Something many with physical disabilities experience throughout their lives are curiosities (or outright accusations) of contagiousness. While people certainly haven’t stigmatized me in the ways other diseases are, viewed through the lens of threat or danger, there are still those lingering moments where my disability elicits a panic that what I “have” might be communicable. While medical science will tell you otherwise, I felt it was time to finally fess up and tell all of you the truth…
I am a professor. I am contagious. And I fully intend on disabling all of your children.
You may think that this is a joke (or just a clever bit of click bait), but I’m afraid I could not be more serious. Your precious little normal children will catch disability from me within my classroom. And, perhaps, that isn’t such a bad thing.
The devil is in the (definitional) details
How do we define disability, exactly? Central to “being disabled” is a diagnosis, with a medical professional’s job being, in part, to delineate the sick from the healthy. But if we strip the word down to its core, we are left with a relatively simple definition — a lack of ability. Disability, quite literally, is a catch-all term used to denote individuals whose abilities are seen as limited or lacking. As I often joke in my motivational speeches, that is a relatively broad definition. In fact, who isn’t lacking or limited in some way?
This is a question I pose to my students at the beginning of every term.
Why? Because the classroom is a disabled battleground
While I’m certainly not the first to say this, I believe the classroom itself is a disabled space, formed equally by the logic of ableism and disability, and that when the classroom experience goes right, students exit with an awareness of their flaws and a pride in their triumphs. In fact, I believe that vulnerability is central to education. Contrary to the latest sky-is-falling meme, I do not believe millennials are any more fragile than the children who came before them and I think we are doing them a great disservice by not allowing them to fail. Some of the
best most memorable lessons in life come from failure, so long as we see our mistakes as an opportunity to develop our skills and learn a better way instead of holding it as proof that we are doomed to a life of perpetual failure. That is the tight rope we, as educators, must learn to walk; to not keep our students from tripping but to give them the tools to get back up again once they’ve fallen.
The problem right now is we (educators, administrators, government officials, parents) have become so fixated on grades and achievement that we’ve forgotten that mistakes (and failure, more generally) are critical teachable moments, something to be embraced, and have actively sought to remove them from the process. Grades become inflated, course loads are lightened, students are pushed through despite missing core competencies, all because we are worried about what failure might do to the psyche of our poor, fragile millennial children.
I think we need to stop worrying about what might happen when our students fail and, instead, equip them with the tools and provide them opportunities to continually face down failure and come out the other side okay. The classroom should be a place where students are constantly on unstable or shifting ground, a place to make mistakes without lasting consequence, to help them explore both the ways they are deficient and the ways they are radical, powerful and adaptive little creatures.
In other words, my role as an educator, then, is to disable my students
What I have learned as a person with a disability, through observation and experiment, is that lurking within all of us is the spectre of disability. Ableism assures us that there is a difference between “the disabled” and “everyone else,” but unfortunately this is merely a fantasy that obfuscates the truth. We are all disabled already and will be forever. And that is okay (!!) because generally speaking our society will value more that which people do well if we truly excel at that ability (like Justin Bieber’s ability to sing like an angelic man boy) and become remarkably adept at disregard the things that those same people don’t do so well (like Justin Bieber at everything else). Does this mean we all need to be (inexplicably…) award-winning pop stars? No, but it means we should spend more time working on the things that animate us and help make the world great rather than dwelling on the ability lotteries that we’ve lost. We live in a huge world with a near endless list of things that we need people to be able to do. Better still, people don’t even need to be “masters” at these things, they need only be committed enough to seeing them through and doing their best. In fact, I do not believe mastery is the secret to happiness at all. In fact, to me mastery sounds like a recipe for boredom.
I think this is an important lesson and I hope to bring it into every class I teach — to help my students see the ways in which they are deficient creatures, like everyone else, and aim to start them upon the journey of discovering what they can do instead of worrying about what they cannot.