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Some Thoughts on a Very Very Very Bad Idea

noodlesI was going to take this week off from posting, but here I am, drawn out once again by the world’s inexplicable desire to humiliate children with disabilities. When news stories come out detailing the mistreatment of special needs kids, I tend to think that the best thing we can do is shine a light on them, to try to force change through awareness. I’m not always sure that actually works, though; when you turn on the lights, the roaches scatter and run under the fridge, but they don’t actually go away. Maybe I’m just helping give the roaches a little exercise.

The basics of the story are pretty straightforward, even as it sounds like something from The Onion. An eight-year-old blind student at a Kansas City elementary school was punished for bad behavior by having his white cane taken away and replaced, and I’m not even kidding here, with a pool noodle. These basic facts aren’t in dispute; a spokesperson for the school district confirmed the confiscation of the white cane, which she said was school property that was given to the boy when he enrolled. She said the white cane was taken from him after he hit another student with it, in order to prevent him from hurting himself or another student. She did not confirm that she and her school are actually located in the year 2014, but I’m assuming as much, despite the evidence to the contrary.

A pool noodle. Take a moment and imagine an eight-year-old blind child trying to navigate the world with a pool noodle.

This is why disability advocacy, particularly as a parent, can feel like a constant two steps forward, one step back affair. If you’re lucky.

So what should a teacher do in a situation like this? It’s the path you take to get there that matters, and it matters a very great deal. As an educator or caretaker, you have to begin with a simple question. If you have a student with a disability who requires disciplinary action and you’re mulling over the possibilities, is the punishment you’re considering consistent with that which a non-disabled student would appropriately receive?

If you’re considering a disciplinary action that depends on exacerbating the effects and obstacles of the student’s disability, that’s your red flag. That’s where you need to stop and seriously rethink your approach. If the student has an IEP or a 504 that even mentions the assistive piece you’re considering messing with, you’d be smart to contact your school district’s attorney. And perhaps update your resume.

A kid without a disability who hits another student isn’t strapped into a straightjacket. A child who runs in the hall isn’t punished by being tied up in a chair. And a kid who speaks out of turn in class or is disruptive shouldn’t expect to be gagged or to have a big piece of duct tape slapped across his mouth.

When Schuyler was just beginning to use an AAC speech device, way back in our Austin days, she had a summer school teacher who found the sound of Schuyler’s device to be distracting. So, after consulting with and receiving instructions from a member of the special education team (let THAT soak in for a moment), she simply turned the voice output off when Schuyler was in her classroom. She muted Schuyler. And as awful as that hopefully sounds to you, it is one of the most common complaints from parents of kids who use this technology. Teachers treat it like an optional item, one that can be taken away if the teacher is uncomfortable with it or as a way to punish a kid.

Should kids with disabilities face consequences for their actions? Of course they should. But that punishment must treat the student as a whole person, and the entirety of that person includes the medical and technological devices that are a necessary part of their lives. If Schuyler were to speak out in class or start dropping F-bombs with her iPad (and given her parentage, I’d say the chances of that happening one day are at least even), she should be punished, but in the same way any kid who speaks out in class would be.

It’s not just about fairness, although fairness is very much a part of it. It’s also about being empowered. I’ve spoken to parents and even speech language professionals who refuse to let their kids program curse words into their speech devices. But the key to avoiding inappropriate language or behavior isn’t to remove those options, any more than you’d give your child brain surgery to limit their vocabulary. It’s about ownership, not just of the medical devices but of the capabilities that they unlock.

Part of learning how to live with adaptive devices like AAC or wheelchairs or a white cane is finding the appropriate manner in which to use them. Young people using adaptive technology are learning how to use these accommodations to become the complete persons they’ve got the potential to be. The tools they use for access and mobility and communication aren’t luxuries. They’re not gifts that can be taken away.

You don’t teach non-disabled kids how to function appropriately in the world by limiting their abilities. I cannot imagine why you’d do so with kids with disabilities.

And the pool noodle? Now someone’s just being a dick.

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20 Comments
  1. bw aka Barbara from Boston
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