Tag Archives: education

University Kicks Student With Down Syndrome Out Of Classroom; Other Students Protest And Are Ignored

I cannot imagine being told, 3/4s of the way into my first academic term, that my mere presence in the classroom “resulted in a disruption of curriculum delivery and interfered with the teaching and learning environment for the instructor and other students.” Especially with no prior warning, and especially when all 19 of my fellow classmates insisted that this was untrue.

Meet Eliza Schaaf, a 20 year old university student with Down Syndrome. In September she began taking a ceramics class at Souther Oregon University, with the support of her family. She was signed up as a full student, and registered with her university’s disability office. (Part way through the year she was required to be re-registered as auditing rather than a full student.) According to the blog the Schaaf family has set up:

Out of curiosity went to the SOU Disability Resources Office and made appointment to learn what accommodations are available to student with disabilities. None seemed relevant or needed. Did discuss the personal assistant option.

From what I’ve been able to gather from various news reports, Eliza’s mother, Deb Evans, was her personal assistant in the classroom, having signed a contract. This newspaper report at the Mail Tribune points out that the one-size-fits-all model of providing accessibility accommodations didn’t really work in this situation: personal assistants in the classroom were presumed to be for people with physical disabilities, so Deb was limited to setting up Eliza’s workspace for her. In the timeline of events, the Schaff family acknowledges that Deb was asked to not speak to Eliza or the other students during class time, and describes Deb as leaving the room and letting Eliza get any assistance she needed from another student who also signed a personal assistant contract.

Without any warning whatsoever, Eliza received a registered letter from the university informing her:

“At this time, Southern Oregon University does not offer a program specifically designed to provide specialized learning opportunities for students with intellectual disabilities. We have determined that even with the support of the accommodation(s) available at the post-secondary level, you are currently not otherwise qualified to meet the academic standards necessary to participate in this course.”

And, you know, I get that. I think it’s shitty, but I can understand that. Except for one minor problem:

Eliza didn’t develop Down Syndrome spontaneously half-way through October. She had Down Syndrome when the university agreed to accept her as a student, and when the Disability Accommodations Office agreed they really had no assistance they could offer her, and when the university agreed that her mother could be Eliza’s personal assistant, and when they told Deb Evans that she could sit in another room during the class.

The other problem is this: According to the letter Eliza received from university administration (You can read it here (PDF) transcription.):

Based upon our interactive process and classroom observation, we have conluded that there are no appropriate accommodations that would allow you to engage with the course material at the cognitive level necessary and required of university-level students. Specifically, we have made the following observations during your participation in the course….

Except, according to students actually in the class, no one observed. According to Mollie Mustoe, a student in Eliza’s class and one of the people behind the very vocal outcry about this situation::

She said what bothered her most was that the administration used students in the class as a reason to withdraw Schaaf without consulting those students.

“No one from the administration observed the class, and the administration never had a dialogue with the students about what we felt,” she said.


“She worked almost as independently as me,” Mustoe said. “What she couldn’t do on her own that’s what the personal assistant was for.”

The situation seems to be done and dusted. Despite a petition from all 19 of Eliza’s classmates, the people this decision was allegedly made in support of, despite the Student Senate at Southern Oregon University voting to support Eliza, despite 40 students signing a separate petition in support of Eliza, despite a protest, media attention, and multiple letters from around the world in support of Eliza, the university has decided to reaffirm their decision to force-quit Eliza from the classroom. She won’t even be allowed to come in for the final class. She will be allowed to get a critique from her university professor, though; the person who, it seems, is the one who has made all the complaints about her.

There are more than likely people reading this right now going “But a kid with Down Syndrome doesn’t belong in a university classroom.” Frankly, I’m not going to debate that with you. I’m not on the admissions team of a university. Unless you’re from SOU, you’re also not on the admissions team that has anything to do with the decision to accept Eliza. But Eliza was accepted by the university as a student. Any other student would be allowed to complete the course, even if they were disruptive, even if they were failing, even if they only attended three courses out of 12.

Frankly, this is shitty behaviour, and I am outraged both on behalf of Eliza, who deserved far better treatment than this, and on behalf of the students in her class who were used as an excuse and a shield by the university who then promptly ignored everything the students said in response.

