Written by Danielle
Recently my friend and I have had discussions about how to educate her daughter, who is confined to a wheelchair. My friend is wary of sending her handicapped child into the school system and is considering homeschooling instead. When she told me this, I agreed that public school could be a terrible thing, and I encouraged her to actually consider unschooling instead of homeschooling.
The educational system right now is a bad place for handicapped children because it, paradoxically, is too harsh on them and coddles them too much, both at the same time.
Bullying and Teasing
First, school is a harsh and often emotionally-abusive place for all kids, but especially for handicapped kids. Other children are often cruel and insensitive, and teasing and bullying are unfortunately ever-present features of the classroom. Being uncouth and rude to people who are different seems like an inherent quality of children.
But the bluntness of children gets sharpened into something more malicious through the artificial influence of the school system. In school, children are stuck together in large unhappy groups, and it allows a pack mentality to develop, where hierarchies form and then the kids at the top attack the kids at the bottom, and everyone else joins in.
The alphas (bullies) usually choose students who are different as the top targets to pick on. Students who are minorities or homosexuals, students who look or dress differently, or students with obvious disabilities are all disproportionately victimized by bullying and teasing.
Handicapped students are often grouped together in classes, which just makes it all-the-easier for bullies to know who to pick on. Children stop being viewed as individuals and start being viewed as one group. They stopped being viewed as people who happen to have disabilities and start being characterized entirely by their disabilities.
Coddling and Patronizing
While peers are usually too hard on handicapped students, teachers are usually too soft on them. Teachers are sensitive to students’ handicaps and they often try to work around these handicaps by not giving the children tasks that are too difficult for them. By trying to be too sensitive to and considerate of students’ handicaps, however, teachers just reinforce their problems.
The Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky studied children with learning disabilities and found that grouping them together and giving them tasks “at their level,” like concrete tasks, actually served to stilt the children’s development. On the other hand, if you mixed the children with disabilities with all other children and you asked the disabled children to perform the same higher-level tasks as other children, the disabled children actually could achieve higher-level thinking.
Teachers are often too fatalistic about learning disabilities, when in fact students can achieve more than is expected of them with the proper time, motivation, and resources. While Vygotsky was concerned with mental development, the same lesson applies to physical disabilities.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling my friend or any other parents of disabled children to sell their handicapped vans. You can’t expect a wheelchair-bound person to learn to suddenly gain the ability to walk, but you can at least encourage disabled and differently-abled people to fend for themselves and become more independent rather than fatalistically accepting their limitations.
My step-sister has achondroplasia, the bone disorder most commonly behind dwarfism, and obviously it is was hard for her to reach high places as a child, especially since she was also intermittently having surgery on her legs and hips. But her mother did not make life easy for her by putting step stools everywhere and moving everything down onto lower shelves. Instead her mother let her figure out how to climb up on things and get what she wanted. My step-sister is now an energetic and unashamed climber, and she has never lets her stature stop her from reaching something she wants.
If you treat a handicapped child like a “normal” child rather than catering to them, you might be surprised how much they can adapt and find ways to make it on their own. Let them find this strength in themselves early on, because they will need it once they get into the “real world.”
In the same way that our society infantilizes youth, it infantilizes the handicapped. If you treat them as helpless, you perpetuate their helplessness. If you stop patronizing them, you’d be surprised what they can accomplish.
Danielle is a free spirit who tries to consider Mother Nature in all decisions she makes. From eating organics to rigorous recycling habits, Danielle offers advice and tips for healthy living on eatbreatheblog
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Written by Danielle