Thursday, March 10, 2016

What Just Happened?: Classroom Disability Discussion Strikes a Nerve

In class recently, I showed my community college English students a brochure designed by the University of Kansas Disability Center called "Guidelines: How to Write and Report About People with Disabilities*." This is the 8th edition of the brochure, and is a short, helpful guide for people who work at schools, businesses, and non-profits. A press release from UK notes the brochure includes sections such as  "'Rosa’s Law and the Language of Bullying,” “Key Concepts in the Disability Community” and “A Few Exceptions.” A companion poster called “Your Words, Our Image” highlights selected terms from the brochure." - See more at:

My goal was to show students the document design and to remind them that the research skills they are learning can be applied in the workplace. I pointed out that an employer might ask them to put together a brochure in their future careers, and this kind of task would take research and writing similar to what we are working in class.

Also, I find the brochure helpful because of its goal to put the person first, and the disability second. For example, the brochure suggests "a child with autism" or "a child on the autism spectrum" rather than an "autistic child." It has a glossary of terms, and broaches some of the sensitive issues of writing professionally about folks with various disabilities.

Let's just say the lesson didn't go as planned.

Prior to showing the brochure, I noted that my goal was not to promote political correctness (a hot-button issue on my campus), but the English language does evolve over time. Words that were acceptable many years ago, such as "retarded," are not now considered acceptable or professional when writing or speaking about people with learning disabilities. I explained I was not an expert in the field, and that I also needed to keep up with the changes in English language.

As I showed the various sections of the brochure using the projector, I could see that a couple of students were becoming agitated. A student in his thirties finally spoke up.

He felt the brochure demonstrated that people in our country are quick to be offended, and he could not express himself without giving offense to some group. The first amendment was being thrown out. People can't stand the truth; reality was being pushed aside. It is what it is, and people refuse to admit it. He was upset.

I thanked him for expressing his views, and noted that the brochure was "guidelines." I didn't address the first amendment comment, because I didn't want to go off on my own rant. To be honest, I wasn't sure I could adequately defend the first amendment in a well-rounded manner. If you are offended that someone is offended, what does the English teacher say?

Several other students supported his stance. One student who has a seizure disorder said she didn't care if people said she gets "fits." Another student noted that she knew someone who refused to call a child a "crack baby" out of political correctness.

We were off the rails.

I pointed out that the brochure was titled "guidelines," and that what may be said in casual conversation may differ from how we would write in a more formal manner in the workplace. Or at least I think I did, because by then I was a bit flummoxed by students defending their rights to call a person "retarded."

These students are not cruel. They may not be particularly thoughtful on this issue, but they are not cruel. Part of my job is to get them to think more critically, to nudge them into what I call "thinking like a college student." In fact, I venture they are more intimately acquainted with people with disabilities on our campus, in our town, and in their families than the majority of the American population. Some of them have learning disabilities or other types of challenges in varying degrees of severity.

They have the right to call someone "retarded," although I made it clear this word is not acceptable in a classroom setting. [In my head, I was thinking: our freedom of speech is protected. If they use offensive words referring to people with disabilities, they will not be arrested. I wonder who they believe is taking away their right of free speech? What was going on? Was I doing a spectacularly poor job of explaining this brochure? Perhaps.]

I agreed that within the confines of a relationship with a person with disabilities, language may vary based on the two individuals and their comfort level with each other. But is it wrong to want to address a person with a disability the way that person wishes to be addressed? Or in a way that we understand that many in that group of people with a disability typically wish to be addressed?

The brochure promotes awareness and kindness, in my view. Our class discussion tapped into something disturbing.

I'm not sure what to call this "disturbing thing." I'm not sure what to do about it. I work in the field of changing minds, but I am not sure I know how to change minds on such a surprisingly divisive topic.

I will settle for opening them a crack, if I can.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Brave New Bras

Down to two bras that “sort of” fit, and those shredding more daily, I face facts. I must go bra shopping.