Further Reading:
Disability Scoop: University Decision To Withdraw Student With Down Syndrome Sparks Outcry
Mail Tribune: SOU students protest rejection of woman with Down syndrome
The Arc: “I am not a disability”: Eliza’s Story
Mail Tribune: SOU dean reaffirms decision to drop art student with Down syndrome

Eliza’s University Experience

Recommended Reading for November 9, 2010

John Keilman for the Los Angeles Times: Technology opens new horizons for disabled

Yet for all of technology’s promised advances, some worry that the cost will keep helpful devices out of many people’s reach. Others are concerned that governments, schools and institutions might think that high-tech gadgetry has relieved them of their responsibility to serve the disabled.

“Technology is not a solution for every problem,” said Paul Schroeder of the American Foundation for the Blind. “It doesn’t replace the need for quality teaching. It doesn’t replace the need to teach social skills.”

Crazy Mermaid at Bipolar: Crazy Mermaid’s Blog: Paranoid Schizophrenia: Worst Disease in the World

During the tail end of my psychotic break with reality, I came to believe that there were zombies after me, ready to kill me in order to take over my body. My fear of them taking over my body eventually became so great that I decided to go to the local hospital emergency room, where I thought I would be safe from them.

Liz Sayce at RADAR Network: Health and safety: Stifling disabled people’s independence?

As politicians queue up to cite ever more ludicrous examples of health and safety excesses – making kids wear goggles to play conkers, cancelling historic Gloucestershire cheese rolling events, stopping trainee hairdressers having scissors – those of us living with health conditions or disability sometimes hesitate about which side of this argument we are on.

On the one hand, selected stories like this, designed to justify scrapping regulation, can – as the NASUWT just put it – play politics with children’s safety or put workers at greater risk. On the other, there is a massive history of health and safety being used as an excuse to stop disabled people from doing things. So – whilst I hesitate to join all the people selecting examples of health and safety excesses – we do need to look them in the eye.

Irish Deaf Kids: The Salamanca Statement and EPSEN Act (2004)

A key point:

“regular schools with this inclusive orientation are the most effective means of combating discriminating attitudes, creating welcoming communities, building an inclusive society and achieving education for all; moreover, they provide an effective education to the majority of children and improve the efficiency & ultimately the cost-effectiveness of the entire education system.”

allama at give the feminist a cigarette: Women as sociological ducks

In The Dustbin of History, Greil Marcus warns of the risk of losing sight of individual genius when talking about the blues: yes, it was created in response to slavery and oppression, but centuries of slavery and oppression only produced one Bessie Smith. Seeing Strange Fruit as the inevitable product of the horrors of American history denies the incredible personal achievement of Billie Holiday. And painting female depression as simply a product of the patriarchy denies the personal experience of mental illness to every single sufferer.

incurable hippie at Where’s the Benefit? Round-Up Post

There are plenty of must-read articles and blog posts which I haven’t had the time or the spoons to cover. All of the following are well worth a look.

Guest Post: Stuck and tired: How universities are failing disabled students (like me)

Diane Shipley is a freelance writer obsessed with feminism, US TV, memoirs and pizza. She writes about those things and more at her blog, the imaginatively-named Diane Shipley Blogs (http://blog.dianeshipley.com) and is almost always on Twitter (username: @dianeshipley).

You’re intelligent, personable, and get good grades. It might look like higher education is a given.

But it isn’t. Not when you have a disabling illness. Then, making it to graduation could be more challenging than you ever imagined.

Last year, I tried to finish the degree I dropped when I got ill back in 1998. The disability services department at my new university contacted me the summer before I started my course, asking what extra help I would need.

I had never been a student with disabilities before, so I couldn’t anticipate all the challenges I might face. But the system for reporting those I was aware of seemed doomed to failure: a disability advisor emailed my department in the first week of the semester to advise them that I needed my seminars and lectures to be accessible. Inevitably, this was too late. One of my lectures was in a building with a lift that was almost always out of order, leaving me the choice of missing out or making myself ill. And my registration experience was disastrous.

Registration and enrolment were in two separate buildings nowhere near each other. As no buses ran in that direction, this meant a fifty-minute round trip on foot, well beyond what I could cope with. So I emailed the university to explain this, asking if I could register and enrol online, instead.

