“Something has to happen to change the direction
What little filters though is giving you the wrong impression
“it’s a sorry state” I say to myself”
– from “Words”, Missing Persons: Spring Session M (1995)
It seems a lot of people are wondering about words. Words are for communicating, right? I mean, what else would you do with them?
Well you could play with them. Puns, anagrams, double entendres are all ways of playing with words. But even these word games depend on the same thing that clear communication requires, that words have weight. Some words are moonbeams and others sumo wrestlers.
Those metaphors only work because we have knowledge in common; the same force that gives words meaning.
Logicians will tell you that words don’t have inherent meaning, that they aren’t the things they describe. Cow doesn’t give milk, its just a name for the particular mammal whose milk most people drink. Say or write ‘cow’ and everyone has the same general idea. Our common agreement about words appends meaning to them.
I bring this up because of a little debate about what particular words mean is going on at Kate Says, my friend Kate Olson’s blog. The debate started with an item from the Traverse City Register I posted on Twitter:
“I am different, not disabled,” is written by a young woman named Kim Kelderhouse who tells about how transferring to a school that used different words changed her attitude about herself and her education.
“To me, a learning difference = how one learns. A learning disability = a biological event which interrupts or disables learning.
I want to be part of the solution, too, but I think we need to call things what they are, and not sanitize them. There’s already too much of that.”
And one by Karen Jankowski that started this way,
“I use the terms interchangeably and do not believe it is sanitizing. Students are not labels; adults use the labels to help the students receive the specialized instruction they need to make effective progress, but the kids are not their labels. And often times, it is the curriculum that causes the ‘disability.’”
There were a few other comments, most along the lines of Karen’s.
Here’s what I had to say,
Differences and disabilities are not the same thing at all.
One of the things that everyone, but especially teachers, should understand is that the things we call disabilities are all context-dependent and school is the most debilitating context of all. Only in school do we expect a student to excel in all areas. The part of life that does not occur in school is much more forgiving.
Everyone has abilities and everyone has disabilities. Reading, for example, is very important and I have a pronounced inability to read. I can decode, but I lack fluency and comprehension. Despite that I am a successful writer in several genres, a teacher and a broadcaster.
I do have a serious, almost complete reading disability, but the disability is limited to reading music and is not much of a problem unless I sit down at a piano. Context is everything.
Most teachers consider ADHD undesirable in students but, again, disability is context-dependent. I have worked in small businesses for much of my life, a business manger hired by individuals who have a common entrepreneurial trait: ADHD. They are full of energy and ideas, but they need someone stable and focused to make their businesses work;
So you see, most of what we call learning disabilities is really ability exercised in the wrong context. We teachers have the responsibility of manipulating the context of our classrooms to allow students to develop and express their different abilities.