Sunday, April 26, 2015

"Attitudes Famously Hurt"

The overall theme of this blog is lessons learned - as a teacher, mother, and grandmother - and now shared in hopes of helping someone else.  It takes a certain amount of humility to admit that I had much to learn and have made many mistakes during the learning process.  Maybe with a little luck I can prevent a mistake or two in the life of a reader every now and then.

One of the most important lessons learned is that we never really stop learning.  Thinking I know it all or have nothing more to learn would be the height of arrogance.  Luckily, my life continues to be filled with some excellent teachers, who are always ready to point out to me when something like complacency (or even arrogance) might start to creep in.

In a recent session with a young man who types to communicate, I needed a jolt to alert me to a mistake I might have missed entirely.  I hope I will never fall into this trap again, and I hope by sharing that I can help others to think carefully if they find themselves in a similar situation.

This particular session was heading in a different direction than our usual visits. Usually we talked pleasantly about hopes of typing independently, dreams of going on to college or living on his own.  This time, Mom was present and we both observed him becoming increasingly loud, agitated and visibly upset.  The confusion and errors in the typed transcript below are not at all typical for this particular guy  - who carefully watches every word as it appears on the screen and isn't satisfied until every single typo is repaired and the message is clear.  This time, emotions were getting in the way.

"Too many bad demons. Really I think my beach. Just help me. yes I know. Really I know I handled it every time. Yes, my demons. They get me every time. I have really no command over them. Really this is hard to explain. Try to that just need help. Try to help me get it out. Understand my past is full of bad memories. Those bad things are over. Yes, I know you are sorry. Yes, I hated my school. Understand I liked my students.  Understand I know the teached spelling but really that was not enough for me. tell me more and I can answer. Yes, I really think people mistreated us."

His mom and I, mostly without realizing it, became tense and quiet as we waited for what might come next.

"They thought we were retards."

And with that, we both exhaled and relaxed just a bit.  BIG mistake!  Louder and more forcefully than ever, he let us know something I will never, ever forget.

"Understand that being meant to be retarded is just as bad. Yes. Verbally abusive. Yes, yes. Attitudes famously hurt."

We were thinking the worst.  Or, more precisely, we thought we knew what "the worst" might be.  We were wrong.  Verbal abuse, or unspoken attitudes that relegate a non-speaking student to a category such as "cognitively disabled" - the more gentle label we have started using in our schools - hurts just as much as the physical or sexual abuse we are all so afraid of.  

I should have known better. Virtually every single child or adult I have supported in their early days of typing has begged me to tell everyone that they are intelligent.  For all of their lives they have been underestimated and misunderstood.  It really IS abuse of the worst kind and it has lifelong effects.  

It doesn't matter what their level of intelligence might be, or whether we ever figure out a way to measure such a thing.  Each and every person deserves to be treated with respect.  In all cases - NO exceptions! - we must presume competence.