Here’s where I point out something that should be obvious but seems not to be: when disabled students express a preference, it shouldn’t be brushed aside in favour of what administrative staff would prefer. Being assertive can be very difficult, especially in situations where someone has power over you. Expressing one’s needs can also be embarrassing, as many long-term illnesses and disabilities are stigmatised. It’s an issue that deserves to be treated with sensitivity, but too often isn’t.

Instead of granting my request, a member of staff from registry services suggested I meet her late in the afternoon, instead. Because her address was at the end of her email, and was somewhere I could access by bus, I agreed. But when I went to her office at 5 PM on registration day, the shutters were closed. Tired, upset, and alone, I vented on Twitter: “I don’t think this university cares about disabled students.” Then I called my mum in tears and she offered to leave work and drive me to the building where registration was taking place. I finally made it and explained the mix-up to one of the staff, who said someone there wanted to speak to me.

The head of registry services strode over and introduced herself, a stern expression on her face. She then shouted that I couldn’t say what I liked on Twitter without giving them “right of reply” and that the university did care about disabled students. “I’m fully conversant in equality law,” she snapped. When I mentioned the mix-up over where I was registering, she said that perhaps I should read emails more carefully in future.

She wasn’t wrong: I could have double-checked. But in my defence, starting university was an overwhelming undertaking, and confusion and anxiety are big parts of my illnesses. I had also made the mistake of assuming that no-one would suggest we meet somewhere I had specifically said I couldn’t access.

I was finally able to register but because of the delay, I couldn’t get into the student intranet until two days later, so the seminars I wanted to sign up for were full. This meant that instead of organizing them at times to suit my illness, I had to take whatever was left. When I contacted my departmental disability liaison officer to ask if I could be squeezed into more convenient seminars for a couple of subjects,  he demurred, and I got the impression he thought I was trying it on. I didn’t have the energy to argue that this seemingly small issue was essential to the management of my illness.

As I thought I would, I struggled with my schedule.  Ten hours of class time isn’t much, but I hadn’t counted on the extra time I’d need to walk to lectures (and then sit down and catch my breath). In retrospect, I needed to take taxis to my classes. But I was reluctant to organise this because one of the disability support staff told me that some taxi drivers were “funny” about short journeys.

But my biggest challenge was the fire alarms, which went off once or twice a week. We would traipse out of the classroom, walk down three or four fights of stairs, stand around for ten minutes, and then go back up again. I had no idea what disabled students were supposed to do, and didn’t know who to ask, so I just struggled on, my muscles spasming from pain and stress.

I know what some people will think: maybe I was too ill to be at university in the first place. But I had a good reason for attempting it: money. In England, if you’re on a full-time course, you are entitled to loans, grants, and bursaries, which add up to (just about) enough to live on. A part-time student is only entitled to £225 a year. So I took a risk.

It’s a risk that failed. Although I could cope academically, physically I was falling apart. After five weeks, I suffered a severe stress-induced relapse and the university recommended I take a leave of absence. This meant I wouldn’t have to reapply if I felt well enough to return, but I wouldn’t be entitled to student finance or disability benefits during this time, either. I only scraped by thanks to my overdraft, a little writing work, and my supportive parents.

This summer, I had to decide whether or to go back. I decided against it. I didn’t feel well, and I didn’t feel welcome.

I don’t think my experience is unique: I suspect it is more common than universities realize. The way I was treated is part of a much larger problem: how we, as a society, view people with disabilities. We need to stop being surprised when someone has special needs, and there needs to be a socially acceptable way of saying “I can’t do that,” or “I need more help”, especially in educational institutions and the workplace.

Policies like the British government’s plan to reduce the number of people claiming disability benefits (without regard for the number of people with disabilities) perpetuate the sadly still prevalent belief that those of us who have disabling illnesses which are not terminal or immediately visible are lazy, when nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is, students with disabilities need better support. An attempt to understand and cater to students’ individual needs rather than just paying lip service to the idea of equality would be an excellent start.

