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.