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Monday, October 1, 2012

A Note from the Mouse Who Wanted to Be the Farmer's Wife

Image of cartoon character mice with sunglasses and canes chasing after the back of a booted farmer's wife.
A Note from the Mouse Who Wanted to Be the Farmer’s Wife

Megan A. Conway, Ph.D.
RDS Managing Editor

“Three blind mice…see how they run…they all ran after the farmer’s wife, who cut off their tails with a carving knife…”

See what happens when a blind mouse challenges the farmer’s wife? Obviously this little nursery rhyme has been through more literary and sociopolitical analysis than anyone has time to contemplate, but I think it is a rather fitting analogy for where people with disabilities are at in the barnyard of education. It’s just fine if we are skulking in the corner nibbling on bits of leftover grain, but the minute we come out to play with the humans, BAM.

As a deaf-blind person who received her doctorate in Special Education from an esteemed university, I have to admit that I do have some biases when it comes to the topic of Special Education and educators in general. When I went into education, I wanted to make a difference for others like me and blah, blah, blah. I thought it was weird that I was the only one with a disability in my doctoral cohort—no, make that my entire doctoral program. People with disabilities must just not be interested in education? Or perhaps they did not “qualify”? Anyway, it soon became apparent that most of the special education professors and doctoral students I was working with did not know what they were talking about. Okay, so I am not being fair. I did learn a lot about how to count (and the deep meaning of) the number of times someone does “repetitive head banging behavior.” However, when I tried to turn the topic to something that I saw as meaningful, such as, “Why the heck won’t you guys facilitate my participation in this class by using my assistive listening device,” I was met with eye rolling and that look of non-gimp solidarity: “Oh here she goes again.”

Over a decade later, here I go again. Being a noble and worthy academic, I decided that I needed to pull apart my unscholarly biases by doing some online research. It is easy to find statistics on children with disabilities in special education, since from day one they are identified, branded with the scarlet “S” and put to work. Here’s what I found.

Some fast facts from the National Center for Education Statistics:

  • ·       13% of all children enrolled in public schools receive special education services.
  • ·       38% of these have “learning disabilities”
  • (
  • ·       15% of all special education students, and 48% of those with an intellectual disability, spend more than 60% of their time outside a “regular” classroom.
  • ·       21% spend “from 21-60%” of their time outside the regular classroom.
  • ·       48% spend “less than 21%” of their time outside the regular classroom.
  • (

I thought this was a strange way to present statistics on inclusion, “The percent of students with disabilities who spend between a low percent and a high percent not in a regular classroom.” And are lunch and recess considered “time in the regular classroom” (I’ll bet they are). These numbers don’t really tell us very much, so I have interpreted these statistics for the layperson in a less optimistic fashion:

  • ·       Almost half of all students with intellectual disabilities spend over half their time in a segregated setting.
  • ·       Nearly one quarter of all special education students spend half their time in a segregated setting.
  • ·       Only half of all special education students spend less than a quarter of their time in the regular classroom.
  • ·       Five percent of all public school students have been diagnosed with a “specific learning disability.”

I was pleased to find out that the Department of Education still views Special Education as a privilege (privileges are cool)!

Special education services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are available only for eligible children and youth. Eligible children and youth are those identified by a team of professionals as having a disability that adversely affects academic performance and as being in need of special education and related services.” (

Oh dear. I found that I was having a hard time putting my biases to bed. Let’s just say I was only seeing what I wanted to see. I decided to investigate how many teachers and postsecondary faculty there are with a disability. So I did a Google search and came up with…not much. Apparently there is some difficulty in identifying anyone past the age of 18 who has a disability because of “confidentiality” concerns. Funny how when you are in primary and secondary school you are supposed to wear your disability like a badge of shame (or courage) but when you turn 18 you are best advised to hide it. JAN does address the question of educators who have disabilities, without actually giving us a real answer (the statistics are a bit of a leap of faith, sorry JAN):
Question: How many educators with disabilities are working today?
Answer: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly four million educators, specifically teachers, working in preschool to secondary settings were employed in the United States in 2006. In addition, there were close to 1.7 million professionals who taught in post-secondary settings, ranging from four year colleges and universities to technology and culinary schools in that same year (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). If disabilities affect one-fifth of all Americans (Census Bureau, 2008), then close to 1.1 million educators, from preschool teachers to post-secondary professors and instructors, could be in need of job accommodations.” (

Twenty percent of teachers and higher education faculty are disabled? Where are these people?  Not on my block, baby. The fact is, we have no idea how many teachers or professors have a disability, but we can speculate that they are highly underrepresented. If 20% of the population has a disability, and ?% of educators have a disability, where does that leave us? In the corner of the barnyard, nursing our wounded tails. 

