Archive | August, 2013

Differently abled? With a disability? Disabled?

30 Aug

In yesterday’s post, I used the phrase “disabled people,” and I wanted to take a moment to talk about that choice of language.

You hear lots of ways to name this identity group: “differently abled” and “with a disability” are pretty popular now. And I would argue that they are neither helpful nor accurate. Let’s break it down…

“Differently abled” is misleadingly all-inclusive. By definition, people who run ultra marathons are “differently abled” than people who cannot walk. Yet, in practice, I see this term applied specifically to the latter, not the former, group. I have yet to encounter a program for “differently physically abled” people that targets or even includes those whom we see as fully bodily abled. The same is true for “differently learning abled” programs: while students labeled “gifted” are certainly “different” from those who aren’t, “learning difference” is a phrase more commonly used to describe students who are struggling in school, than those excelling in it. So while it’s true that any one person is different from another, “differently abled” actually seems to refer exclusively to a subset of the kinds of differences that exist among people: “differently abled” is polite, indirect (and therefore inaccurate) code for people whom we see as disadvantaged.

But if we continue to use “different” as a way to say “disadvantaged,” we’ll soon slip further down the slope: as nice people, tacitly trained to believe that it’s rude to point out someone’s “difference,” we will soon have to avoid the d-word at all. What then? “Otherly abled”? This would actually be a useful and mindful phrase, in that being in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you’re disabled or unable. You most certainly have other abilities, including but not limited to those that you use for locomotion. That said, if we use “otherly abled” as new, still avoidant code when we really mean people whose abilities we think are deficient, then we’re still just breaking language, avoiding issues and not connecting with people.

On that note, let’s talk about the phrase “with a disability.” To me, this suggests both grammatically and connotatively that the disability is something inherent to the individual. As if a person with a disability has that disability because they are that disability. I would beg to differ.

Disability and ability are really a transaction between an individual and their environment. If I am disabled, it’s because my abilities don’t match the abilities my situation requires. We can see this truth in the realm of learning disabilities: the majority of students “with learning disabilities” can learn just fine with adjustments in their learning environments, including the dominant pedagogy. This is commonly referred to as “accommodating students with learning disabilities.” To which I would simply say: some students are already being accommodated by the environment (i.e. the ones who are thriving). The accommodation for them is just built into the classroom. So when we accommodate the students whose learning is disabled in that same classroom, we’re not giving the latter group special treatment. We’re just broadening access to learning. We’re diversifying the group of students who are enabled to learn.

And that brings me back to “physically disabled people” or “learning disabled students.” The reason I prefer this language is that it invites questions: disabled how? And by what? These questions remind me that disability is always situational, and its etiology is therefore both environmental and individual.

Of course, the same habits of mind and culture can prevail with this or any other language we use: we can default unthinkingly to characterizing people based on a disability that is only one situationally activated part of who they are. And that’s on us to fix, not language. We can’t just keep running away from our own habits of mind and try to hide behind language that’s safe (and probably then not very descriptive in a true and helpful way). We need to reset the tacit assumptions behind our words and our intention in using them.

Saying “I have a black friend” isn’t enough

29 Aug

That’s a quote from someone in the crowd at yesterday’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

I couldn’t agree more. What does “I have a black friend” mean anyway?

It means, “I’m not racist. See? The proof is this person right here.” And while I would never contest that that black person is, in fact, your friend, I would ask: Why do you think most of your friends aren’t black? Now, I’m not calling you a racist. I’m asking you to consider not just individual, but larger social and institutional factors that shape your friendships. What institutionalized privileges and constraints have created unequal access to potential friends of all racial identities over the course of your life? What cultural norms and biases have steered you to one seat or another in the lunch room, at the movies or on public transportation? And what individual bias or choice have you been unconscious of or intentional about? Because one black friend–or even two or three–doesn’t change the social reality of racism. But a good step is towards less discrimination and more equity is recognizing how I as an individual am not exempt from racism. As Sonia Nieto says, “Nice is not enough.” I can be “nice” to this black person, that transgender person or those disabled people, but if I’m not actively working against racist, sexist and ableist norms and systems, I’m effectively giving permission and perpetuating them.

