THE OTHERS: A CASE STUDY IN TALKING ABOUT IDENTITY AND DISABILITY IN CREATIVE WRITING CLASSES

By: Jen Lamb

            The article Writing, Identity, and the Other: Dare We Do Disability Studies?, by Linda Ware, examines a case study in a writing class focusing on issues of individual difference and disability.  Ware argues that though many people believe that people with disabilities have already won their rights, that is far from the case (p. 397).  She notes that it can be uncomfortable for people to talk about disabilities in a holistic way.  Often, the issue becomes framed in a polarized manner, which she calls the “ability-disability binary” (p. 401).  Ware believes that when people discuss disabilities, it is often from the point of the view of the person without the disability.  Ware notes a memoir by Michael Berbube about his life with his son with Down Syndrone.  Berbube noticed that conversations about his son often circled back to the same question that in the end, are you disappointed to have a child with Downs Syndrome?   Ware notices the same concept in that discussions about disabilities often come back to the same question: “Wouldn’t you rather be more like me?” (p. 402). 

            To combat this belief of people with disabilities as “the others” who people view as objects of their own experiences instead of people with experiences in their own right (summary of Griffin quote, p. 405), Ware worked with a teacher to develop a curriculum to change the perception of people with disabilities as “the others.”  Ware worked with a 9th grade English teacher at a magnet high school for the arts in New York to create a unit that discussed disability as a part of the whole human experience.  Students wrote responses about what they felt the term “the other” meant and analyzed where they got their ideas about normalcy from (p. 406-407).  Students also responded to poems by Sue Napolitano and haikus from the perspectives of people who have disabilities.  Examining disability from this perspective led one student to ask, “It’s funny that we don’t really talk about disability in school.  If it is just another way to live, then why don’t’ we know more about that way?” (p. 411) Based on this student’s reflection, do you have any ideas why we “don’t know more about that way?”

              This course left the teacher with many reflections as well.  After talking about disability in such an open way in this course, Painting realized that he has left this topic out of his curriculum for the 17 years that he had previously taught.  It made him feel regretful that he didn’t provide the space in his classroom to talk about disability because he felt that he “…lacked the authority to talk about disability; that it was someone else’s job.”  As teachers, there are many subjects that we want to discuss in our classroom, but we often do not bring them up.  Maybe because they are uncomfortable, or we are nervous about how students will react, or we feel we don’t have the knowledge or authority to bring up these issues ourselves.  Are there any issues that you would like to address in your classroom, but that you haven’t felt that you had the right skills, background, or experiences to do so?

            Other questions, drawn from Ware and Paintings course goals, to consider in responses might be:

1. “What can I learn about my own identity through understanding the identities of others?”          (p.405)

2. “Can disability ever represent anything other than negative?” (p. 405)

3.  Where do we get our ideas of normalcy from? (p. 406-407)

           

 

 

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9 thoughts on “THE OTHERS: A CASE STUDY IN TALKING ABOUT IDENTITY AND DISABILITY IN CREATIVE WRITING CLASSES

  1. Jen, I really liked your post and questions. When I first read the Ware article, I could not help but think of issues that I was not addressing in my classroom. Like the teacher, Tom, in the article, I have not addressed the topic of disabilities in my classroom. It is not because I am uncomfortable with the topic or do not have relevant life experiences, I just never thought to add this perspective. Also, the curriculum map and the given texts that the 8th Grade ELA teachers are compelled to use do not necessarily provide a focus on or sufficient studies/materials on others with disabilities. I am a first year teacher, and have had little time to reflect on the perspectives that I have provided for my students. I need to spend more time doing this and ask other teachers how they may address such topics.

    I have discussed American identity at length with my students. Last term we read Reaching Out by Francisco Jimenez and discussed how identity can change by learning about others experiences through texts and interviews with community members. I began the term by having the students write their initial definitions of their self and group identities. Throughout the term, students completed a number of identity focused activities, during which they were allowed many chances to edit their definitions. All of the students had changes in their original definitions. I also did the project with my students and showed them how my self and group identity definitions changed throughout the term.

    As for a disability representing something other than negative, I would have to say that for the majority of the time I have heard, read, or been a part of a discussion about disabilities, there has almost always been a focus on the negative of the disability. People with disabilities are defined by their disabilities, and the connotation is generally negative, especially what I have experienced in education. Then again, I do not find many people taking a humanities-based approach as discussed in the Ware article. Perhaps it would be best if all staff approached disabilities with this lens.

