Thursday, April 10, 2003

Does institutionalized schooling help disabled kids, or create them?

The current vogue for cochlear implants, and the associated difficult finding classes in Sign for intact Deaf children, is yet another example of how institutionalized schooling (and mainstream society) inevitably ends up imposing conformity on students. All kids assigned to the same grade (based on their date of birth) are expected to do and learn the same things at the time. Those who are on a different timetable, if they differ "too much", are diagnosed with "learning disabilities" (or "giftedness"). The ones who are too active to put up with sitting at a desk all day are drugged, and now the deaf kids are surgically altered to suit the system.

I know there is a big desire to mainstream disabled kids by getting them into the same schools as nondisabled kids, but the more I learn about institutionalized schooling the more I am convinced that it will always be problematic for everyone. Even the best teacher in the world cannot truly know and meet the needs of the 20 to 30 kids in the class.

I am determined to continue unschooling my son.

Recently, my landlord asked me, how can unschoolers know if their child is learning disabled?

I replied that the concept of learning disability is controversial. Kids vary a great deal in when they are ready to learn different things--for example, my son learned to walk when he was 16 months, but my landlord's daughter learned to walk when she was 10 months. This doesn't mean that my son is "walking disabled" or her daughter is "walking gifted"—they both learned to walk, and in the long run who cares what age they started? Kids also vary greatly in when they are developmentally ready to learn to read—some kids teach themselves at 4, others don't get it until they are 9 or 10 but in a few years you can't tell the teenagers who were early readers from those who started later. But by putting them in the institutionalized schooling system which demands that everyone do the same thing as their agemates, these differences suddenly become a problem, and are pathologized.

I would like to dismantle institutionalized schooling and the associated societal attitude that everyone should learn the same things and have the same abilities. Instead society seems to be moving in the other direction, with more drugs, surgeries, genetic screening, etc. to ensure our children are more uniform. And here in Canada there is talk of extending the school system to younger children. Maybe at some point in the future the 16-month-old walker will be diagnosed with some kind of disability because he isn't following the system's timetable.

This article first appeared in a slightly different form on the Bioethics Yahoo! Group.