Learning Curve

What It's Like To Be Disabled

“This film changes people’s lives,” Dr. Martha Rose, a professor of special education at Salve Regina University, told me. “I’ve seen teachers transformed by it.” The film, How Difficult Can This Be?, is a PBS documentary about Rick Lavoie, an educator with many years of experience in the field of learning disabilities. I took Martha at her word and ordered a copy of the film to share with my colleagues here in India. She was right. The film has changed our lives, and we are doing our best to make sure it changes a few others.

As part of our work in disability here, the organization I’m with runs an awareness campaign to increase public understanding of the subject and to inculcate a spirit of acceptance when it comes to differences. We offer many approaches, ranging from seminars, workshops, and lectures to more interactive exercises in which people experience what it might be like to have a disability. This is fairly simple to do with physical difficulties, visual handicaps, and hearing problems. We put someone in a wheelchair and ask her to negotiate a gravel driveway or a flight of stairs. We give another participant a pair of dark glasses smeared with Vaseline and ask him to get from point A to point B, using only a map with very small print. We give a third person earplugs and a motorcycle helmet, then start a conversation and get visibly exasperated when she doesn’t respond. Participants report that the exercises have made them think about disability in an entirely new way.

Mental handicaps and learning disabilities, on the other hand, are notoriously difficult to simulate. How do you design an activity in which intelligent participants experience what it is like, even after great effort, not to be able to understand the simplest instructions? How Difficult Can This Be? manages to do it.

In the movie, Lavoie is filmed conducting a workshop. Through a series of amazingly effective exercises, he leads a roomful of parents, educators, and other professionals on a journey to understanding. By the end, they have experienced firsthand what it is like to have dysnomia (difficulty with finding words), auditory processing difficulties, perception problems, comprehension problems, and dyslexia; and have come to understand how each of these difficulties can affect one’s ability to function in the world.

For example, for children with language-processing problems, listening and talking are both demanding cognitive activities. If asked a question in class, for example, these kids first have to fully process the meaning of individual words. While their classmates are already raising their hands to give the answer, these kids are still figuring out what each word in the question means. When the teacher asks: “Who invented the light bulb?” the child says to herself: “OK, who? That must mean it is a person. Invented, that’s got to mean he started whatever it was. Light bulb, that thing that we switch on...electricity...oh, right, I know that!” But when she raises her hand to answer, she finds that the rest of the class has moved on to geography.

We can try to understand such impairments by reading about them, but the reality only sinks in when we experience them. Lavoie has the group tell a round-robin story. Each participant adds a sentence to a story that builds as it goes around the room. The first time is easy, as each person simply adds to what the previous person has said. In the second round, though, he makes the experience of speaking cognitive by adding a rule: no word in any sentence can contain the letter n. Suddenly, everybody starts to sound just like kids with learning disabilities. They make it halfway through a sentence and then get stuck, unable to complete their thought because they can’t use the word they want and can’t think of another one fast enough. Their sentences come out truncated and silly, and Lavoie, playing the part of the typical teacher, snaps his fingers and taps his feet, reminding each stammering, struggling “child” that the whole class is waiting.

The entire film is like this. But brilliant as each individual exercise is, the real masterwork is Lavoie’s ability to show us in how many ways we undermine and humiliate children who are having difficulties. Sarcastic one-liners (“Earth to Carol; come in please, Carol”), intimidating rhetorical questions (“Did I ask you to speak? Is your name Debbie?”), and negative, defeatist remarks (“How many times do I have to explain this to you?”) are, sadly, still standard classroom practice in many schools.

Here in India, it may be worse. My colleagues and I have shown this film to audiences all over our city, and the tales we have heard of what many children experience have been painful. One woman said that her five-year-old had come home and asked what duffer meant. His teacher called him that every day and even had a special bench reserved for three children she called “prize duffers.” Another woman told us of a child whose teacher had written on her forehead: “This brain will never understand math.”

Education is a wonderful field, full of professionals of the highest order—people who understand children and how they learn and how to help them when things go wrong. But perhaps more important than the skills and the training every good teacher should be required to master are qualities harder to acquire: courtesy, respect, and simple human kindness.

Published in the 2005-10-21 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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