Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Disability bigots and education

Early in March, around the same time we were coping with the vast crater Robert's diagnosis had become, the March 9 issue of Newsweek arrived in our mailbox.  I've been meaning to post on this for much of the month, but have been unable to get myself to do so because I still can't seem to temper my anger.

Newsweek has a weekly column called "My Turn," to which readers can submit essays on virtually anything.  That week, it was a column by Stephanie Lindsley, "Autism and Education," with the tag line, "Who should we focus on--my disabled son or my gifted girl?"  

Her perspective stunned me.  As well as Newsweek's apparent inability to fact check their own articles.  To begin with, Lindsley blames the federal government for failing to fund gifted education, noting that $24.5 billion is allocated for No Child Left Behind, which she mistakenly attributes to funding dedicated to helping "every child, including the mentally disabled, meet minimum standards," while "only $7.5 million in federal grants is available to fund the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program."  

Um, first of all, NCLB is federal funding dedicated to ensuring that schools raise their standards for all students, not just the pesky disabled--it's not just about meeting "minimum" standards.  It's certainly controversial, but primarily because of the implementation of multiple testing standards and the possible over-reliance on metrics to demonstrate results.  For example, many states are allowed to develop their own, misleading metrics.  In addition, many schools and parents feel the testing gets in the way of delivering educational content.  Finally, there has been justified criticism by states, school-based advocacy groups, and parents, that the federal government has failed to provide sufficient funding for NCLB to assist states with the reporting and regulatory requirements established by the law.  And let me just point out again that NCLB was conceptualized, at least, to benefit low-income students and underprivileged students as well as suburban white kids and your kid and my kid--not just those gosh-darned resource-sucking disabled kids.

Um, second, NCLB now works in tandem with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is the original federal statute that guarantees the right to an education to children with disabilities of all sorts.  That is, IDEA is a major piece of civil rights legislation, designed to combat the nasty stereotypes about children with disabilities that Lindsley propagates about her very own child.  As is the case with many civil rights issues, states were free to discriminate against individuals until the federal government stepped in.

Um, third, until NCLB was passed, state governments provided the bulk of funding for their own state school systems.  If your state has crappy schools, it is most likely because state appropriations are low, the tax base is limited, and voters refuse to allocate significant funding for schools through property taxes and other municipal funding measures.  There is, of course, also discrimination against the poor and ethnic and racial minorities that comes into play in allocating tax funds (particularly through property taxes) across school districts within any given state.  For most of American history, this is what individuals and states have wanted: local control over schools and the uneven distribution of resources that often accompanies it.

Because states are rarely motivated to do it, the federal government has an interest in ensuring that equal access to education is upheld.  Thus, there is a compelling public policy rationale for supplying federal funds to level the playing field for poor children and children with disabilities.  Don't we want all kids to have a chance to excel, regardless of the poor start they've received in life, regardless of the discriminatory barriers erected by society against their success? Do we want to play god with kids?  Some children who appear to shine in elementary school are average students by high school.  Some children who have a tough time in elementary school are on their way to winning scholarships at an elite college by the time they're in high school.  The point is, we don't know, and every child deserves a chance, deserves equal access to educational resources.

Recent incidents within our own PTA system in Maryland, alongside this Newsweek article, have made me realize how nasty and discriminatory the gifted and talented movement is willing to get.  Essentially, many people who support gifted and talented education are increasingly willing to do so by complaining that children with disabilities are being overfunded, while "deserving" children like the gifted and talented, are being underfunded.  Yes, ye olde whining zero sum game.  

The ultimate goal of these people is to develop a private education system, with admissions standards, within the public school system, funded on the taxpayer's dime.  This is not about equal access to a quality and challenging public education for all.  This is about determining which children are worth more than others and directing public money to the worthy and away from those certain people consider unworthy.

And this is Lindsley's bigoted point.  It's particularly appalling that she's willing to throw her son overboard to benefit her daughter.  She goes on at length about how limited her son is, how he can't "answer basic questions about what he has read"; she implies that the "mentally disabled" are getting money showered on them for the bleak and miserable purpose of meeting "minimum standards."  She claims to speak for "most parents of autistic children," saying that these parents "describe goals for their kids in much more modest terms: being able to bathe themselves, get a job, or live semi-independently."  Um, last time I checked, autism was a spectrum disorder--yes, some children with autism have severe cognitive impairments (which does not make them worthless), but others score in the genius range on intelligence tests.  People with disabilities run the gamut of intelligence and ability, just like able-bodied people. And, um, last time I checked, I didn't get the impression that all parents of children with disabilities had decided their kids were pieces of worthless crap and unable to learn.

The lies and stereotypes about disabled children that this parent perpetuates are absolutely appalling.  The tenor of the column is that all children with disabilities are cognitively impaired to the point of being uneducable, that people with any sort of cognitive impairment are not entitled to the dignity of learning, to the dignity of rising to fulfill or surpass their expectations and their parents' expectations--and that children with disabilities are incapable of outstripping and surpassing society's most negative judgements upon them.  

Lindsley's goal in writing the column, she says, is altruistic--it's all for the good of her daughter and society as a whole, even if at the expense of her son.  She asks whether the education of children with disabilities (whom she equates with the "mentally disabled") is "a wise investment," and argues, a la Ayn Rand, that it's only the "gifted" who have the real potential to change society, that only those who can pass some sort of worth test deserve resources.

You know what?  No one really knows much about human potential, especially when you're trying to figure out who among the 3-12 set is "going somewhere" in life.  You know what?  Einstein didn't talk in complete sentences until he was 9 years old.  His teachers thought he was cognitively impaired, as we might say today, or "mentally retarded" as they said then.  If Stephanie Lindsley had been in charge of allocating educational resources to children, Einstein wouldn't have made the cut.  

These are the kinds of people who are advocating for gifted and talented funding at the expense of general education funding: people who are only too willing to ignore your child's potential because their child can read a whole novel in a single day and do Sudoku puzzles and memorize an entire script for a school play.  And the most duplicitous part of it is, they're willing to manipulate you into believing that educating your kid is a drag on the society their kid can create if you'd just get out of their way.  

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