,

Differences and disabilities are not the same thing at all.

One of the things that everyone, but especially teachers, should understand is that the things we call disabilities are all context-dependent and school is the most debilitating context of all. Only in school do we expect a student to excel in all areas. The part of life that does not occur in school is much more forgiving.

Everyone has abilities and everyone has disabilities. Reading, for example, is very important and I have a pronounced inability to read. I can decode, but I lack fluency and comprehension. Despite that I am a successful writer in several genres, a teacher and a broadcaster.

I do have a serious, almost complete reading disability, but the disability is limited to reading music and is not much of a problem unless I sit down at a piano. Context is everything.

Most teachers consider ADHD undesirable in students but, again, disability is context-dependent. I have worked in small businesses for much of my life, a business manger hired by individuals who have a common entrepreneurial trait: ADHD. They are full of energy and ideas, but they need someone stable and focused to make their businesses work;

So you see, most of what we call learning disabilities is really ability exercised in the wrong context. We teachers have the responsibility of manipulating the context of our classrooms to allow students to develop and express their different abilities.

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4 Responses to Words, words, words, words

  1. sanmccarron says:

    Wonderfully stated. We need to find the excellence in each person. As teachers our goal should be to educate, not punish.

  2. kolson29 says:

    What struck me most about Kim’s story is how broken she was made to feel…..this hurts me immensely as an educator, a profession in which acceptance should be paramount.

  3. Ira Socol says:

    Words do matter. The meanings we ascribe to words matter more. The pathologizing of difference matters most of all.

    Last year, as I presented at a conference, an educator stood up and said, “It doesn’t seem as if you think there is any difference between disability and inability.”

    I told him that, indeed, I saw no difference. One can either do something on their own, do something with help (human or technological), or not do something. And as Tom Shakespeare puts it, what matters is the intersection of who you are and the task.

    ADHD makes me bad i the classroom. It makes me a good writer. It made me a good cop. Dyslexia makes me bad with print material. It makes me great at remembering and analyzing other visual information. School disables me. Much of the world of today enables me.

    But whatever school calls it – it pathologizes. I always want to take every school administrator, and “disable” them. Can’t reach that high supermarket shelf? Oh, before you can get help you need to go to a doctor to be measured. Then bring the doctor’s note back to the ‘shopping specialist’ who will decide if someone will reach it for you, or perhaps if you will get a stepstool. Of course, we’ll hang a sign around your neck: “Too short for top shelf shopping,” just to be sure you get the point. If you’re tall I’ll disable you by asking you to sing, or play the oboe, or read a language you don’t know. As I tell the pre-service teachers when I teach them – I can disable anyone anytime, just by changing the context.

    So it matters not what schools call kids who are different, since the goal of the typical school is to humiliate those not exactly “normal” – which means exactly like the people who make policy and set curricula.

    AS for me, call me “retard.” That’s the label schools give different kids by the way they treat them. And if that’s my label, I’ll wear it proudly.

  4. Lucia Meyerson says:

    A very well stated discussion of how words come to define us, sometimes in unfair ways. While some disabilities can be so severe that, in any context, a person is rendered helpless, most so called disabilities come from societal labeling as oftens happens in school contexts. In a frenzied test-score driven environment there is no time to stop and acknowledge the other talents of students. As Ira Secol implies, even taking a test using alternative methods for students to show what they know calls for a” doctor’s note” which means “something is wrong with you”.
    Thank you for using your words so aptly as a reminder to inject humanity into teaching.Teachers do have the responsibility to offer multiple contexts for learning and most importantly, to foster a label-free climate within the classroom.

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