Recommended Reading for October 19, 2010

Corina Becker at No Stereotypes Here: Real Communication Shutdown

I was recently asked by a person on Twitter to participate, and I responded that there wasn’t much of a point, since I am Autistic, and do not require to learn about difficulties that I myself face in communicating.

kaz at Kaz’s Scribblings (DW): trials and tribulations — learning foreign languages with speech disorders

in my forays into foreign languages, I have discovered that if I speak slowly and focus on pronunciation I automatically slip into stronger therapy. And I do mean automatically. And, like, I can’t even think “okay, I’m going to talk normally now”, I actually have to intentionally try and modify various sounds to be untherapylike. . .

Katherine Creag at My Fox NY: Woman Couldn’t Buy Inhaler During Asthma Attack

“I had exactly a twenty-dollar bill. It came to twenty-one and change,” Jack Brown said. “I offered him my cell phone, my wallet. I said I live right around the corner. I come in here all the time.”

He was told the inhaler with tax would cost just over $21. He was short a dollar and change.

staticnonsense at Some Assembly Required: Intersections of Disability and Transgenderism

Trans people get othered a lot. We’re pushed off as crazy, disordered, for challenging the social norms of gender and sex. Either by choice in trying to deconstruct this ancient structure, or simply by existing. Throughout history we’ve been institutionalized or “fixed” (or tried to be) simply for existing as ourselves in a world that focuses so strongly on the cissexist concept of penis = man = masculine and vagina = woman = feminine. Even now the disconnect of the body and one’s self identity is seen as a disorder, one that mu

Chally at Feministe: Unreality and the politics of experience

And it’s a bizarre experience because the person in the best position to speak about their own experiences and emotions is the person who has them. And, personally, I find the desire to go over horrible experiences with a fine tooth comb, tease them out, decide – retrospectively, calmly, objectively – on an appropriate response, (an appropriate reaction is whatever I judge to be appropriate, thank you very much) to add a whole new sickening layer to what I experienced. And then there are those demands for more details and irrelevant details and painful details, because whoever is “listening” thinks they get to decide what’s important.

If you’re on Delicious, feel free to tag entries ‘disfem’ or ‘disfeminists,’ or ‘for:feminists’ to bring them to our attention! Link recommendations can also be emailed to recreading at disabledfeminists dot com. Please note if you would like to be credited, and under what name/site.

Recommended Reading for 28 September, 2010

I hope all is well in your world on this fine Tuesday! Gentle reader, be cautioned: comments sections on mainstream media sites tend to not be safe and we here at FWD/Forward don’t necessarily endorse all the opinions in these pieces. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

Canada: Disabled-services flip-flop at Winnipeg Free Press:

The about-face came one day after an internal U of W memo was leaked to media and revealed a number of university programs to help disabled students were on the chopping block. The decision outraged students and raised eyebrows since it comes just weeks after the U of W launched a new disability degree program devoted to the “critical analysis of disability in society.”

USA: College Web Pages Are ‘Widely Inaccessible’ to People With Disabilities from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The study found that more colleges are deploying basic accessibility features, like adding alternative text to images so a blind student can understand them with read-aloud software.

But those gains were offset by challenges from inaccessible emerging technologies. For example, a person with disabilities who can’t use a mouse will often be stymied by a Web site that requires users to hover their mouse over a page element to trigger a sub-menu.

Australia: Disabled drivers get no favours on private property from the Brisbane Times:

The Department of Transport, which issues disabled parking permits under its Disability Parking Permit Scheme, is powerless to protect drivers who park in shopping centres, with centre management charged with enforcing the scheme there.

India: Promote sign language, urges deaf association from expressbuzz.com:

More than 100 members of the Deaf Enabled Foundation, an NGO for the deaf, took out a rally on International Day of the Deaf, here on Sunday, from the Labour Statue to Light House.

And, also from India, framed in possibly the most patronising way possible, Movie made by deaf and dumb to premiere on Oct 9 from the Indian Express:

The movie Amir=Garib, to be premiered on October 9 in the Town Hall Auditorium, has all the essentials of a Bollywood flick, but one fundamental element — sound. The movie has been made by deaf and dumb people.

Send your links to recreading[@]disabledfeminists[.]com. Let us know if/how you want to be credited.

