Second week of school, as he's done early every semester since he started college, Ken Mannion delivered letters to his professors from the school's office of disability services outlining the accommodations he's entitled to.
It's not much.
Extra time to complete homework assignments, if he needs it. (So far he hasn't, and he's had to do a lot of writing for most of his courses. ). Extra time for tests and exams. (That he takes advantage of. He gets nervous to the point of mental paralysis sometimes.). Separate, quiet testing areas, usually in the disabilities offices. (He's easily distracted, especially when he's nervous.). Repeated instructions. Written instructions when possible. None of his professors has ever balked at any of these requests.
But the letters don't explain why Ken needs these accommodations. They don't inform the professors that Ken has been diagnosed with ADD, OCD, a math learning disability, and Asperger's or that he takes medication for the first two and for anxiety. This is policy to protect students’ privacy. It’s really not the professors’ business why, all they have to know is that they have to make the accommodations. But even though his professors have made the accommodations Ken needs, most willingly and cheerfully, after a couple made it clear they didn’t like having to do it and acted as if they were doing him a favor they weren’t sure he deserved, we decided it's best they have things explained to them right at the start. We being Ken, the blonde and I, and his counselor. So when he delivers the letters, Ken makes appointments to sit down and talk to each professor about what's going on with him and how it might affect his behavior and performance in their classes.
Having ADD, he explains, doesn’t mean he won’t or can’t pay attention. He pays very close attention, until he can’t. His powers of attention are unpredictable and a source of frustration for him. Sometimes, trying to sort through a piling up of information, his attention will focus on the wrong thing. More often his attention will just flag at some point. His brain will get tired and simply shut down. So he’ll miss some things, usually that last little bit said at the end there, which is usually when new instructions and assignments and changes in the syllabus are announced.
Having OCD doesn’t mean he’ll go around straightening all the pictures on the classroom walls or spend excessive time lining up the pens and pencils on his desk. It means that sometimes he just can’t let a subject or an idea go. Sometimes he has to rehash and rehash a thought. Sometimes he can’t make himself finish answering a question or writing an essay. There always seems more to add. Attacks of perfectionism not only get in the way of his completing assignments, they can get in the way of his starting them.
And being on the spectrum, having Asperger’s, doesn’t mean he’s autistic, never mind the stupid and politically motivated revisions in the DMS 5. It doesn’t make him a character on The Big Bang Theory or Sherlock Holmes. It makes him…well, him.
What it comes down to is that Ken gives his professors a dual lesson in certain disabilities and in the difference between a disability and the person with the disability. He teaches them things they might not have known about ADD, OCD, and Asperger’s, but mainly he teaches them what it is like to be Ken Mannion trying to be a good student in their classes. There’s a companion lesson here, that I hope his professors have been sharp enough to pick up on: Every person with a disability is themselves. A disability doesn’t define you. You and the disability work out an arrangement. And with help, understanding, and some accommodations, you can get the better of the deal.
This makes Ken, in his own modest way, a disabilities advocate. It’s unlikely these days---I should say, not as likely as it once was---he’ll encounter professors who need to be educated about what disabilities like his are in the abstract. What he’s teaching his professors is that it’s not enough to know the textbook definitions. No matter how well-intentioned and sympathetic they might be, they still have to recognize and get past their own preconceptions, prejudices, and expectations and deal with the individual student in order to deal with the disabilities. This is the challenge, getting well-intentioned, sympathetic, smart people to recognize they have preconceptions and prejudices.
Twenty-three years after the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act, you might think you wouldn’t need to worry about this. A generation has grown up with the ADA. But a single generation isn’t enough to wash bad ideas out of a culture. Many people still think of people with disabilities as dis-abled, which is to say, unable, incompetent, helpless, confined not just to but by their wheelchairs, walled in by their blindness, stymied by their deafness, locked in their heads by their autism, broken in some unfixable way, and doomed---cursed even---to lead lesser lives, pitiable, pitiful, lonely, and apart.
Steve Kuusisto, poet, memoirist, blogger, professor, disabilities advocate, and blind guy since birth who since birth has been told over and over again, in one way or another, with varying degrees of sympathy and, often, out and out hostility, “You can’t do that! You’re blind!” has a post up in which he retells a story from his memoir, Planet of the Blind, about a blind friend of his who went to buy a new TV:
The salesman wanted to sell him a cheap black and white job--insisting the sound would be the same but the unit would be cheaper. Dave pointed at the biggest color set in the place and said he’d take it. “But why?” the salesman pleaded. “Because,” said Dave, “blind people have families that like color.”
Probably that salesman thought he was doing Dave a favor and was quietly congratulating himself on his good deed. And probably he was embarrassed when Dave taught him a needed lesson. His sympathy was based on an assumption about blindness and, probably, disabilities in general, that they are isolating and that people who have a disability are lonely and forlorn, caged by their disability. It’s not in this story but the salesman was clearly assuming something else, that being blind means not being able to see anything. Many people who are blind watch TV because they can see enough to follow the action, if not pick out every detail. From this it follows---should follow, at any rate---that many blind people who can’t see well enough to do some things, drive a car, for instance, can see enough to do other things, like use a rifle to chase off a coyote poking around the barnyard, scare away a thug come to rob the store, even lead a duck on the wing.
You might be wondering how I made that leap from TV sets to cars to rifles. Steve’s post is about Iowa allowing the legally blind to obtain gun permits .
If your reaction to that bit of news was WTF? you’re not alone. Steve’s post is a response to a generally liberal collective WTF---Rachel Maddow did a smug and snarky piece that basically equated letting blind people carry guns with letting suicide risks, meth dealers, and known sex offenders get gun permits----that is based on some of the same assumptions as the salesman trying to sell Dave a black and white portable TV had, that blindness is a total absence of vision and that blind people are isolates without friends or family or, as it happens, property, leisure time, hobbies, or a taste for fresh fowl.
No doubt a certain type of liberal’s nervousness about guns is at work here. Some of us just can’t get our heads around the idea that for many people guns are necessary tools or that for many others guns are no different than fly fishing rods or parasails, equipment for a sport you don’t let your children play with. And probably there’s some reflexive Not again-ing based on a Tea Party-inspired loosening of gun laws in several states that now allow guns in churches, guns on college campuses, guns in bars, and guns in your pocket whenever you feel like packing heat when running errands or taking a stroll.
But what’s also going on is a failure of imagination or, more accurately, an imagination influenced by old prejudices and assumptions these good liberals don’t even know they have. They’re imagining Ray Charles in The Blues Brothers or Mr Magoo not blind people with residual vision who own farms, run businesses, go out in the woods and the fields, who have friends and families and co-workers and employees.
They’re “seeing” the disability as a dis-abling. They’re seeing the people with the disability as defined by that disability. Well, no, not by the disability, but by these liberals’ preconceptions and prejudices about the disability.
They need an education.
They need to talk to Ken.
At the Maddow Blog, Steve Benan doesn't understand how not being able to see well enough to drive a car or read the small type on application forms is not the same as not being able to see at all. He also seems to think that blind people who carry guns are more likely to start firing into crowds than sighted people. Also, the headline on his post "The blind arming the blind" is an obvious riff on the expression "the blind leading the blind" which uses blindness as a metaphor for foolishness and stupidity. Here it's not a metaphor. It's a flat out insult.
New York Magazine puts the law in the Despicable-Lowbrow quadrant of its snark-infested Approval Matrix.