Thursday, October 01, 2009

More third rail issues

My friend Elizabeth posted an article on Facebook recently, "Do Kids with Disabilities Strain or Strengthen Our Schools?" (Anne Newman). This appeared recently in Business Week, as a reflection on Dan Habib's film, Including Samuel--the topic of which is the need for inclusive schools.

Inclusive education has been the right thing for Robert, although I know that even the disability community is not unified in this position. But, in the interests of full disclosure, I must reveal my own beliefs. I've written about that topic in previous posts, and especially in response to a movement among gifted and talented advocates that argues that the education of children with disabilities directs funds away from gifted and talented children, who are clearly (in their opinion) a better value for the money. Some of these people go so far as to call the education of the disabled a waste of taxpayer dollars--that is, they lump all disabled children together as uneducable waste-cases. Forgetting, of course, that not educating and making the most of a disabled child's potential actually increases costs to society once those children become legal adults.

I'm not going to revisit those arguments today. What I am going to do is call attention to a remark the author of the Business Week article received about inclusive education when she issued a call for comments:

“Why do we even bother paying for education for these kids?,” wrote a commenter named Lilly. “Their parents chose to have kids and now their disability and special needs amount to a rise in taxes. Their parents just get a lawyer and fight and fight until the school district ends up paying for special programs. Why? Why not divert the funds for gifted and talented students instead of kids who will need societal support their whole life.”
I find this formulation the insidious collation and intersection of several biased attitudes: straightforward bias against the disabled, eugenics, and the complex way in which "choice" or pro-choice rhetoric is used against women and children.

I no more "chose" to have a disabled child than someone "chose" to get into a serious car accident. I "chose" to get pregnant the same way someone "chose" to get into their car and drive to Safeway. The assumption on both our parts is that it's more than likely that things will simply go well and happily. I will have a pretty normal kid, and the other person will pick up a gallon of milk and put it in their home refrigerator. Telling me that I'm solely responsible for my child's problems because my kid ended up having disabilities for which prenatal testing was not available is like telling someone hit by a drunk driver that they don't deserve medical or rehabilitative care because they should have known better than to drive their car in the first place--there's always the possibility of an accident. And that they can't sue the driver of the other car because, well, "these things happen." It's just a part of life and the acceptance of risk, right?

Furthermore, as I've argued elsewhere, the pro-choice movement articulates a valid argument for women's independence and control of their own bodies, yet the right to an abortion is only a necessary, but insufficient prerequisite to full women's rights. Because it articulates a two-tier social order: those who made the right "choice" and those who didn't. I don't have a problem with abortion rights, but I do have a problem with a major tenet of feminism that has, apparently, laid the groundwork for people like Lilly to argue that children are simply another lifestyle 'choice' for which the general public has no responsibility.

Feminism needs to come to terms with the rhetorical fall-out and manipulation of the concept "choice" in our current society. Raising children has always, up until recently, been considered both a function of individual parental responsibility and society responsibility. That's why we have public schools and public programs to support the health of poor children. It's why we have laws about car seats, and why we have child labor laws. And it's why the abuse of children occupies a different area of the law with different standards and penalties.

The same impulse that leads the "Lillys" of this world to argue that gifted children need a chance also underlies what most people in this country probably feel--that children, period, all children, are especially deserving of additional help and support, and that realizing the potential of all children only strengthens societal investment in the next generation.

Feminism has to take a long, hard look at itself and the way it approaches how abortion fits into women's rights as a whole. We simply cannot sustain a society that absorbs the message (from feminism) that abortion alone is what liberates women. That making the choice to have or not have children is the point at which women do or do not deserve support for careers, workplace inequities, additional resources for disabled children, and support for the expenses of childcare.

Men are rewarded and supported by society for having children; women are not. We are blamed. And both male and female parents face significant societal discrimination and disdain for having a disabled child, a situation that was completely beyond our control.


Dale said...

I agree with most of what you say here, but I don't think your real target is feminism (and I don't think "Lilly" is a typical feminist!)

There's a particular brand of liberalism that simply wants suffering to go away, at whatever cost in denial. You do that by, on the one hand, trying to make a life with no suffering possible for people, and then, on the other, by despising them if they suffer anyway. This sort of liberal is terribly unhappy without someone to blame for suffering. If there's suffering, then someone must have done something wrong.

Of course, most of the suffering in the world just happens. That's always been true and always will be. People make a big to-do about wars and disasters and all that, but it's still the ordinary, common enemies of happiness: illness, accident, and poverty, that cause most of the suffering. And most of it's not anyone's fault, and will never be fixed. Not in the sense of "finally set right." but you can go about the business of ameliorating it, if you're a grown-up. Lessening the suffering, easing the poverty, patching up the accidents. Not glamorous, not exciting, not a brave new world. Just ordinary kindness.

Maggie May said...

Your posts always make me think.

jeneva said...

Thanks, Maggie.

Dale, I agree with you--and I don't think that "Lilly" is a feminist, either. The ways in which "choice" is manipulated and filtered in American society has interested me for a long time. Feminism is important to me, but it's not solely responsible for the way people equate "choices" and suffering. I do think, though, that feminist organizations have gotten too invested in abortion as a make-or-break issue politically--while the world changes around them. Raising a disabled child has given me a different sensitivity to the ways in which institutional feminism leaves out a lot of women or ignores how many women approach the world. My equality and freedom can't come from choice--it's filtered through constraints. And that is probably the case with a lot of people--they just don't realize that.

Anyway, my thinking on this is in a constant state of exploration and adjustment.

I wrote a lot about this stuff about a year or so ago. One of the posts I wrote deals with the way in which pro-choice rhetoric appears to intersect with Weber's Protestant Ethic.

Best regards!

Sara said...


You've definitely touched on what I've been critical of in the feminist movement. In college, it seemed that the only legit feminists were single, childless, career-oriented women. The distinct lack of attention second (or perhaps now third) wave feminists have paid to parenting & childcare is a huge blindspot for feminists--and it leaves a vacuum that those who purport to be 'pro-family' (and which often means anti-woman, or religious right) fill. This is becoming my mantra in my women's literature classroom.