Recommended Reading for August 10, 2010

Wheelchair Dancer at Feministe: On the Cover [trigger warning for discussion of violence]

Regardless of how disability plays out in Aisha’s world, the vast majority of readers of TIME live in a culture that understands disability as tragedy. As shocking. As among the worst things that can happen to you (bar death). Mainstream American culture thinks it knows disability and knows how to read it. Ms. Bieber has a history of photographing disabled bodies[. . .]But the work she does in the Real Beauty series does not come through in this photograph — perhaps because of the context and placement of the image. Here she (and or the editor) uses Aisha’s disability to trade upon the readership’s sympathies and their horror: this and other unknown kinds of disability are a direct result of the US departure from Afghanistan. This is not about Aisha; it’s about the message of the article.

Cripchick at Cripchick’s blog: tell me who i have to be to get some reciprocity?

don’t feel the way white supremacy creeps into your life and plops itself in the center?

in the last wk, white ppl have:

  • told me how to rearrange my words as to be more approachable.
  • made my need to have ppl of color time about them.
  • asked me invasive medical questions about my body.
  • thanked me over and over for teaching them about oppression.

Cara at The Curvature: Disabled Student Assaulted on School Bus; Bus Driver Watches and Doesn’t Respond [trigger warning for description and discussion of severe bullying]

Most readers here who have ever ridden a school bus will have at some point been on at least one end of bullying and harassment. Many will have at different points throughout their childhoods and adolescences acted as both bullies and victims — myself included among them. Big news stories since I stopped riding a school bus have left me with the impression that little has changed. School buses are places where bullies, harassment, and violence thrive. And as all current or past school bus passengers know, students with disabilities, particularly cognitive or intellectual disabilities, are especially vulnerable.

Daphne Merkin at the New York Times Magazine: My Life in Therapy

This imaginative position would eventually destabilize me, kicking off feelings of rage and despair that would in turn spiral down into a debilitating depression, in which I couldn’t seem to retrieve the pieces of my contemporary life. I don’t know whether this was because of the therapist’s lack of skill, some essential flaw in the psychoanalytic method or some irreparable injury done to me long ago, but the last time I engaged in this style of therapy for an extended period of time with an analyst who kept coaxing me to dredge up more and more painful, ever earlier memories, I ended up in a hospital.

William Davies King at PopMatters: In Defense of Hoarding

To be sure, a special label like compulsive hoarding seems required by many of the heart-rending cases they recount, people neck-deep in the slough of their despond, overwhelmed by more whelm than can be weighed. But sadness and dysfunction are hardly rare or new. What is new is the social imperative to ram open that front door. Bring in the wheelbarrows, the commanding case worker, and the camera—especially the camera, which enlists us all in the drive to evacuate these cloacal dwellings. Reality TV rolls up its sleeves, puts on the rubber gloves, and hoards the evidence while [authors] Frost and Steketee stand alongside the labyrinth, notepad in hand, giving that Skinnerian nod.

Bad Behavior, continued: More on School Discipline

s.e. smith recently wrote about abuse of autistic students in Pennsylvania and the distressing rise in abusive ‘discipline’ for students with disabilities. Ou mentioned a recent study from Delaware that found that students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended for ‘behavior’ problems than students without disabilities. Ou discussed some easy ways that a disabled student’s behavior could be categorized as disruptive and make them subject to discipline:

Are students suspended for not using modes of communication familiar to teachers? For needing to stand or pace while learning? For needing a quiet environment for learning, and for becoming upset when one is not provided? For needing orderly and precise schedules? For not completing assignments they don’t understand or find impossible to finish? For attempting to create and maintain personal space? For expressing any number of needs and needing a space where they are accommodated? For tics in the classroom?

I had all this fresh in my mind when, at work, I came across a recent report on school discipline in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Although one of the organizations involved in researching and preparing the report is an organization focused on mental health disabilities, the executive summary does not have any data or recommendations about students with disabilities. But it did have a couple of points that I found very interesting and thought were worth discussing.

