Monday, March 12, 2012

Disabilities: Physical and intellectual.

Some 30 years ago one of the kids in my family really struggled with school work. No matter how he tried he just didn't seemed to get it. No amount of tutoring or the extra attention seemed to be making a difference. Back then we would say that learning just wasn't his thing. That he wasn't cut out for this, perhaps he was just slower. You know, some children are just better than others at certain things. Sometimes you are just not able enough. Perhaps today he would've been diagnosed with a learning disability.  And instead of writing him off like they would back in the day they would've gotten to the root of his problems and create the right set of conditions for him so he could study and maybe even excel. The more we understand different types of disabilities, the more " you're not good enough" is not good enough of an answer. Still, it's a relatively new concept. Nobody questions if physical disabilities are real- it's something you can witness and see how it affects a person. If it's a matter of the mind, you still see a lot of people questioning if they are real or is it just an excuse, an easy way out or a call for preferential treatment. "We didn't have all those 'learning disabilities' when I was young" I hear often. While this may be true, we also had a number of kids that were just not keeping up and we were just accepting it as a fact of life.  I have a friend whose learning disability makes it difficult for him to understand math. Now, I can't fully relate to him or understand what it must be like, but if he is diagnosed by doctors and his condition is studied, it's obvious to me that it's real. Yet, one of his professors when he heard of his struggles said "I don't believe you have a disability". Nobody would ever dare say that to me, because I use a wheelchair, my right hand is spastic, my body gets tense, you can see how it affects me and when you see, you understand.  You understand that in certain situations I need help, that I need accommodation just to have a fair shot.

The different treatment of things that are physical and of the brain  in nature  is of course nothing new. The traditional approach in American tort law had different standards for people with disabilities. Traditionally in negligence,you have a duty to act like a reasonable person under the circumstances would. Physical disability becomes a part of that standard you are compared against- if you broke your leg,your duty is that of a person with a broken leg. If you have a mental condition you still have to act like a reasonable person under the circumstances. Historically, the reasoning behind it was simple. If you use a wheelchair, if you're blind or you have a cane the public can see that and act accordingly. They know what to expect and what to do  just to keep themselves safe.

Of course, Florida Legislature also drew distinctions between accommodating the two types of disabilities. Please read this statutory langauge:
"§ 1007.265.  Persons with disabilities; graduation, study program admission, and upper-division entry; substitute requirements; rules and regulations 
(1) Any student with a disability, as defined in s. 1007.02(2), in a public postsecondary educational institution, except those students who have been documented as having intellectual disabilities, shall be eligible for reasonable substitution for any requirement for graduation, for admission into a program of study, or for entry into the upper division where documentation can be provided that the person's failure to meet the requirement is related to the disability and where failure to meet the graduation requirement or program admission requirement does not constitute a fundamental alteration in the nature of the program."

From what I understand the "intellectual disability" language has only recently been removed from the section, finally treating all disabilities equally, but for the longest time they have been treated as two different animals  and limiting students' options to get a proper education. Because awareness and change of attitudes always takes time. And in time comes understanding and acceptance. This may not seem related but a person with a mental condition once told my mother that they envied me because people "see what I have" and are able to "pity" me. While pity is not the emotion I'm going for, empathy is not a bad thing. It must be so much harder to get your voice heard if people don't even notice your struggle and never stop to think what it must be like. It has to be difficult to stand up for yourself if there's nothing that appears to be visually "wrong" with you. And the temptation to do nothing, to not have to deal with being singled out because of some condition you have even at the price of not performing as well as you could, I imagine, is great. I've heard of people who would not even get diagnosed, who think they should just "suck it up", because of fear, because of the  shame they expect and the lack of understanding. Another friend who was diagnosed with a learning disability asked me once if I thought that learning disabilities will ever get the same level of care and awareness and protection in places like the work environment. And to this I say, the more we see, the more we understand these things as real, the less there is a tendency to brand them as  easy rides. And of course the more research that goes into the causes of some of those conditions (like the links between ADHD and food additives and colorants for example) the harder it is to dismiss them as character flaws. 

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