This I Believe

Vernon - Flagstaff, Arizona
Entered on December 3, 2007

As a teacher, I believe in listening.

Back before the Spice Girls broke up, I attended an Individualized Education Program team meeting (an IEP meeting, as we called them) at the rural high school where I was teaching. The student whose transition out of high school we were planning had invited me and his shop teacher to be there as regular education teachers. The student was a young man who didn’t read or write very well and was described as mentally retarded. (Today, we would probably say he had a mild cognitive disability.) He and his mother were there, along with our new special education teacher and a man from administration with a file folder as thick as the Bronx phone book.

Everyone is supposed to have a chance to talk at these meetings. The young man’s mother thanked his teachers in careful English for helping her son to graduate even though he did not have great intelligence. The special ed teacher replied that our job was to teach all students with all kinds of intelligences. The mother and son seemed perplexed and exchanged a few words in their native language, which I did not speak.

The shop teacher said that the young man had been accepted at a community college program in diesel maintenance. I was impressed, but the special ed teacher wanted to know why a state university had not been considered. The shop teacher began to reply that he didn’t think a retarded student would be very happy there when the special ed teacher interrupted him to say “You mean a student with an intellectual or developmental difference.”

The shop teacher replied, “I mean this man here,” but had nothing more to say. There were several more semantic corrections like that during the rest of the meeting.

Now, years later, that student is a factory rep for a diesel engine manufacturer and I’m in graduate school learning to be a special ed teacher. I have learned that it’s our reactions that make someone’s weaknesses or impairments into disabilities. Even the way we talk can disable as effectively as a stroke or an enemy’s RPG. I remembered that meeting, though, when I read an article where a professor wrote that we sometimes focus so much effort on the language that other people use to talk about disability because it’s easier to change language than to change attitudes and actions. When we interrupt and correct other adults, we are not really valuing

their participation, we’re just tolerating their presence as people who don’t know as much as we do.

I believe that’s especially wrong in discussions that are supposed to help people with disabilities by sharing information as a team. Rabbi Maimonides wrote that a wise man is one who learns from all. We can learn a lot by doing as he suggested—-and, while we’re learning and listening, we’ll be empowering people by showing respect and starting to create an environment of equity which won’t disable anyone.