Disabled? Who? Me?

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People are always asking me silly questions. Well, they’re silly to me and I doubt the questions, or any answers I might give, have any real import to the inquisitor. Perhaps they are just trying to make idle conversation. I don’t know. I’ve never been good at that sort of thing.

I’m talking about questions like,

“What is your favorite song?”

“What’s your favorite fruit?”

“What single malt whisky do you like best.”

I answer questions like that by saying it is a matter of context. When selecting a whisky to sip during an evening of conversation with friends (defined as people who have never asked me anything like one of the questions above) I sometimes enjoy the peppery flavor of Talisker, but on a damp foggy night in late autumn when I am sitting in my chair reading and listening to the muffled sounds outside, the iodine-laced Laphroaig appeals to me. Or when looking for a light refreshment….

By this time I’m looking at a slack-jawed head nodding slowly up and down with “uh huh” emanating from it. You’d think that would slow me down, but I’m just getting going.

At some point I’ll really hit my stride and say something like, “you see, context determines everything, even what we call disabilities.”

A long time ago I was involved in the disability rights movement on Cape Cod. This was long before the American with Disabilities Act. I belonged to an organization whose main activities involved teaching what I then considered to be “normal” people (I know, but I was young and foolish and this story is about how I learned better) about disabilities. We’d set up obstacle courses at malls with steps, doors too narrow, with handles too high or opening the wrong way), and other situations people see every day. We would give people the chance to maneuver through these obstacles in a wheelchair, using crutches, or wearing a blindfold and using a cane. Then we’d give them our spiel about architectural barriers.

One evening following one of our mall appearances all of us went out for drinks. The group included a married couple who both used wheelchairs because of polio, a woman with muscular dystrophy who would go on to be named Miss Disabled America, and a young woman, named Brenda, who had a spastic form of cerebral palsy and who may be the funniest person I’ve known other than my wife.

It was summer and we were on a deck over Hyannis Harbor chatting about how people react to people who have visible disabilities. One person said that people would speak very loudly to him.

“I tell them my legs don’t work but my ears do.”

Then Brenda spoke.

“You know what I hate. I hate those well-meaning people who look at me and ask what happened to make me the way I am, like there’s something wrong with me.

“Well, I fixed a couple of them the other day. I was standing by myself in the mall waiting for my ride to the eye doctor. These two little blue-haired old biddies kept eying me. Finally they came up to me and said, ‘Oh, you poor dear. Are you all right? What happened to you?’

“I got really pissed off. I looked them in the eye (at this point we all start laughing because Brenda cannot hold her head still at all). Well, I looked them in the eye as best as I could, smiled sweetly and said,

‘Ladies, what you see here is the result of ten years of hard sex!’

“I thought they were going to faint.”

Later on that evening I asked Brenda what she meant when she said, “…like there’s something wrong with me.” The answer I got was one of those simple statements that change your life.

“What I am, HOW I am, is normal. It is normal to me. It’s the only frame of reference I have. I’m normal to me, it’s the world that’s different.”


Putting Context Into Context

CBS News January 22 1973

I used to be a radio news reporter and talk show host. I worked on Cape Cod in the mid 1970s. Walter Cronkite once sent me a fan letter. He would listen to me while he sailed in the waters off his summer home in Martha’s Vineyard.

Getting a fan letter from Walter Cronkite was, as you might imagine, pretty heady stuff for a twenty-two year old who grew up watching him nearly every evening.

As nice a place as Cape Cod is, it is a small radio market; I was not making much money even though my talk show had fantastic ratings. I would regularly apply for jobs in bigger markets. I would get invited to send in tapes of my broadcasts and, if the station were nearby, I’d get invited for a visit and interview.

I never got hired.

I had a hard time figuring out why not. After all, I was good. Walter Cronkite was a fan. WALTER CRONKITE! He was MY FAN!

Of course I never mentioned that in the job interviews, but this thought always popped into my mind when I got the rejection letters.

“If I’m good enough for Walter Cronkite, how can I not be good enough for this job?”

What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that I was a fantastic radio news reporter, anchor and talk show host on WCOD-FM in Hyannis. That was my most favorable context and that’s where Mr. Cronkite was my fan. I apparently was not as good in Framingham, Boston or Worcester, Massachusetts, Chicago, Dallas, Pittsburgh or all the other contexts I hoped to move into.

Cut to about ten years later.

