Posted in Advocacy, Disability in Education, Teaching

How (Not) to Discuss Disability in 2016 (or 2017, or…)

This happened within about two weeks of my return to teaching last year.  Given all of the flak I get for talking about taking Disabled students now that I’m a principal, I imagine this blog to be still relevant.  In interacting with the one group dedicated to inclusive education in Catholic schools on Facebook which is only run by parents and insists on person-first language and fills my feed with inspiration-porn…very little has changed.

So, let’s explore how NOT to discuss Disability in Catholic Education (or in any educational or religious circles)…


All of us teachers traveled to the Archdiocese for a mini-convention on Friday.  I’ve not mentioned it yet, but I’m an awkward age.  I’m older than my boss (principal) and her boss (Father) and all but one or possibly two of the teachers, so road trips are strange since everyone likes music I barely ever listened to (my pop music stage was 80’s and the odd piece of 90’s; I spend more time with Bruce Springsteen than anyone else these days).  At any rate, road trip.  Already awkward.5

The second presentation was by someone who is relatively famous in Disability in education circles, academically.  Let me preface this by saying there are only about two people who regularly write about Disability and Catholic education.  This is one of those people.  He is from Illinois.

I almost walked out because I had my Disability Advocacy hat on during his presentation.  Fortunately, my principal allowed all of us to ditch when she declared it a sales pitch for his graduate program and I articulated why it was bad from a Disability perspective, too.  Here’s what I heard and how he could have improved it.

Critical Error #1: Learn the Language

The presentation was about “student with disabilities.”  At least he didn’t say “special needs,” and I assume missing the “s” on “students” was unintentional.  At any rate, this is 2016.  We say “Disabled students.”  Yes, I know it goes against what you were taught, but what you were taught was a Medical Model of Disability which posits that schools can cure Disability.  Instead, in 2016, we expect teachers not to cure us, but to help us to get by in an ableist society.  Accommodations that come from the mindset of survival and (better yet) thriving in this world are what we want.  So, it’s not about seeing the person “behind” the disability…not anymore.  Today, it’s about loving us because of our Disabilities, not in spite of them.  This is a small difference on paper, but it’s a crucial difference.

This is not surprising, as this speaker is a teacher who worked in public schools while his wife worked in Catholic schools as a teacher.  He selected Catholic schools for his kids, but he himself worked through the public school model.  Over time, he earned a Ph.D. in psychology (red flag; so many of them are Medical Model aficionados) and worked in the central office of a major Illinois school district (never a good sign) writing IEPs by the hundreds (because he really knew those kids, right?).  Eventually, he became a Catholic school principal and then moved into Academia from there.   So he’s really a big district guy who is in the psychology camp.  He’s a fixer.  I was glad he started with this information, so I could understand his cluelessness.

For what it’s worth, the speaker introduced himself as a former classroom teacher whose classroom included the “chair throwers of the world.”  This was meant to be funny.  I get that it can be funny, but when we make fun of the “chair throwers,” we’re doing it with a sense of love behind it for said chair throwers.  When others do, well, so often they don’t mean that.  Instead, they’re laughing at how hard his job must have been.  That’s not funny.  It was his job; his job was to love them, and teasing with love is okay, but I didn’t get that sense.

In the end, this critical error allowed the second critical error to take place.

Critical Error #2: Do Not EVER Allow Teachers to Voice Concerns Regarding Disability

Okay, so, let’s play a game.  You want to talk about how to accommodate Black students in Catholic classrooms.  The first thing you do is allow teachers two minutes to “talk to their neighbors” about concerns they have about Black students.  You then allow them to voice these concerns.  You know this is okay because you don’t see any Black people in the audience.  Let’s get it all out!  When you call on people to talk about what they discuss, you hear things like “sometimes I don’t know if it’s fair to accommodate them because they need all of my time and it’s not fair to the other kids” or “how should I grade them because they work so hard, but they’re just not getting it?”  You listen, without much comment except to say that other teachers have similar concerns.

I think you can guess what happened with that example, and understand why it was so messed up.  Like race (sometimes) disability can be invisible.  I was there, sitting in the room, when a woman told how hard and unfair it was for her to have a “severely Autistic” kid at her school and listed a few other disabilities for good measure.

And he was so busy empathizing with them that he had no idea how many Disabled people were sitting there, listening to this “good woman” throw us under the bus.

I do get we can be hard to work with, especially within school models that aren’t used to accommodation.  I do get that.  But since you know how hard it is to work with us, DO NOT ALLOW US TO SAY SO.  The more we give voice to the bad, the less likely other schools will take chances on teaching Disabled students.  To be fair, at one point, he did point out the research that says if principals have one good experience with one type of disability, they are more likely to take chances on others within the same category.

Critical Error #3: Learn Your Audience

In the end, he was trying to sell us on his fabulous program for learning about Disabilities.  He did not realize that 1) in Wisconsin, almost all Catholic school teachers are certified and most of us are certified from the State of Wisconsin which 2) requires Exceptional Education for licensure.  We do not need a “special class” to teach us special education.  Beyond that, there’s the issue of his ideas for “getting us money” to serve “special needs” students.  If he knows anything about Catholic education, he’d have to know that taking federal money is very, very complicated.  If we take it, we have to accept other things (for good or for ill) like transgendered students (we don’t think this is a thing; we do, however, accept that gender ROLES are social, so a boy dressing like a girl is less problematic than wanting to reassign himself into a girl, but obviously we’re not great on nuance so most principals wouldn’t be keen on cross-dressing even though that should be less problematic).  So if we take it for Disabled students, we give up certain other freedoms (by the way, not all are as severely hot-button as my first example.  Sometimes, it’s about curriculum as in, we have to teach a certain topic in a certain way even if we’ve got something better that even the public schools want to do, but cannot, so it’s not always negative to not have federal money).  So he’s trying to sell us a program most of us don’t need, and even if we did need it, he’d be teaching us about money we are not supposed to be taking.

In the end, though, what irks me is that this is one of the few people even talking about Disability in Catholic education.  At one point, the Superintendent in our Diocese happened by (by the way, superintendent does not mean “boss of principals” like it does in public school; this is an advisory office.  The BISHOP can fire us because he’s our boss’ boss’ boss, but not the Superintendent). He’d heard it wasn’t a great presentation and I pointed out that the conversation ought to have been about not whether your child can get a Catholic education, but rather, which school might be the best fit and, failing that, how you can get a Catholic education in the home.  We should never, ever, in 2016, be turning Disabled students away without assistance in getting a Catholic education, period.  He vehemently agreed with that.  In the end, it should be about how we, as Catholic schools all over Wisconsin, should be working together to accommodate students to the best of our abilities because no parent who wants a Catholic education should be sent to the public schools because it’s “too hard.”  If we worked together and fought for our students’ right to be educated religiously (even working interfaith and ecumenically, as needed), we would all be in a better position.

In the end, should families have to “settle” for a school experience they are uncomfortable with just because it’s “easier” for everyone involved?  That’s what bothered me most about the presentation.  Even the presenter pointed out that there are some kids we can’t accommodate, but rather than say that we should make every effort possible to figure out a plan for Catholic education for all families who want it, even if they can’t attend our school, it was so easy to make the public schools pick them up.

That is the most ableist thing about it all.  All families, regardless of a child’s ability, should be able to choose the type of education they want all of their children to receive.  Maybe we have to figure out where and how, but every child should have this right.  Our faith demands it, but when we allow ableist speakers to present on Disability, it will be so easy for teachers to complain about how “hard” we Disabled people are.

This is 2016, and we’re still invisible.  We must do better.

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