Friday, August 31, 2007

Jerry Lewis Renounces Telethon, Cripples MDA

This post is part of a group effort.

Jerry Lewis, comedian, actor and longtime fund raiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), held a press conference today too apologize for years of insulting people with disabilities during his MDA telethon. The long-running telethon has been criticized for years by the disability community for portraying people with disabilities as pathetic and half human. Today Lewis apologized for what he termed, "My enduring ignorance and insensitivity to people with disabilities. I want to stand up and be counted among the enlightened." When asked about the sudden change of heart, Lewis said that, "I was blind but now I can see." Additionally, he regretted the years of "turning a deaf ear and a blind eye" to the disability community's protests.

Lewis has decided to start a new telethon that will work with disability activists to raise money for organizations deemed worthy by the disability community rather than himself- a non-disabled person. Lewis commented, "It's time I took a stand alongside all of my wheel-chair using and otherwise disabled friends to fight against the medical model of disability." He added he "had been paralyzed with fear for years" by the possibility of becoming disabled but has come to realize that disability is natural. Additionally he noted that he looked forward to "opening the ears" of the non-disabled to community to his new understanding of disability.

Lewis said will omit any use of disability simulations on his telethon because many people with disabilities object to them on the grounds that one cannot simulate disability anymore than one can simulate being black or gay. Instead Lewis pledges to show videos such as "Talk" by the Disability Rights Commission in the United Kingdom which portrays the discrimination faced by people with disabilities in social situations such as dining out, professional ones such as applying for a new job and even within metropolitan infrastructure such as inaccessible public transit.

The MDA responded to Lewis' press conference by issuing the following statement: "Wanted: One famous person to run a telethon in order to raise money for a group of people by insulting them in order to pursue ends they largely do not support. Qualifications: Know little to nothing about disability but have a great many opinions about it. Position open immediately."

Lewis directed his final words during the press conference to the people he has offended in the past with his telethon: "No longer will I portray people with disabilities as pathetic because that's a really retarded thing to do. It's crazy to think that disability is anything other than a social construction. I know that may leave some of you speechless but I believe that all of us normal people will come to see the light and stop being so lame."

New School Year

As it stands I have 7 students on my caseload to begin the year with one student most likely beginning the year on tutoring - which means he won't attend my school. All of the students are returning students, none of whom are particularly difficult. I have one new educational assistant that seems like she's going to be pretty good and one returning assistant who, if God existed, would be God's gift to me.

I've also been selected to mentor a couple of teachers in my district who do my job at other schools. These are folks who are not new to teaching but new to the district and, I think, new to working with kids in a behavior program. It's quite possible that they have a good deal more experience than me in teaching and almost certain that they've got more special education experience since this is only my second year. My selection as their mentor speaks more to the fact that the pickings are slim for people returning to the job in the district.

There are two new assistant principals at my school this year since one of ours retired and the other was hired as a principal elsewhere. One of the new APs is new to administration and the other is a veteran. Seems like this is going to be OK too.

There are close to 20 new staff members at my school (out of 60) so there are a lot of new faces. My school is supposedly the toughest school in the district- which means most diverse really - so we had a lot of turnover.

I've got things pretty much together at this point. I'm enjoying my last non-contract week day (holidays aside) until June.

This will be my eighth year teaching. Here we go.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Gilliam does disability wrong

(Note: The following bit of writing contains spoilers regarding the movie Tideland)

Terry Gilliam, a director who has made a slew of great movies, including Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, also wrote and directed Tideland which I just got around to seeing this past week. The movie was largely panned due to its graphic content - though I found it approximately as controversial as Sesame Street.

I did however find its treatment of disability disappointing. The movie ends with Dickens, a person with a developmental disability, blowing up a passenger train that runs near his house using dynamite he stole from a construction site that he had been holding on to in order to do just this deed- which, according to the film, is because Dickens doesn't understand what he's doing. Not only has he most likely killed dozens of people, he too seems to die in the explosion. I'd like to do a little unpacking of two points.

1) The implicit message is that people with developmental disabilities are a threat to the (so-called) non-disabled world. This is a classic in film and literature (see, for instance, Of Mice and Men) and is the exact opposite of reality. The non-disabled world daily visits horrors upon people with disabilities and generally seeks a world devoid of "them". But film and literature would have you believe the opposite - that the disabled world seeks the destruction of the non-disabled world (see, for instance, The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Personally, plots to kill the able-bodied world by someone with a disability is not something I spend much time worrying about. It's disappointing that Gilliam would subject his audience to such malarkey.

It is the case that Dickens is in need of help. We could blame him for making errors in reasoning except that we know that his reasoning is atypical which makes those around him complicit in his acts. We could blame his sister, who is his caretaker, but she appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the death of their mother and disappearance of her lover. As always, we need to look at the lack of social services available to the majority of people with (and without) disabilities in this, the richest country in the world. We can, for example, give billions of dollars in "aid" to Israel and Saudi Arabia (and in this case "aid" means "weapons to kill people with") but we can't get a respite care worker to aid Dickens and his sister.