The first underlines the point that s.e. smith was making in ou’s previous post – that disproportionate discipline demonstrates broader societal disregard for the targeted group. The report re-frames the student dropout crisis as a “student ‘push-out’ crisis,” arguing that discipline reform “requires respect for children’s dignity, meaning schools will not exclude, get rid of, or criminalize them for misbehavior or underachievement… If the policies and practices of every school were geared to fulfill their human rights, our children would not be excluded, tracked, and pushed out… [nonconforming] students are more likely than other students to be ‘pushed out’ of school and ultimately find themselves in the juvenile delinquency or adult criminal justice systems.”

s.e. said the same thing in ou’s earlier post:

This is a reflection of a lot of problems with the way society views and treats people with disabilities, and of serious inadequacies in the education system. Teachers who abuse students clearly should not be in the classroom, yet they are, and they are sometimes allowed to remain even after abuse is reported. Teachers who have received no training in working with disabled students shouldn’t be assigned to classrooms with disabled students, yet they are.

The primary focus of the report was highlighting the extreme racial disparities in LAUSD discipline. African-American students make up 22% of LAUSD students, but about half of disciplinary actions involve African-American students. These students were also more than twice as likely to be suspended than other ethnic groups. As the report concludes, “the gross disparities apparent in the past and current application of suspension to African-American students by LAUSD make clear that … the District employs practices that are inconsistent with federal, human rights, and state mandates.”

Although the report highlights racial disparities, it seems that one of the primary recommendations of the report would benefit all students targeted for discipline, including those with disabilities:

Priority: Share Power with Parents.

Recommendation: Share the first signs. Schools shall contact parents at the first sign that something is wrong with a student’s behavior so there is an opportunity to take preventative measures rather than wait until an issue escalates into a major problem.

Recommendation: Share planning and decision-making. Schools shall include parents on their [discipline] teams and give them equal say in decision-making and planning related to [discipline policy.]

Recommendation: Create shared trainings. The District and schools shall conduct [discipline policy] trainings jointly with administrators, teachers, and parents in the same room.

Recommendation: Enable parents to enforce accountability and transparency by schools. Schools shall establish parent committees to observe discipline practices, especially in the classrooms, play areas, and cafeteria. Schools shall make disciplinary data, practices and procedures, and outcomes and benchmark data available on a monthly basis to parents and the community so they can also monitor implementation of [discipline policy] and do whatever necessary to hold LAUSD accountable. The District shall effectively inform parents of what schools are required to do according to [discipline policy], and what parents should do if their schools are not following through.

A final thought: it would be very interesting to see data of discipline rates of disabled students of color. They must be through the roof.

Bad Behaviour: Disabled Students and Discipline Disparities

I wrote recently here about the abuse of autistic students in Pennsylvania, and highlighted the fact that abusive ‘discipline’ is distressingly common for disabled students. In the interests of writing a post that for once does not need a content warning, I’m going to refrain from providing details of the kinds of actions that are considered ‘discipline’ in the schools, but I’m sure many of you have encountered stories in the media and some of you have probably experienced abuse in the classroom yourselves.

This is a reflection of a lot of problems with the way society views and treats people with disabilities, and of serious inadequacies in the education system. Teachers who abuse students clearly should not be in the classroom, yet they are, and they are sometimes allowed to remain even after abuse is reported. Teachers who have received no training in working with disabled students shouldn’t be assigned to classrooms with disabled students, yet they are.

But what about the flip side, when students are taken out of the classroom?

A study recently released in Delaware found that disabled students are more likely to be suspended for ‘behaviour problems.’ More specifically, while 20% of the students suspended[1. School suspension, for those not familiar with the concept, is a form of discipline where students are ordered to stay out of school for a set period of time. Students may or may not be allowed to do schoolwork at home.] were disabled, disabled students only make up 14% of the student body. The study questions this disparity, asking why it is that disabled students are at more risk of suspension although there is an established body of law that is designed to specifically provide protections for disabled students, and to limit the circumstances in which they can be suspended.

The article asks, not ‘why are students with disabilities more likely to be suspended,’ but ‘what makes disabled students behave badly?’ I personally think that’s the wrong question. What is ‘bad behaviour’? How is this being defined, and who is defining it? It’s good to see some mandatory accountability in the form of tracking discipline numbers and reporting them, but accountability is only one part of the equation. If districts are not taking action to address the disparities, reporting them doesn’t make that much of a difference.

