This last week at the Bread Loaf School of English, my team-taught class had a visit from Professor Brenda Brueggemann (University of Connecticut) and Professor Susan Birch (Middlebury College) to talk about their experience and work with disability studies and with what Brenda called the “temporarily able-bodied.” This class session produced a series of passionate and insightful postings from teachers in the class, all of whom work with students with various disabilities, but few of whom had studied much about such teaching. They had a number of “a-ha” moments. Maya wrote:
Yesterday’s engaging lecture left me contemplating about disability narratives. I believe in the “danger of a single story” (Adichie’s term), and I was thinking that this would be a powerful way to frame lessons on identity for students and ourselves. The idea that we try to write a tale of overcoming adversity with disabilities and her use of the term “trump identity” resonated with me. I participated in few activities at my last school dealing with multiculturalism and identity (Wildwood School inspired). One of which involved selecting parts of our own identities (using gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, bodied [sic], age, religion, language, geography, education on small pieces of paper). We started out with all of the identity cards, but then had to narrow it down to the most salient identities, and eventually to a “trump” identity. It was interesting to think about and discuss which identities floated to the top and which ones we were able to let go of—and to see how we were similar or different from our own colleagues.
Brueggeman mentioned, “Disability is not a problem to be solved.” She described the disability problem as one that shows a limit of imagination. I loved that eloquent description, but in talking to someone else about this I had trouble articulating how disability is not a problem even if one greatly benefits from medical intervention and innovation. Just because prosthetics or hearing aids exist doesn't mean that a disability is a deficit in identity or imply that they are “less human.” But, I felt like I had an inadequate explanation. How do I convey that disability is not a problem? I realized I feel much more comfortable discussing the variety in ways that we learn as in learning differences—coming from a school that had a significant LD population (~30-40% in the class). I feel much less confident in discussing physical disabilities.
Amber added this:
During the talk yesterday, it was also mentioned that often our only stories about disability fit into orderly narratives about overcoming a problem. We were reminded yesterday of Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” and the need for a multitude of stories. Multiple narratives are messy, but as my Aunt Mabel used to say when she was cooking, “The sign of a good cook is a messy kitchen.”
Others wrote of their own experiences in teaching large classes including many students with disabilities – but with few if any resources and no real training in how best to teach such students. A few reported feeling despair. But the class discussion with Brenda and Susan, at last, gave them some good vocabulary (“well, I guess, I am ‘temporarily able bodied,’ but already I know I have pretty poor eyesight. I’m guessing that that ‘temporary’ is going to be very temporary for most people.”)
I’ve known Brenda Brueggemann since her graduate school days, and I’ve been inspired by her work for decades. If you haven’t read Lend Me Your Ear or Deaf Subjects: Between Identities and Places, I recommend them both, or any of Brenda’s other amazing scholarly work.
Perhaps I was once “temporarily able bodied,” but I’ve written before of a cognitive disability I discovered only in graduate school: great difficulty visualizing things. I learned to deal with that issue (as Brenda says, not a problem to deal with by “overcoming” but a part of my identity). As I write this, I am losing vision to macular degeneration. Another part of my identity.
So today feels like a good day to reassess, once again, what I know about teaching and learning with students with disabilities. Of all kinds. To hear/see some of Brenda’s insights, check out “Why I Mind on YouTube.”