Back in the saddle!

Gabriel reluctantly riding a horse this summer @ Yellowstone

So, haven’t blogged for, um, at least two years.. I think Covid got to me and I didn’t feel like I had a right to complain or vent about anything since the whole world was under stress. Anyways, now I am in a new graduate program and I will be writing again about Autism and other disabilities whether I want to or not! (Hence the Back in the Saddle title…) 😉

The assignment I completed tonight felt very much like a blog post so thought I would go ahead and share it, as it’s about Gabriel and some advice I recently gave him.. Not sure if it was good advice, but it was “Mom” advice that came from the heart. Happy to hear any thoughts anyone might have.

I had to ask a question that dealt with our readings and then attempt to answer it. I didn’t do a great job answering it….

Question: Is it “ableist” to advise a student with disabilities to conform to societal norms if it will save that person from potential ridicule and bullying? 

Today I wore a shirt with the printed words, “Different is beautiful.”  I believe this with all my heart (or at least I think I do).  I’m a mom of three children with Autism, and I’ve spent the past 15 years vehemently promoting inclusion in international schools while always telling my children (and my students) that they are “beautiful” and “unique” just the way they are.  However, while I’m wearing this shirt, I’m trying to help my 17-year-old son with Autism understand that he would probably be less ridiculed at school if he would stim in private rather than in the public, crowded hallways.  (Background information: he’s high functioning enough that he knows he is Autistic, he knows what stimming is and why he does it, and he can control it; the stimming consists of jumping up and down multiple times combined with finger and hand flapping; we also live in Saudi Arabia where the overall acceptance of individuals with disabilities is improving – without a doubt – but has yet to reach that of the US and other more inclusionary countries).

I thought I was helping him; giving him good, safe advice, and then I read the following from Hehir (2002, p. 3):

“From an ableist perspective, the devaluation of disability results in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than read Braille, spell independently than use a spell-check, and hang out with nondisabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids, etc.  In short, in the eyes of many educators and society, it is preferable for disabled students to do things in the same manner as nondisabled kids.”

Did I just add to the above list of examples of an ableist perspective, i.e. “It is better for an individual with Autism to remain still and silent than stim when and wherever he feels like it?”  

This made me wonder if the advice I gave him was actually pro-ableist?  Am I actually an ableist but I think I’m pro-diversity?  Or, am I just a Mom who was asking her son to mask his disability so he wouldn’t end up bullied?  (Disclaimer: I can’t be just a Mom in this situation though….  I am also my son’s special education teacher, and I have given this exact advice to my 13-year old son with Autism, as well as several of my former students with Autism) so I need and desperately want to get this right.  

Hehir (2002, p. 3) also stated, “Certainly, given a world that has not been designed with the disabled in mind, being able to perform in a manner that is similar to that of nondisabled children gives disabled children distinct advantages.”  Not stimming in public certainly gives him advantages (i.e. blending in, not being subjected to potential ridicule), however, reiterating what Hehir stated about an ableist perspective, “in the eyes of many educators and society, it is preferable for disabled students to do things in the same manner as nondisabled kids (2002, p.3).” 

I deduct from this statement that my advice to my sons (and other past students) was inadvertently derived from an ableist perspective (although it is so difficult for me to think that way of myself because I have and continue to advocate so strongly for inclusion).  In my core, however, I feel if he and others can control the stimming need and still meet their sensory needs in private, I believe this practice would contribute to a better quality of life; but maybe that’s the Mom talking – and maybe the Mom needs to be quiet and the Doctoral student needs to firm up and advise her sons and students to feel free to meet their sensory needs if and when they feel like it.  This is honestly not an issue I can presently resolve and I am struggling with it.  I look forward to any thoughts or insights.

References

Hehir, T. (2002). Eliminating ableism in education. Harvard Educational Review, 72(1), 1-33.