And are schools adequately identifying disabled students? While there has been more of a push in recent years to identify and intervene when disabilities are observed in the classroom, there tend to be racial and class inequalities when it comes to diagnosis and treatment. Likewise, there are disparities in identification; a teacher may attribute differences in learning and communication styles to disability in a white child, and ‘bad attitude’ in a nonwhite child, for example.

The approach to this particular educational disparity seems to be focused on what ‘makes’ students ‘behave badly’ instead of asking whether teachers are being adequately trained to work with disabled students and asking what ‘bad behaviour’ is and who is defining it. It assumes that everyone should (and can) engage in specific patterns of behaviour and it suggests that ‘abnormal’ behaviour patterns should be punished.

Are students suspended for not using modes of communication familiar to teachers? For needing to stand or pace while learning? For needing a quiet environment for learning, and for becoming upset when one is not provided? For needing orderly and precise schedules? For not completing assignments they don’t understand or find impossible to finish? For attempting to create and maintain personal space? For expressing any number of needs and needing a space where they are accommodated? For tics in the classroom?

When nondisabled people are the ones defining ‘normal’ behaviour and deciding what is bad and worthy of suspension, inevitably you are going to end up with disparities in student discipline. When teachers are not provided with adequate training, when they are dealing with classrooms that have too many students in them, when they are being burdened with a lot of additional work outside the classroom, a tinderbox of circumstances is created and disabled students tend to lose.

Suspension is a serious punishment. Students missing a month or more of school is a serious problem. Until we reframe the way that we talk about classroom behaviour, we’re going to continue missing the heart of the problem.

This Is Not Education: Abuse of Autistic Students in Pennsylvania

Content warning: This post contains discussions about abuse of people with disabilities, including physical assault and the use of restraints.

Last week, a major civil rights lawsuit was settled in Pennsylvania when seven families agreed to accept five million United States Dollars to resolve a case they filed against a teacher and her superiors, arguing that she abused the students in her care and her superiors did not take adequate steps to address it. It is the largest case of its kind in history in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in US history. The teacher has already served six weeks for reckless endangerment; the question here isn’t whether she abused her students or not, but why the district failed to do anything about it.

These students were in elementary school. They were restrained to chairs using duct tape and bungee cords. The teacher stomped on the insoles of their feet, slapped them, pinched them, and pulled their hair. These nonverbal students apparently weren’t provided with communication tools that they could have used to report to their parents, which meant that the teacher was free to lie about the source of the injuries these children experienced while in her classroom. Horrified aides in the classroom reported it, and the teacher was simply reassigned.

The teacher’s defense was that she didn’t have training or support. This may well have been true. However, if that was the case, she should have recused herself from that classroom. Aides confronted her about her classroom behaviour and she said she ‘didn’t know how to stop.’ I’d say that asking to be taken out of that classroom would have been a pretty fucking good way to stop. If the defense to that is ‘well, it would have ended her teaching career,’ then may I suggest that a person who physically abuses children is not fit to be a teacher? That a person who feels that stomping on the insoles of a child’s feet is an appropriate method of ‘discipline’ is clearly not someone who should be in charge of a classroom?

‘We weren’t sure how a jury would view these facts, especially since children were involved,’ an attorney for the defense said, which is a polite way of saying ‘we are well aware that if this case had gone to trial we probably would have paid more than five million.’ The funds are being put in trust for the children, who, among other things, are in need of therapy.

There have been ‘hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and death related to the use of these methods on schoolchildren during the past two decades.’ The House of Representatives actually recently passed a bill addressing this issue, responding to a report from the General Accounting Office documenting abuse of school children across the United States.

The restraint of children with disabilities in school is, unfortunately, not at all notable. It’s a widespread and common practice and I see stories about it in the news practically every week. I’m sure a perusal through the recommended reading archives here would turn up several examples. This doesn’t make it any less vile or wildly inappropriate. I am heartened that legislation has been passed to address the issue, but outlawing abuse isn’t enough, and it’s clear that better training, accountability, and transparency are needed. The reports of those aides shouldn’t have been ignored. That district should not have reassigned the teacher to another classroom.