Image of a knife with wooden handle, tip down.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

DIS: Divine Comedy

Dis (Divine Comedy)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
In Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy, the City of Dis (in Italian, la città ch'ha nome Dite, "the city whose name is Dis")[1] encompasses the sixth through the ninth circles of Hell.[2] The most serious sins are punished here, in lower Hell. Dis is extremely hot, and contains areas more closely resembling the common modern conception of Hell than the upper levels.

  Lower Hell, inside the walls of Dis, in an illustration by Stradanus. There is a drop from the sixth circle to the three rings of the seventh circle, then again to the ten rings of the eighth circle, and, at the bottom, to the icy ninth circle.

Dis Editorial
Megan A. Conway
RDS Managing Editor

You would have thought it was enough that I have blindness on the eyes and deafness on the ears. Not to mention the creaking in my joints – what a pain. But now I’ve got “Dis”.

It seems that Dis is always coming up. I am on my way to work, riding the number 6 bus and praying that I get off at the right stop, because Dis Van, called the “Handivan” in Honolulu I kid you not, takes me half way around the island just to go eight blocks. I flash Dis card at the driver, who tells me that I no longer get a free ride the way I did a year ago because the government is cracking down on Dis population. But I get half off the “normal” fare, so Dis counts for something.

I’m at work and the first thing that pops up on my screen is Dis news flash, “Funding cut for Dis program but Dis is nothing to worry about.” I can’t believe Dis, but Dis day is just starting. The next email is about Dis memo that I have to submit to our fiscal department so that I don’t have to pay the difference in airfare between the flight I’ve booked for Dis business trip on Hawaiian Airlines, and the “lowest available fare” that happens to be $13.56 cheaper. I booked the Hawaiian Airlines flight because it’s the only transpacific airline where the bulkhead actually allows room for Dis Dog and my legs (ask me later about Dis time I stood up for the full 5 hour trip between San Francisco and Honolulu). So Dis only stands to reason. But when I explained Dis to fiscal I got glazed eyes until I specifically mentioned Dis as a “special accommodation” and then I got happy looks and lots of emails about multiple memos.

I have Dis meeting in the afternoon. I’ve learned Dis lesson for the day, so I blast off a reminder email regarding the “special accommodation request” that I made several days ago for the meeting because of the blindness on the eyes and deafness on the ears.  Only before I did not call it a “special accommodation request” but I was assured that Dis is no problem. When I arrive at the meeting Dis request has been completely ignored and they say, “Why didn’t you tell us about Dis?” I say, “I’ve been making Dis request for Dis organization for the past 3, 795 meetings that I’ve attended. How can you be surprised by Dis?” And they say, “Dis is not our fault. Dis is your fault.”

So I get mad and I go home. I can’t take Dis any more. What is Dis, anyway? I calm myself. Dis is real. Dis is you, but Dis is not you. Dis is mostly everybody else.

Dis is my day. Dis is my life. 

Image reads "puppies - they're just like DIS!"

Monday, April 30, 2012

Into the Light

Editorial: Into the Light

Megan A. Conway, RDS Managing Editor 
Download the entire Volume 8, Issue 1 of the Review of Disability Studies at
Download a podcast of this editorial at

Photo from the Miracle Worker of Annie restraining Helen.

Photo of Annie spelling into Helen's hand.

My seven-year-old daughter had to do an oral poster presentation on a famous American. She chose Helen Keller, a choice guided in large part by me, always anxious to counter the social perspectives of disability as weakness and everyday things as miraculous already bombarding impressionable young minds in the first grade.