2) That Dickens dies implies that he simply cannot live in this "able-bodied" world. There is no place for him in the world that Gilliam shows us in Tideland. Again, this is a common theme that goes something like, "The safest thing for 'us' and the best thing for him is that he should die so he can never hurt anyone else." (Again, see Of Mice and Men for another "fine" example of this.) Gilliam, and the rest of us, should at very least become reconciled to the fact that the difference we label as disability has always existed and always will. We may be able to kill "them" off in film and literature (and we may attempt to do so in real life- see, for instance, the Nazis) but "they" are here to stay. When we accept that we might be able to start figuring out how exactly "we" are going to have a society that considers "them" as more than an after thought we'll be getting somewhere.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Audience in Performance

When I started playing music in middle and high school I was playing in bands that wanted to "rock" the audience. The music was designed to be audience friendly- though of course, we found it fun to play as well.

In college, when I started to play more difficult music (as in, difficult to listen to), I dismissed the audience as irrelevant. This was useful because when you play difficult music you can't count on an audience to respond positively to what you're doing so convincing yourself that you don't care what they think and that you're playing the music solely for your enjoyment is a practical defense mechanism. Though the music I played at the time was intensely personal in many ways and it was satisfying to play it in rehearsal with my band mates and we could even play shows to no one and still have fun, it was still obviously a lie that the audience was irrelevant.

Now that I play improvised music that is, by definition, different every night, I've started to rethink my ideas about audience. In improvised music, unlike in structured music, the audience can truly change the performance. For instance, if you're playing a structured song and you see that people are enjoying it- singing along, dancing, etc - then you might get excited and play your part more intensely or jump around but the music itself doesn't change much because it's preplanned. However, if you're making it up as you go along, as we do in my bands, and the audience (if we're lucky enough to have one) is visibly or audibly excited, it can literally change the music by affecting the decisions we make about what to play as we're playing. Case in point: when we played a punk show in Salt Lake City, we weren't sure if any one there was going to enjoy it. Five minutes into the first piece people in the audience were yelling encouragement and had their fists up in the air like they would if a punk band was playing. That's a shot of confidence that has to affect to music.

Furthermore, when we play different venues we have a lot of options for how to present the music. For instance, when we play a gallery show, we can assume the audience will probably have more patience and we can take advantage of that by allowing the music to develop more slowly. If we're playing a punk show, we generally plan to present our most intense and chaotic side more quickly. If you have a set of songs you play each night, you don't really have the ability to do this.

The reason I've been rethinking the role of audience is because I don't know whether it's a good thing to consider audience or to allow yourself to be affected by them in performance. Does it make it less honest? Or is it just a lie to attempt to ignore audience? How do we acknowledge the role of audience while still playing music that is true to ourselves?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Inclusive classrooom set up

An inclusive classroom set up should be uncrowded. I mean this in a few ways:

1) Students, regardless of whether they are typically mobile or use wheelchairs or other assistive devices, should be able to get around the whole classroom easily. The reality is that it's not always possible to do this because most schools were not built with inclusion in mind. We can do our best with what we've got by removing any furniture that isn't directly useful to our students. This means that if space is tight we toss our bulky teacher's desk and cabinets of materials that only we use. We make the aisles wide and try to create some open spaces when possible. Again, the reality is that most of us teach in classes that are too small for the number of students we have and as teachers we hate to get rid of anything. However, it's imperative that we do what we can in order to make it possible for all students to attend and be included in our classes.

Another word about why this is important: We've all felt like so much cattle in a pen when we've been squeezed into a tiny space with a large number of people. This is insulting just about whenever it occurs but extremely so when it's in an educational setting. Overcrowding in schools sends a terrible message to our students about the value of their education. Furthermore, when students with emotional and/or behavioral issues are added in, we have to assume difficult behavior will be the result. And it would be unfair to entirely blame a student for acting out in this situation.

2) Though hanging up posters and charts is very important, it's also important that it is clear to all students where they should be focusing their attention. I like hanging up charts to remind students of what we've been working on and as references for them. However, too many make it so that some students just block them out entirely as they home in on the salient information while other students who find it difficult to determine saliency (students with learning disabilites, ADHD, etc) lose their focus. Aside from being careful with packing our classrooms with furniture, we must be careful of packing our classrooms with visual stimuli.

3) Much has been written about the arrangement of desks in a classroom- whether all desks should be in rows or cooperative groups and whether the classroom should be arranged so as to clearly channel attention toward the front where, presumably, the teacher is standing or so that students are facing each other. In my experience it's important to pick a method and stick with it so that students are not wondering/worrying about where they will be sitting as they're walking to your classroom. Being able to balance students' needs for accessing other students at times while being able to work privately at other times is important and being able to make the transition between the two predictable and smooth will help many students shed their anxiety over seating.

As with all planning, we must considering that any student, not just the typical ones, may come to our classrooms and it will be our responsibility to include them to the full extent possible.