  2. Jen,
    Great post! You’ve done a great job of recapping Ware’s article and some of the questions it raises.

    Although I don’t have anywhere near the same amount of experience as Tom Painting, I can definitely empathize with his concerns about being unintentionally exclusionary. For instance, towards the end of the article Ware recounts the fact that Tom wondered “if he had unconsciously avoided the topic of disability” (410) Although I have had a number of students share writing pertaining to their own disabilities, I have never even thought to include such discussions in the curriculum.

    Perhaps I could modify pre-existing units so as to include discussions of disabilities? I usually end my Creative Writing classes by guiding the students through the writing Personal Manifestos, which encourages students to wear their hearts on their sleeves and detail their core tenets/perspectives. By explicitly discussing disabilities at the start of the unit, maybe I could make more students comfortable with being in the vulnerable position of sharing sensitive information about themselves.

    Another bit from the article that you mentioned was the idea of just how polarizing disabilities can be. I must admit, I have often fallen for the trap of the “ability-disability binary,” without even realizing it. As a result, I have most certainly underestimated students; I can recall, with a fair amount of shame, an IEP meeting the week before school during which quite a bit of anxiety coursed through my veins as I worried about being able to accommodate the student. In truth, this particular student still stands out as one of the most impressive I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching.

    Not to make excuses for myself, but maybe my anxiety stemmed from the fact that, as Ware notes, discussions of disability are largely relegated to formal meetings and “shred-when-discarding” documents.

    Last thought: I’m on board with defining “disability as a way of thinking about bodies rather than as something that is wrong with bodies” (400). I think this fits into the binary notion, but isn’t it more useful to consider a full spectrum of bodily possibilities rather than immediately applying a negative label?

    Looking forward to tomorrow’s discussion!

    – Allen

  3. The original post and ensuing comments have been insightful and have lead me to reflect on my on teaching practice and personal biases. This notion of identity is something that I cover with my students during a memoir unit. I have students read the opening chapter of David Sedaris’ “Me Talk Pretty One Day”, in which he writes about his experience as a young student with a stutter and how peers and adults perceived him. This text initiates a discussion on disabilities and how it can be a significant part of one’s identity, and rather than see it as something that must be overcome, it should be embraced and, if possible, used as an strength, advantage, or at the very least, an opportunity for personal growth (as Sedaris was able to develop an extensive vocabulary by avoiding words containing the letter ‘s’). It is through this lens that I have discovered that having a “disability” allows you to perceive things differently, and at times, this perception offers glimpses into unique and innovative approaches.

    In looking to role models who have disabilities, and discussing “disability as a way of thinking about bodies rather than as something that is wrong with bodies,” this negative connotation and fixed notion of “normalcy” can hopefully be countered.

    When I have a desire to address a specific topic, I have often struggled with the same issue brought up by Brian’s when he stated that the curriculum and texts “do not necessarily provide a focus on or sufficient studies/materials on others with disabilities.” However, I would argue that almost every text alludes to some form of “the other,” which you can lead into a discussion pertaining to disabilities. In a text I am currently reading with my students, notions of racism and prejudice are ongoing themes. I believe any other form of discrimination (race, age, gender, etc.) can also be seen as a disability, in that they can serve as disadvantages that must be addressed in order to be successful.

  4. Response from Sue Ferranti – this is my old teacher wordpress account.

    Is this a forum to post about “The Arrival” as well? I am ashamed to admit this, but this is the first graphic novel I have read and I really enjoyed it! It was beautiful and I felt like I could keep going back to learn more about the man’s experiences and try to figure out who he was meeting or how, exactly, he got his family with him. I have a graphic novel in my classroom, “Owl,” and I don’t let students count it towards their number of independent reading books. However, after reading “The Arrival” I’ve changed my mind – while there are no words, this type of book certainly exercised my critical thinking and problem-solving skills!

    As for the Ware article, I agree that we have to frame conversations around disability with what individuals can do, rather than can’t do. While my school is an inclusion school, we also track our students and this is the first year I have taught a small section with a high percentage of students on IEPs and it has been eye-opening. I have two fascinating students – kids who can think more critically than many of my “honors” students from last year, but have serious reading disabilities. These two boys have made it crystal clear the need for accommodations in the classroom, and also not judging or stereotyping. I talk openly with them about their disabilities and the way they learn, and it has made me more open to the topic in general. I like the idea of not labeling good or bad, but trying to make students more cognizant of their learning style.

    Matt, I agree that talking about disabilities in the classroom can fall into the category of “the other.” When learning about the Holocaust, it resonated with my students that Hitler did not just kill Jews – he killed anyone who did not fit his definition of “ideal.” This included people with disabilities, and that really made my students empathize more with what happened.

    Thanks everyone for sharing resources you have used – it’s so hard to cull down everything that’s out there, so I like hearing from teachers about what has worked in their classroom.

