“Learning” can be defined as the brain processes that facilitate the acquisition of skills and knowledge. (See: Oxford Handbook of the Learning Sciences for reference).
The term “disability” is a myriad concept, whose meaning and importance changes depending on the context. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides the following:
An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. (ADA 2009).
The ADA definition is impressive because it pinpoints the cultural nuances of people who have been deemed “disabled” by our society. First, there is the differentiation between physical versus mental impairments. Moreover, by using the language “person who has…” the definition emphasizes both the humanity of the people that the act applies to, as well as the present-tense nature of disabilities.
The present-tense emphasis brings us to the second consideration – “a person who has a history or record of such an impairment.” The ADA’s “history or record of…” language is important when considering the black-and-white state of disability. That is, people in our society are considered either disabled or normal. There is no “non-disabled” or “undisabled,” in the present model for disability evaluation. In the area of mental health, there exists a medical model for determining the presence of a mental or emotional disability. Psychiatrists employ evaluation methods designed for say, diabetes or high blood pressure, but apply them to social or intellectual phenomena.
Problematically, the sources of data for mental health are far less scientific and objective than blood sugar concentration or blood pressure readings. Instead, Psychiatrists compare anecdotal or qualitative evidence from patients, co-workers, teachers, and family members. Even where quantitative exams are used – IQ tests, surveys, etc, they are methods of data collection that are based in social science and not medical science. As a Learning Scientist myself, I am not disparaging psychological research. Rather, implying that it is not the same as medical-biological data used in health sciences. At the end of the evaluation process, the data is compiled as a picture of the patient’s mental health status. The Psychiatrist then makes a determination as-to the existence or non-existence of a disability.
Realize that it is possible for a person to gradually become undisabled. After all, physical trauma can often be overcome with exercise and physical therapy. Injuries suffered in a car crash can be disabling. During the recovery process, the person can be said to be disabled, even if this status changes later. Alternatively, mental disabilities can occasionally be transitory. Depression occurs in many people for brief periods of time. Patients will take medication and go to therapy, and eventually no longer be considered “depressed.”
Both the medical model and present-tense emphasis of disability mark the poignancy of the ADA’s “history of…” language. Someone with a history of a condition can still be considered a “disabled” person, even if they themselves do not agree with this label.
The third portion of the ADA definition of disability is arguably my greatest source of personal adversity. That is “a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” The term “impairment” implies a negatively impacted ability to perform a task. No matter how we culturally progress as a society, the word “disabled” has a negative connotation, as does the term “impairment.”
For someone to be considered a person with a disability, there exists an inherent deficit compared to cultural norms. People are considered disabled by society because they are compared negatively to an idealized notion of physical or mental capability. In other words, people are not themselves disabled – society deems them disabled because said persons deviate from culturally constructed expectations for normalcy. Instead of considering the natural variance in biological function inherent to any species, disabled people belong to a black-and-white social paradigm – people are either disabled, or they are not.
This duality is problematic when you consider that all people manifest, to varying degrees, the infinite array of skills humanity has developed. Within my social circle, some people are brilliant at math, but can’t make it through an informal gathering without insulting someone. Other people are professional athletes, but struggle to maintain personal finances. This calls into question the social values that disable members of our society – a conflict whose adversity inspired the very piece that you are reading.
Since 3rd grade, disability has been a point of question, evaluation, label, and contention for this adult contending with multiple learning disabilities. The notion of contending with a disability bears emphasis. I have never considered myself disabled. Yet, according to conventions of education and mental health, I have a history of both Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as well as an Executive Functioning Deficit. Note the repeat use of “deficit” in my official medical-psychiatric prognosis!
Contenting with ADHD means that focusing my attention on a task I find unpleasant is truly a challenge, while removing my attention from something pleasurable is equally a challenge (just ask my wife about doing the dishes when I’d rather be dancing around the kitchen with our daughter!) In college, I was diagnosed with an Executive Functioning Deficit – which relates to breaking down complex ideas into smaller parts, so that they are manageable. After intense Educational Therapy, my professional skills are appreciated by my colleagues (even if I still need help with the dishes). I scraped by my Bachelor of Arts degree in English with a 2.3 GPA. My Master of Science degree in TESOL saw a 3.75 GPA. These days, I am a PhD candidate in The Learning Sciences with a 4.0 GPA.
Throughout my public and post-secondary school education, I was both supported and undermined by teachers. I was both encouraged and discouraged from reaching for the highest stars. Every year, my parents met with the “IEP Team”, who wanted to move me from Honor’s level classes to self-contained Special Education classes. When interviewed, the teachers either loved or despised me. Typically, this correlated with how challenging or how boring the class was!
In my professional career, there have been many similar nadir experiences. I’ve held many types of jobs in multiple sectors of the economy – community organizing, marketing, sales, as well as more menial job positions. Bosses at various employers have called me incompetent, as well as innovative – as life would have it, my career always seemed to return to education. After achieving professional success in educational politics, I decided to become a teacher and formally enter the classroom.
Now, I am in my 6th year as a teacher at Harry S Truman High School in the Bronx, NY. I’ve completed the requirements of the New York City Teaching Fellowship. More importantly, I serve the very students that I identified with at their age: those young people considered somehow deviant from the culturally derived “norm.” I am rated Highly Effective – the highest rating possible for a teacher – according to the Danielson Rubric for teaching. My Principal trusts me with both the most sensitive AND the most successful student populations at our school.
For me, this is what it means to overcome adversity. You take what society calls a handicap – and you harness it into a blessing in disguise. The same neurochemistry that was attacked by my schools’ IEP teams are allowing me to synthesize nuanced, complex concepts – and ENJOY doing so. The same teachers and bosses that held me back from happiness and full potential will soon have to call me “Dr. Sugar.”