There is a girl with a disability I will call "Mary" in my daughter's class. Well, Mary is sort of in my daughter's class, which is to say Mary sometimes appears for lunchtime and special activities such as birthdays or field trips. When Mary does come to the classroom, she sits passively at her almost-always-empty desk with "Mary" printed at the top in large letters. Her name proclaims the truth of what is not apparent - that Mary is indeed a member of Room One. Mary is always accompanied by, or rather tethered to, a classroom aide. The aide's sole purpose seems to be to keep Mary from participating.

Case in point. I brought my hearing dog into the classroom to give my annual talk about "working dogs help people with disabilities and by the way people with disabilities are just like you." As expected, Mary was there, and as expected, she was sitting in the back of the room where she was least likely to cause a disturbance, or rather most likely to cause a disturbance because she couldn't hear what I was saying or see the pictures in the brightly illustrated children's book I was reading about "My Buddy the Service Dog."

Cover of book "My Buddy" picturing a boy in a wheelchair with Golden Retriever by his side.

 After the story and a handful of eager questions from my audience such as, "What happens when Buddy has to go to the bathroom?" I sat with my dog while the children came up one by one to pet him. At last it was Mary's turn, and the aide manhandled her to the front of the room while Mary, not surprisingly given that her hand was being given as an offering to a large furry animal with sharp white teeth, was resisting. "No, no," wailed Mary, pulling away as the aide stood behind her, blocking her exit and shoving her towards me. "Hey," I said, "Let her go. She doesn't have to pet the dog. Step away aide! Mary can come on her own if she wants to."

The aide was in such shock she actually did what I said. She stepped back, ready to pounce on Mary if necessary, but releasing her arm from the death grip.

Mary got the most wonderful expression on her face. She stood there, surrounded by empty space, free, for a split second, to decide. And of course, as I had expected, she decided to come forward. She reached out her arm and she patted my dog, and then she gave me a great big smile, full of light, full of understanding. And then she was sucked back into the grip of the person meant to enable her.

But I was talking of Helen Keller, and my daughter's poster presentation. The assignment was to paste photos of the famous person on a large sheet of paper, along with captions describing why they were important. We had prepared for this assignment by reading from a biography of Helen and, since the biography was a little dry for a seven-year-old, watching a DVD of "The Miracle Worker."

"What did you learn about Helen from watching the movie?" I prompted.
"She was deaf-blind."
"Okay, that's right, and what else?"
"She slapped people."
"She slapped people. She knocked her teacher's tooth out. It was so funny!"

My first reaction was, "You can't put that in your report, that she slapped people! Surely there is something nicer than that you can say about Helen Keller!" So we wrote that Helen traveled a lot, and she was friends with Alexander Graham Bell, and she met Presidents, and she showed the world that deaf-blind people can do anything. I was incensed that Helen was always portrayed as a Savage who was rescued from darkness by the Savior, Annie Sullivan. Isn't that just the way of society, I fumed, idolizing someone because they became normal against the odds?

And that made me rethink my reaction to, "Helen Keller slapped people." What was slapping people but exerting her own sense of self, her right to want a doll, and to want it now. She was expressing her resistance against doing what she was told, doing what she did not understand. If Helen slapped Annie, it was because she was self-determined, because she had a sense of her own person as distinct from others and of herself as exerting control over her world. In bringing Helen "into the light" the essence of that self-determination was lost, at the expense of being able to express herself in a way that was acceptable to others.

One of the great conversations, if you will, about Helen Keller was her relationship with Annie. Because Helen relied on Annie for just about everything, the question arose of "who was Helen and who was Annie?" What of what Helen said was from Helen, and what was from Annie? My personal opinion is "what does it matter?" Together, they were two remarkable women. Apart from each other they were remarkable too. That was Helen the author, socialist, traveler, actor, dancer, speaker, thinker. But was she self-determined? Did she ever slap someone after she figured out that "water" was the stuff coming out of the well in the backyard? Not likely, because the mission of Annie, of Helen's parents, of the Perkins School for the Blind, of society, and of Helen herself, was for Helen to behave as if she were normal. That behavior involved giving herself over to the unseen hand of decorum. What part did "no" play in that equation?

Later that night, after my daughter was asleep, I took out the poster and wrote, "Helen slapped people," in small print, perhaps where the teacher would not see it, at the bottom of the page.

Clip art of a man being slapped by a woman's hand.