Walter Cronkite and his wife, Betsy, sit down at the bar I manage. He orders a single malt whisky; I forget what Mrs. Cronkite ordered. I introduce myself and told him how much I treasure the letter he’d sent me. He asks me what station I’m on and I tell him I am the manager of the bar. We chuckle, I introduce my wife and he his, and I leave them to enjoy their drink.

I managed that bar for eighteen years before it closed.

I had a sterling reputation in the business so I got offers. I worked in one place for four months, the next for three and the last for a bit over two.

I was a creative and enlightened manager of North Star Pub for 18 years. That was the right context for me. I was the wrong person for the three jobs that followed, and they were the wrong jobs for me.

The students I teach are labeled hyperactive, learning disabled, behavior challenged, emotionally disabled.

But the more time I spend with these students I see that, in most cases, there’s not really anything wrong with them; they are intelligent, talented, creative and, mostly, articulate, just not in the ways compatible with the context in which they have to function.

Because of that contextual incompatibility they are called lazy, made to feel stupid, led to think of themselves as damaged in some way that separates them from other students their age.

I wish I could tell them to change their surroundings, change their context. Unfortunately, their context is called school, and attendance is mandatory.

So I make a promise to my students. I promise them that if they can manage to get through school they will have the tools to find the context that is right for them.

I know it is true. I wish they believed me.

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Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009

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Technology Leadership Day

Blog Wordle November
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Ok, I’m getting this in just under the wire. Today a bunch of bloggers are writing about technology leadership in education and I wanted to do that, too.

I love these little projects where a bunch of people with different perspectives all write about the same topic. Its always so interesting to read all the different blogs because I always learn something new. I love to teach so I want people to learn something from my blog also.

I’ve known about this leadership day thing for about a week now and I’ve been trying really hard to come up with some intelligent perspective on the topic.

I’m not a quitter, but I’m giving up on this.

I just don’t have anything of interest to say on the topic of technology leadership in education.

That’s probably because I’ve yet to see any.

Oh well. There’s always next year. I hope I’ll have something to say by then.

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An Ethical Dilemma


This past week I attended an institute run by the Center for Social and Emotional Education. The best part of the three days was a workshop on using socio-moral dilemma discussions to improve engagement and the school climate.

I define ethics as the subjective application of morality in situations where there is no clear course of action, as when two courses that seem right are in conflict with each other. It is different from morality in that morals tend to be more absolute.

Ethics come into play when there are conflicts between:

Truth vs. Loyalty

Short Term vs. Long Term

Individual vs. Community

Justice vs. Mercy

All four factors came into play during a discussion among my colleagues a couple of months ago. The principal invited the teachers to join him for lunch and discussion. The question he posed was, “When you give a grade, what does that grade mean?”

To most people the grades that students get seem pretty straightforward. A, B, C, D, F; what can be simpler than that?

But what exactly do those grades tell another teacher or, perhaps more important, a parent?

There were about two-dozen teachers in the room. One was a rookie and another had over two decades of experience; the rest of us fell along a normal bell curve between those extremes. There were English teachers, math teachers, a science teacher or two, some 6th grade common branch teachers and a couple of social studies teachers. Five of us teach special education students and the rest don’t.

Discussion was spirited as we attempted to define what a grade of B means. Each of the ethical paradigms came into play.

Truth vs. Loyalty General education teachers argue that grades for all students should follow the same scale because, after all, a B is a B and its meaning should be clear. Special education teachers use different criteria because those students have different annual performance goals.

Short term vs. Long term
Each B being equal serves the short term goals of standardizing criteria for sorting students academically. Students who never earn high grades despite considerable effort often suffer feelings of inadequacy and failure which over the long term reduce effort and chances for success in non-academic areas.

Self vs. Community Which should take precedence: the need for standardized criteria facilitating clear communication between teacher and parent regarding academic accomplishment; or the need to acknowledge and communicate the work of individual students who make herculean efforts to pull a standardized criteria grade up from a D- to a C- ?

Justice vs. Mercy Some teachers believe that grades should be based on academic achievement only but others think that grades should be based on efforts made no matter the academic result. Trying to solve this dilemma some proposed grading on a combination of effort and achievement, how much weight teachers should give each factor was not settled.

We didn’t come up with generally satisfactory solutions for any of those paradigms. It became clear that despite efforts to teach to standards and standardize assessment, each teachers had his or her own definition of what each letter grade means and what a students need to do to earn them.

So here’s an ethical conundrum for you to work on in your spare moments at work, at home or lounging near water with beverage in hand:

Is it ethical to give parents report cards with grades that don’t mean anything in particular?

Let me know what you come up with because I know this is going to be the topic of the principal’s first luncheon in September.

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