  5. Thanks, Jen!

    Regarding the second question in the list of three—whether disability can ever represent anything other than negative—I am interested by the idea that what disability represents seems to be a matter of perspective, in both a cultural framework and with regard to individual experience. While this does sound somewhat simple (one might say the same about many things), I find it interesting that a disability might not simply be a lack of ability in some contexts, but rather a lack of ability in a particular cultural context, in which a particular ability is valued and encouraged (if not enforced) by the dominant cultural powers (here a connection could be made to bell hooks essay, in that standard English is the standard in most classrooms). Ware starts by stating that “cultural perceptions of disability do not emerge in a vacuum; they accrue slowly over time,” accumulated through various cultural institutions (397). Since it seems reasonable to conclude that the abilities we deem valuable are defined to a great extent (though not completely) by the cultures in which we live (such as the ability to write, to speak, to…come up with a third ability at random), then it makes sense, too, to assume that disabilities are also culturally defined or influenced, perhaps even indirectly. In this sense, a disability could be anything in one’s self that impedes a person from accomplishing a task valued by the dominant culture in which s/he lives.
    Additionally, there is the unique perspective of the individual who is understood by others as being disabled. A few years ago, I had a student who had been born blind. When asked about her disability, she said that she didn’t perceive it the same way that the world around her did (as a problem, something that needed to be adapted to, and so on)—for her, it was normal: it was all that she knew. In this sense, the term “disability” clearly had different definitions being acted upon at the same time in the same space: the normal walk to class for this student was something seen as a curiosity by the other students, a disability that didn’t allow her to walk without a white cane, almost a trick of some sort—walking without their eyesight was something that they wouldn’t be able to do. I find it interesting that, when the situation is turned around in a way, one’s disability suddenly becomes irrelevant or even appreciated. In a world of people who are blind, it might be the one who can see who has the disability (his sight distracts his ability to trust his sense of touch, for instance). This is not to say that the traits of an individual, such as a disability, ought to be ignored, but that it is something which we might question our understanding about as teachers more frequently. Doing so might both help to enable inclusion and lessen the frustration evident when Ware asks, “How is it that society can still be cast as hostile and unadaptive despite three decades of important social policy reform for people with disabilities?” (398).
    While I’m not certain how this angle might influence instruction on a smaller scale, I do know that inclusion requires not only participation but also the feeling of being included, and sometimes a slightly different perspective on the teacher’s part can make quite a difference for how a student feels. That said, one might connect this to the idea of a student who is not technically considered disabled but is made to feel as such through expectations of dominant cultural practices. This seems the case in Woman Warrior when the narrator discusses school becoming a “misery” and that “the other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl” (80). One might cite, too, the narrator’s statement to the teacher that she couldn’t sing “land where out father’s died.” In this sense, the disabling is being done to the individual—certain modes of assimilation result in the disabling of an individual (similarly, Anzaldua explains that “Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self” [270]).
    To shift perspectives again, perhaps learning itself requires first some acknowledgement of some kind of a disability—that there is something one does not have, know, or know how to do. I am reluctant to connect the terms learning, assimilation, and disability in this way, though. “Disability” has implications of being permanent—an inability to do something that social norms expect people to be able to do, if not now then eventually (perhaps within a certain time frame). And “assimilation” has too many connotations and too much history attached for me to state that, as a teacher, I might—in some sense—be in such a business.

  6. Wow. Reading Jen’s post and the thoughtful comments so far have excited me about how productive these blog conversations can be!

    As Brian, Allen, and Matt all admitted, I too have tended to unconsciously ignore the role of disability in my classroom. Yes, I have made accommodations and had rewarding experiences with students with “high needs” (another, possibly, problematic term), but I have never approached the question of ability through a cultural lens. Sue, I’m so delighted to hear that you speak so openly about your students’ disabilities – this kind of attention and transparency is something I think we should all strive to adopt.

    The one concern I have is this notion of the “label.” Brian aptly notes that “People with disabilities are defined by their disabilities” and I wonder how many people actually identify THEMSELVES by their disability. While our identities are completely determined by us, I do think we should be wary about such a correlation. My vision without glasses is terrible, so I certainly fall into the category of disability, but my disability is not of the same degree as someone who requires a wheelchair to move. And I’ve never thought of myself as disabled. Ware makes a good point that we need to interrogate the “othering” nature of disability discourse, but I also feel it is desirable (and often necessary) to recognize difference. Recognizing difference does not always have to establish an “other.”

    This is where we might turn to literature as a means of investigating sameness and difference. As Matt noted in teaching Sedaris, this can be illuminating for many students. Even in the Arrival, the main character meets a man who relates his own story of migration and the loss of his leg – the main character can relate through their common experience of migration but also recognize the additional challenge this new friend faced.