That’s why “I have a black friend” is a problem. At the heart of this statement is a denial that racism involves me, too. My black friend becomes my “get out of racism free” card, which does, in fact, give me freedom: the freedom to think and act in racist ways. Because after all, I couldn’t be racist. Did you not see my black friend over here?? Researchers in the 80’s coined a phrase for this: aversive racism (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1986), which they describe as “a subtle, often unintentional, form of bias that characterizes many individuals who possess strong egalitarian values and who believe that they are nonprejudiced. [Although they] do not wish to discriminate against members of racial minority groups… [they] act on unconscious negative feelings when they are able to justify their actions in other terms.”

In other words, people who “have a black friend” evidence racial discrimination in hiring, jury deliberations, interactions with strangers and yes, even friendships, especially when they refuse to consider that their actions could be biased and ultimately discriminatory. And the kicker is that that dear black friend is their beard.

That doesn’t seem too friendly, now does it?

Leadership: A Personal and Professional Exploration for Educators of Color

26 Aug

As August verges on September and schools have just or are now entering the 2013-14 year, I’d like to let you know about a professional growth opportunity I’m offering with Steve Morris, head of the San Francisco School, through the Bay Area Teacher Development Collaborative. Leadership: A Personal and Professional Exploration for Educators of Color is for emergent, questioning and current leaders of color in independent schools who are defining what it means for them to be a leader, considering their possibilities in and beyond independent schools to be educational leaders and looking to expand their professional connections and relationships. If you or someone you know is interested, please feel free to share this link to the BATDC website, which includes registration info:

A note on this workshop and why it’s for educators of color, specifically.

To be honest, Steve’s and my original inspiration was to create an affinity opportunity for folks who identify with a group that is under-represented in independent schools (and yes, one fixed parameter for the workshop was always independent schools, as BATDC specifically serves that sector of preK-12 education providers. And whether you work in a public/private/charter/parochial school does make a difference, so creating affinity around this identity made sense). In version 1.0 of the workshop then, the folks who could sign up would include: educators of color, transgender educators, working class educators, LGBQQ educators, single educators, physically disabled educators, educators who immigrated to the US, educators who don’t have children… it would depend on the educator to self-identify, and help to define the cohort.

My thinking was this: as leaders, we need to know ourselves and recognize the complexity of our identities and how they matter in our work and professional relationships. We also need to recognize the complexity of other people’s identities. And that internal and external recognition requires intersectionally, that is to say: the ability to reconcile how race, class, sex, sexuality, religion, abilities and other identities that impact people’s experiences in our school communities intersect and impact people’s experiences, status and access to resources and opportunities. In my book, the ability to think and engage people intersectionally is a necessary, powerful and core skill set for any leader to be effective in working with and inspiring others to do their best and thrive.

And rather than just talk about different aspects of identity, I thought convening a group of people who identify differently in and outside of the majority would help us as a learning cohort to practice thinking diversely about diversity.

Not that Steve and I didn’t have doubts about how people would receive this proposal for affinity v 2.0.

And those were borne out through a quick initial survey of colleagues. The main objection to an affinity group for leaders who identify as “underrepresented” was that it was too broad a group: there needed to be a focus.

To which I thought: “yes, and…” Yes, I can see that point. If you’re going to affinitize, you need enough for people to affinitize around. And we have a culturally normed habit of grouping “people of color” together, so it feels less diffuse than “underrepresented leaders.” And “people of color” is a hugely diverse group anyway: not just racially and ethnically, but also in terms of class, SES, gender, sex, sexuality, religion, politics, abilities and nationality. So to think that’s not a broad group (and then to treat the individual in the group narrowly) is a critical misperception. And that got me back to where Steve and I had started: even if an intersectional affinity group wasn’t going to fly, we could–and needed to–use an intersectional lens with whatever group we designated, no matter how seemingly homogenous or diverse.

Not that I’m giving up on an affinity experience for educators who identify with underrepresented groups in independent schools. I’m still excited about facilitating that professional growth conversation.

On social justice

17 Aug

As I ramp up for the new school year, I’m excited to return to this blog, and today I’m doing so with a modest kick off. Just a re-post from the Commission for Social Justice Educators Blog: “Social Justice: Now Just Another Term for Diversity” by Paul Gorski ( I found this post useful as I revisited and honed my own working definition of social justice. Social justice is one of those terms everyone uses (at least in my field) and everyone is supposed to understand, and I agree with Gorski that in its ambiguity, “social justice” has lost its differentiation from a lot of diversity-speak. I’m still working on it, but FYI, here’s Blink’s working definition:

Social justice is discerning and doing what needs to be done to end unfair treatment of individuals and groups in a community. Because societies are human and biased, social justice requires collaborative, persistent discernment and action on the individual, cultural and institutional levels.