Sunday, February 16, 2003

Beware relabeling of old attitudes

Alive & well


In the e-mail conversation of two children in my life who shall remain unnamed, a dialogue that began as a debate about one girl's new friend took a circuitous route with a surprise destination of disability.

"Well, at least (the new girl) cares about school and isn't dumb like you," one girl wrote.

"You shouldn't call me that. I have a disability," wrote the other.

"So, I have three disabilities," came the victorious retort.

One girl played the pity card, hiding behind her disability; the other flaunted three of them to prove her entitlement to admiration.

Young children, it has always seemed to me, have exactly the attitude toward difference that the rest of us should be emulating: Be curious, ask your questions, learn a thing or two - and move on.

These two children are at the threshold of adolescence, but they had shed that guileless attitude of acceptance years ago. These kids are well into the savvy arena of what constitutes one-up, one-down characteristics in competing for the schoolyard spotlight.

Their attitudes are some mysterious blend of what they've carried from awareness programs back in third and fourth grade and attitudes they have gleaned from observing adults. To me, what these few words indicate is not great news.

Well, OK, let's look at the positive element first. The fact that they used the word "disability" is definite a plus. There were no antiquated terms like "handicapped" and no disparaging ones like "retard."

My discomfort lies in the spirit in which the concept of disability entered the argument. The disability banner is waved here first as an excuse to fail, then as impetus for adulation.

In other words, these attitudes teeter dangerously on the brink of pity and idealization. What people with disabilities need most is plain old equality.

Equality in the classroom or the workplace means adding pieces to the scale to balance participation and put everyone at the same place.

Maybe that comes in the form of a tutor or books on tape for a kid with a learning disability. Maybe it is extra test time for another. It might mean special equipment for a kid with visual loss or hearing impairment, a rearrangement of furniture for one with a mobility disability, or even medicine or medical attention.

These extra pieces for leveling the field are called "accommodations." With them, there should be no excuses.

It's true that many children who need accommodations in the classroom are not given everything they need. Many adults in workplaces are not provided with all the accommodations that would render them equal participants or competitors.

But using disability as an explanation for failure is just new packaging for an old misconception.

If the playing field is to be made level, no one with a disability needs to be pitied or wants to be isolated on the hero's pedestal. Sure, this was a couple of kids with a soon-to-be-forgotten dispute, but their attitudes toward their own real or imagined disabilities could grow into personal styles: One accepting disability to serve as a ticket to fail and the other expecting it to be a ticket to success.

Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:

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