  7. Unfortunately, I was unable to read the Ware article due to lack of delivery from Amazon, so I am thankful for this thorough and thoughtful conversation so I can at least get a second-hand reading. Like Matt, I also include an open discussion about disability in my middle school curriculum through the short story “Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambara. I have had both students and parents thank me for inclusion of this story and the class discussions regarding disability and the language surrounding it right at the start of the school year.

    It is interesting to note that this issue of the “disability binary” does not seem to be a huge issue in my classroom or in my school. I do not attribute this to the curriculum so much as I attribute it to teaching in a K-8 school. Many of my students have been together for eight or nine years by the time they get to me, so they do not see their peers with disabilities as “other”. On the playground (yes, my middle schoolers get recess), you see all students interacting, whether from inclusion classes, general education classes, or substantially separate classes. A boy who is legally blind due to albinism can be seen shooting hoops with the rest of the guys, and another student openly discusses meeting with his speech therapist.

    At the same time, disability is still an uncomfortable subject at times as I teach in a classroom where approximately half of the students are on ed plans. We have attempted to create a culture where it is understood and accepted that every student gets what they need and not necessarily what every other student has, however, this does not prevent some students from complaining that it is unfair for some students to receive accommodations while others don’t or ask personal questions about the specifics behind the reasons for these accommodations. I do not feel it is appropriate for me to go into specifics, but my rote answer about the difference between equity and equality does not seem to be enough.

  8. Excellent and thought provoking post and comments!

    In reading Ware, a few ideas came to my mind. One was an experience that occurred only a few days ago when a friend of mine, hearing me talk about differentiation, asked what was being done to support the high-performing students in the class. The implication in his comment was that differentiation for students with disabilities “dumbed down” the quality of the lesson and left other students bored or not sufficiently challenged. This friend works closely with people with special needs, though not in a teaching role. The negativity of his comment shocked me, but also showed me how misunderstood students with disabilities are in the classroom. I had to explain to him that many of my students who have disabilities are also some of the highest performing students in the class.

    I think the question of “why don’t we discuss disabilities in classrooms?” is also an important one. Over the years, teachers have been encouraged to include texts from a variety of authors; females and minorities have since been added to the “canon.” There have even been recent movements to include queer texts in the literature curriculum. Why not a movement to include texts that positively portray characters with disabilities? In a recent unit, my class watched excerpts from the HBO series “Brave New Voices,” which documents youth slam poetry teams as they compete for the championship title. One of the the poets on the show, like one of the students in my class, has cerebral palsy. Another poet had Tourettes. Similar to Matt’s comment about “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” these poets showed, through their interviews and their writing, how their disabilities influence their identity and their writing. It is part of who they are. Reading this post, I wish I had spent more time discussing disabilities during my class, especially when we talked about identity.

    I also feel as though I can relate to Todd’s comment about “the idea of a student who is not technically considered disabled but is made to feel as such through expectations of dominant cultural practices.” This definitely relates to the ideas both of “the other,” and also of the concept of “normal.” How is it that these words are defined so situationally? In one context, I am “the other,” but in other contexts I am “normal.” How can we make students in inclusion classes feel less like the “other,” without undermining what makes them an individual? How can we do this with all students?

  9. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of reframing our entire viewpoint around disability, and by viewing those with disabilities as a marginalized, stereotyped, frequently overlooked group—much in the same way we look at any group in society that is discriminated against. This was really eye-opening for me, because although I do my best to differentiate instruction and provide the necessary accommodations for students on IEP’s in my classroom, I’ve never thought of how much of a social justice issue it is to essentially devalue the identity and diverse experiences of those with disabilities by focusing on the negativity, stereotypes and collective identity of the those with disabilities of any kind. And unfortunately, although our pressures and responsibilities as educators are endless, the classroom is the real opportunity: it can clearly be a space to dispel some of these false assumptions or it can be a space in which a great deal of this damage is done.

    As I reflect on my role in all of this, I can’t help but think of how I’ve never really thought about those with disabilities as an identity category, as naive as that clearly sounds. I’m often so focused on creating learning opportunities for students around issues of race, class and gender, yet I’ve never taught a single lesson that emphasized the perspective of someone with a disability. Though the responsibility ultimately lies with myself, in teacher preparation courses we focus endlessly on strategies for helping students on IEP’s; the concern, as a I saw it, has always been solely about how to help kids on IEP’s to access content, not at all on identity, exclusion, and the individual experience of someone with a disability.

    I look forward to incorporating the ideas in the reading and our discussion into my teaching.

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