What is remarkable, and important to note, is that it takes a lot of money to take a case like this to court. Which means that settlements of this kind are only really available to families with at least some money. Even with lawyers willing to volunteer time, taking a case through the courts requires time, energy, the ability to pull supporting materials together, and patience. These things are not options for all families. Especially for parents with disabilities, the barriers to getting to court can be an obstacle so significant that even if they want to fight for their children, they might find it impossible to take a case to court.

Access to justice should not be dictated by social status and economic class, but it often is.

We shouldn’t have to pass laws saying it’s not ok to duct tape children to chairs, but we do.

Kids these days! The “Generation Y” panic, privilege, and erasure

Recently, I read this odd article, penned by Judith Warner, in the New York Times–one in a stream of many that detail how excessively awful the current generation of young people (read: young workers) is at putting its collective nose to the grindstone, sucking it up, and generally not acting like a bunch of brats, or something.

Many of us have heard about, or come into contact with, some of these bright young things. They are heralded — or, more commonly, blasted — as naive, entitled, too optimistic, and over-confident. In many of these articles, their numerous faults are listed: They don’t know how to dress professionally! They expect to march into the workplace of their choice and immediately start making a six figure-salary! They think they are perfect! They want praise all of the time! (Does no one who writes these sorts of articles stop to consider that many human beings want praise when they complete a task to the best of their abilities?) They have tattoos, dyed hair, and iPods! EVERYBODY PANIC, because the American workplace is apparently going to be dragged down by Generation Y’s entitlement, narcissism and laziness! This narrative, however, seems to apply mostly to a very specific subset of the population (and even the picture that accompanies the NYT article reinforces this): young, able-bodied, middle to upper-middle class, college-educated white people.

This erases, or conveniently ignores, a hell of a lot of folks who are not young, abled, middle/upper-middle class, and white. It erases young workers who may not have had the “expected” educational opportunities (such as college), or who had to take more than the expected four years to finish their degree, or who did not finish school. It erases people whose parents or family members may not have been quite so “involved” in their education, or in their lives at all. Of course, it also erases young people with disabilities — both those who cannot work, and those who want to work but who may be bumping up against various narratives such as that of the “entitled” Generation Y kid. Some of us have psychological issues or disabilities that put us completely at odds with the “overly-confident” and “entitled” stereotype that apparently befits the current generation — because we cannot stop worrying despite the fact that we are supposed to be totally optimistic and confident all of the time, always thinking that the roads leading to our perfect job will be lined with rainbows, fluffy bunnies, and gold.

Some of us have physical disabilities, chronic pain, or chronic illnesses that prevent us from working 40-hour weeks (or more); asking for accommodations or disclosing our condition(s), we fear, may make us look “entitled,” or like we do not want to put in the time necessary to work our way up — even if this is not the case. The fact is that many people, and many young people, with disabilities are already at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to the labor market and making a living. Not only are many people with disabilities, at least in the U.S., more likely to face lengthy stretches of unemployment and/or live in poverty regardless of age, but many face additional hostility, discrimination, and unreasonable demands, both in the workplace and from society at large because of their disabilities.

While I am not saying that these over-entitled Generation Y-ers don’t exist (I’ve had run-ins with quite a few of them, myself), I am struck by the fact that the narrative surrounding them is so dependent upon erasing or ignoring certain people whose bodies and experiences do not fit the “expected” attitudes about labor that have been traditionally upheld by American culture. Many of these attitudes, furthermore, rely heavily on binaries that reinforce who “counts” and who does not: You either work full-time, or you’re lazy. You’re willing to be mistreated in the workplace and do whatever it takes “for the job,” or you’re a wimp. Suck it up, or go home. If you’re not making enough money to live on or are poor, you just aren’t working hard enough. If you ask for “accommodations,” you’re asking for too much — just do your job! You have to work hard to “make it,” and if you don’t work hard enough, it’s your fault. If you don’t like your job or face daily mistreatment, you can always quit and find another one, right? But if you can’t, it’s your fault, and why did you quit that job, anyway? These attitudes surrounding work affect people with disabilities in a wide variety of age groups and generational cohorts, and this is a crucial part of why they are so important to critically question and examine.

The message for Generation Y, in general, may be “Get over yourself,” but the message for those who do not fit the characteristics of the “average” Generation Y worker is more severe — and ultimately more dire.

[Cross-posted at ham blog]