Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Disability Literacy

Dear Jules,

I'm going to change tacks for a second and think about disability; I'm teaching a class about neurodiversity, which is a fancy way to say that everyone's brain is different, and we should celebrate that.  What we as a society call "disability" just means that our brains work in different ways: if you're blind or deaf or have Down Syndrome or autism, different centers of your brain will process, well, differently.

In my class, I will have my students first think about their own "disability literacy," or their practices of "reading" disability.  How do we learn how to respond to disability?  We might feel uncomfortable, or look away, or not know what to say, or even tell a new parent "I'm sorry" upon hearing of a diagnosis.  I would have done all of these things before I had you, and before I became privileged to be a member of an amazing disability advocacy community.

I've had this horrendous headache for a week now (sinuses, as you know, are the pitts), so I took a break to watch an episode of a show I'm teaching for my class, Switched at Birth.  This ABC Family show examines stereotypes around the deaf community through a soap opera-type plot: a deaf girl and a hearing girl are, literally, "switched at birth."  The new families must then come to terms with their new daughters and their extended communities, including the deaf community.  The show isn't perfect, but I'll be showing my class one episode done entirely in ASL--it forces hearing people to be the outsiders, to read the captions, to be privy to a different way of communicating.

So today I'm watching an episode and (spoiler alert) learned that one of the minor characters' ex-girlfriends is, in soap opera fashion, pregnant.  Then, at the end of the one episode I was going to limit myself to, the girl, in tears, reveals to Daphne, the deaf character, that she took a genetic test and that the baby...has Down Syndrome.

And the screen fades to black.

I was really, really upset by the end of this episode.  I mean, why not just add the sound effects:  duh...duh...DUH!  It felt like when you find out someone has died, or someone is cheating.

But I kept watching, and I continue to be impressed by what this show is doing.  In the next episode, when the pair thinks about getting an abortion ("it often destroys marriages," the young man says), the writers have Daphne talk to her brother, the baby's father, about the fact that she, too, was born "different."
"Well, that's not the same thing," her brother argues adamantly.  "You're deaf, you don't have Down Syndrome."
The point she then makes is that disability is just a social construct, and that deafness, Down Syndrome, or anything outside the "norm" require adjustment, but they enrich our world.

Still a bit cheesy, but then they added this episode to the mix:

I'm so happy the writers decided to add this story to this already progressive show: to showcase this young couple's struggle, show some of their challenges, and ultimately reach a wide viewing audience with the message that neurodiversity is a beautiful thing and that, as we all keep saying, our kids are more alike than different.

I think I will show some of these clips to my students next semester.  For all that the media often gives us a distorted sense of disability ("despite all odds, this kid graduated high school" or "can you believe it?  This person is an athlete") and, even worse, stresses pity over acceptance, this show is, for the most part, doing it right.

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