I consider ordering some bras online, but one bra’s stock number was illegible, the other one discontinued. Not to mention I’ve gained… shall we say ten pounds? Sure, ten pounds.

As a professional bra fitter for Maidenform in a former life, I suspect I might have to go up in my band size. There was no way around actually visiting a brick and mortar store. I was going to have to actually try the bras on before buying. And somewhere in the last ten years, I have gone from a woman who likes to shop, occasionally, to a woman who mostly orders not only clothes, but sometimes even groceries, online. Shopping is no longer a pleasant prospect.

As in, I’d rather wrassle a herd of hissing possums than shop.

I brave the traffic for the 20 mile trip to the nearest Kohl’s. They had the best selection in my area the last time I shopped for bras… shall we say five years ago? Sure, five years ago. No one wears bras as old as a first grader, right? Thank goodness Kohl’s still has a good selection, and they still have the super sale rack of the previous season’s styles that I remembered.

I line bras up on my left arm, looping my hand through the hangers as I remember from my bra saleswoman days. Look at me-- I can carry many, many bras! Let’s see, four in my old size, four in the next larger band size. No underwire, beige, rose, lilac, and “walnut” colors, some with tags promising “lift,” some telling me they’ll keep me cool, some sporty styles. Cause I’m so sporty.

To the dressing rooms. Nice, there’s a vacant stall. Hang up the bras. Wait—there are only two hooks on the wall? Where am I supposed to put my clothes? I need one hook for the bras to try on, one for the keepers, one hook for the rejects, and another hook for my clothes. Is Kohl’s so hard up they can’t put more than two hooks in a dressing room? Grumble. Haven’t tried on the first bra yet.

Disrobe the four layers of clothing above the waist (hey—it’s a chilly 40 degrees in the Carolinas, brrr), try to ignore the static electricity sending blue sparks flying, hope the louvered dressing room door is not showing anyone the white-haired lady contorting herself to hook up the first bra she’s tried on in five years. Who thinks it’s a good idea to put louvered doors on dressing rooms anyway? Why do most bras hook in the back and not the front? Are my arms shorter than they used to be? Sheesh.

Okay, it’s too snug. The old band size is not going to cut it. Guess the old bras must’ve stretched out just a wee bit. The cups look funny, too. Gamely, I try on several more in my old size, since there can be variations in sizing between brands. Nope.

Deep breath. Okay, going up a band size is not the end of the world. I try on the first one in the new size. The band fits great, but the cups look like someone is trying to put too much batter in the cupcake pan. So to speak. But this cannot be. To go up a band size and a cup size? Nah. Not me.

I keep trying the different brands, somewhat optimistically hoping there’s one that fits. But, alas. After bra number eight, I bid adieu to the fair boobs of youth.

I re-robe myself in the four layers. Delegate the rejected bras to, as the Kohl’s sign says, the “we’ll put them back” rack outside the dressing room.  

Okay, so it’s the new (doesn’t that sound better than “bigger”?) band size and maybe a new cup size, too. Ouch. I remember as an under-endowed teenager how I longed, really and truly longed for more hoohas to fill a bra bigger than a triple A. Yes, bras do come that small.

Now I understand why my bigger busted friends complain that smaller is better. Never did I dream I’d have bazumbas at this point in my life, but perimenopause, menopause, and beyond have unexpected consequences even for the formerly small busted woman. Big consequences. Why, oh why, so big?

The rest of the story: I find some bras that fit and are moderately comfortable. They still come off as soon as I get home from work, most days. They are new, not stretched out and shredding. I can afford them. My breasts are healthy. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that bra shopping is udderly exhausting. It takes me two days to recover from all that driving, dressing, undressing, revelations, reevaluations, recriminations, and ultimately, acceptance of the body I’ve got.

Dear Kohl’s—thanks a million. See you, five years.