When I was elementary school age, I was falsely diagnosed as having a severe intellectual disability. So it was decided that I would not be taught to read or write. That decision has shaped nearly every subsequent decision that I’ve made. It also started me down a path where I was introduced to anthropologist and radical feminist Marija Gimbutas.
This revelation acted as a thunderclap because it said to me that even in the earliest attempts at civilization, all gifts and talents were valued. The act of hauling water was as valuable as killing an antelope. Society at its core had never been structured to measure what you could not do, only what you could do, and this idea rocked my world.
You see, for a time, I was like everyone else — happy to compare myself to the person who did not think the way I did, who could not understand complex philosophical teachings as easily as I could. That comparison made it easy for me to say, “Look, I’m smart because I can understand a concept put out by Wittgenstein or Hegel with more ease than this other person.”
The truth is, I still read rather slowly.
And although the understanding of concepts comes to me very quickly (and always has), I still carry the idea that I cannot read very quickly as though it were a chain around the neck, although admittedly, I’ve had my mind opened. Through people like Marija Gimbutas, the chain has gotten lighter. But sometimes I still lie awake in my bed, in the early morning before work, and think, “Am I going to be found out today for being an intellectual fake?”
Now why start here? Because my story is the story of every person with a developmental disability, and I would even say an intellectual one, too, except that I had the good fortune of being adopted and brought into a world where a few very strong advocates raised the bar for me. They gave me the rudimentary skills to decipher reading, but moreover, more importantly even, they encouraged me to listen, to absorb everything I heard.
Because the physical act of reading was difficult, they did not say, “Don’t read.” They said, “Read and listen to the book at the same time.” When it was discovered that I probably would not be able to write at the same pace as everyone else, my middle school teacher encouraged a reluctant principal to let me use — and the school assisted my parents in buying — a voice-activated computer for me.
In college, I utilized the access office, but I also hired my own assistants to read to me so that I could absorb Hegel and Heidegger over pints of beer. During my master’s degree program, I hired an assistant, paying her from my student loans and Social Security Disability Insurance so that I could teach an art history course.
Why lay this out in this way? What was different in my thinking compared to other people with disabilities? Why was I able to reach this level of intellectual thinking while others in my proverbial boat could not make the same leaps?
Because when I went into college, I had what amounted to an eighth grade education. Truly. I’m not making that up. But what helped me, from the age of 11 onward, is that somebody was constantly raising the intellectual bar. There was someone always saying, “You can think about that more deeply,” even when there was a whole bandstand of people, including people I loved, not rooting for me (or at least not throwing their full support behind me).
When I started at Paraquad, Kelly Moffatt, who oversaw the continuing education (now vocational education) program, was fond of saying, “Raise the bar for people, and they will achieve.”
I’ve spent many years thinking about how people think, mainly because I was fighting what I perceived to be my own deficiency. The truth is, we have to sharpen the inner voice and encourage higher order thinking. Now that is not to say that I want everyone to be Picasso or Piaget, but higher order thinking is possible in the daily life of every person with a disability.
Let’s look at a real example. Imagine for a moment that a person with a developmental disability wants to write a research paper about the history of the American flag. In order to challenge this person to think more deeply about the topic, we might begin by first encouraging him or her to answer the five W’s — who, what, when, where and why — about the American flag. The second step is to then encourage this person to write a rough draft of a paper. The idea is that with each proceeding step in the process, the bar is raised; at no point is it stuck at one stage or the next. That is not to say that a person cannot go back and review previous steps if the opportunity yields itself. But the point is that the steps must continue, and the person must have at least one other person in his or her life to continue pushing this process forward.
Now, are there people who will read Heidegger and not understand it for their entire life? Yes. The point is not to reach a set-in-stone plateau defined by someone else, but rather to see where your individual inner voice takes you with the assistance of a guide and/or teacher.
Of course this offers its own problem because many teachers are trained to say, “Well, this student hasn’t reached this particular level of thinking about this subject.” As a result, the student will never be able to think about it. We must put an end to that mindset.
Let me give you another real-life example. When I started school at 11, I could barely add and subtract. By the time I ended school in eighth grade at sixteen, my math skills had not improved very much.
Because of my lack of history with math, I did not have to take it in college, though after I earned my master’s degree, I began working with the chair of the math department at my university to put together a complex series of presentations on geometry in fine art. I must also note that I taught myself enough math to earn my GED and score decently on the ACT.
My point here in all of this is that we cannot make assumptions based on how we think the inner language of a person should be. We also cannot assume what it already is.
Christopher Worth is the Organizing Team Manager at Paraquad. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.