Everyday Activism: What We Do with Disability

For the past year, our department has included an essay from Temple Grandin’s The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s in the reader designed for entry-level composition courses. The excerpt is called “Teaching How to Generalize,” and I assign it for several reasons. For most students, this brief essay provides the first glimpse of Grandin’s writing and experience of autism. At the start of our discussion, the students who have encountered autism in some form usually say a version of the following comments:

  • “Well I knew an autistic kid in school but I don’t think he could have written this!”
  • “A girl at my high school had Asperger’s and was really socially awkward. Now I know why!”
  • “Is Temple autistic? Really?”
  • “I had no idea autistic people could communicate like this.”
  • “I feel so fortunate that I know how to put things in basic categories [a struggle Grandin articulates in the essay].”
  • “Life would be a lot harder if I was autistic.”

I don’t nurse a dream of turning all my students into occupational therapists. I know better than to assume that the essay will mark a moment of life-changing epiphany. I don’t expect the ceiling to open at the skylight and fill my classroom with the golden light of empathy, compassion, and genuine respect for disabled people as people. But I do believe in the power of small changes.

So I tell them to read “Teaching How to Generalize” and watch Grandin’s TED Talk, entitled, “The world needs all kinds of minds.” I use Grandin’s straightforward titles to explore certain rhetorical elements – purpose, context, audience. If she calls her talk, “The world needs all kinds of minds,” then we know she is arguing against the common belief that some minds are valueless. She speaks to the precise group who dismiss autistic thinking as a complete setback, something to be cured or eliminated. From her title alone, we can construct the system of rules that governs her composition – the forces she supports and the forces she opposes. We can build a context for Grandin’s work.

We discuss how society places less value on the autistic children who aren’t little Grandins, the ones who struggle to tie their shoes and verbalize their thoughts. We talk about how using the word savant to represent a genius requires us to establish a lack of value for the non-savant.  Traditionally, to emphasize something means that something else must be de-emphasized. To treasure and laud savants means that we may discard or ignore non-savants.

Aside from the content, Grandin’s essay is a paragon of concision and clarity. Each of her sentences pulls its own weight, and I challenge students to find the single word or phrase that could be omitted. They don’t usually find anything to strike out; Grandin has carefully constructed a literary machine. I encourage them to take her as a model when writing their own papers. I don’t insist that they all sound like Grandin, but I want them to begin casting off the habitual tendrils of “nothing words” that have crept into their writing. They’ve learned that long strands of saying nothing make their writing sound smarter, and I want them to reexamine this mythology.

We place Grandin’s essay beside her TED Talk and discuss the costs and benefits of each medium. Students acknowledge that both essay and lecture will reach different audiences, use different rhetorical strategies. I silently rejoice that this intense dose of Grandin requires them to face a new story of autism in two different media. As students articulate the learning styles suited to text or video, I congratulate myself on presenting a three-dimensional figure of Temple Grandin – a figure that engages their eyes and ears. I hope it is a figure they can’t ignore easily.

During a 2010 interview with Penn State, Grandin said that she devotes a third of her time to autism and the rest to her career. She recognizes that it’s important for her to continue her career in Animal Science, but she also wants to be a presence in the autistic community, giving talks, writing books, and stressing the importance of mentors, work experience, and early therapy. Her attitude suggests that her presence in everyday activities is an activism in itself.

Purposeful integration into society will change people’s ideas more completely than any rally or lecture. By continuing to do her job, Grandin asserts her right to be there, to be visible and active in her professional community.

From personal experience, I know that this kind of integration isn’t always pleasant. Often, it’s awkward, presenting a steep learning curve for the nondisabled person who has never experienced a blind woman and for me, the frontierswoman waving the “Welcome to Blindness” flag. I wave this flag every time I step up to a cashier, and she fumbles with my debit card or doesn’t look at me. Sometimes she broadcasts her diffidence by mumbling or trying to hurry me along. In this situation, it’s my duty to encourage her to interact with me. I keep my voice up, extend my hand, and ask her for the help I need.

“If the amount is right, you can press the OK button,” she says routinely, not looking at me. (Yes, I can tell because her voice isn’t directed my way.)

“Would you mind helping me? Is it this one?” I point with the electronic pen at a blue blob on the screen. “Every one of these machines is different.”

“Oh, sure!” Her voice lifts as she reaches across the counter and directs my hand.

Though this interaction achieves a pleasant result, its few agonizing moments are not pleasant. I am readily reminded of how some people do not really see me – they see a white cane and dark glasses, signs of unconquerable difference. Each time, I must change their minds, and it’s an exhausting labor.

But I can’t imagine NOT doing this. I can’t imagine stalking away angry and upset, frustrated by the awkward treatment or refusing to explain my needs. If I can keep calm and breathe, if I can take the time to patiently describe my situation, most people will come around. Then whoever comes next, carrying the “Nice to meet you: I’m the 2nd blind person you’ve met” flag, will have an easier time.

Perhaps this flag business is why I insist on teaching Temple Grandin. I don’t have to teach her; there are other readings in the book. But I want my students to treat the disabled people they encounter as people, as “second flag” bearers. If I can help them dispense with the awkwardness they think they need, then we can begin to dismantle the disabling attitudes surrounding physical and mental difference.

This post was inspired by “Are You Coping?” a recent post on Blind Spot, a blog I recommend. 

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