Tag Archives: Special ed

Identical behavior, contrasting responses


This post has been forming itself in my head ever since I went to both a DD self-advocacy conference and MIT within the same week last May. I’ve just for whatever reason not had the chance to actually write it.

I really enjoyed spending time at MIT. People there accepted me more or less as I was, and accepted a lot of other disabled people as well. In fact, their entire Human 2.0 symposium, that happened while I was there, dealt with the fact that disabled people get a lot of technology before other people do, and was about how technology that could enhance everyone’s lives was being developed specifically for disabled people all the time.

At some point there, I had a bad migraine and needed to lie down. They allowed me to lie down backstage under a table. I expressed fear over this. They were shocked and said that people lie down on the floor all the time at the Media Lab, that it was just part of how the place worked, and that they couldn’t imagine why I was afraid to lie down in public. I didn’t know where to begin with the sort of cascade of connections that went through my head more than ever at that point, but a steady stream of which had been falling through my head the entire time I was there.

In May, I went from a self-advocacy conference for people with developmental disabilities, to MIT. This involved an extreme contrast in what the lives of many of the people there were like, in terms of what sort of person they were classified as by society in general. In other ways, there was no contrast at all.

When I was younger, I went from assorted programs for students classified by the educational system as “gifted”, to assorted programs for people that the educational and medical systems had written off with a whole variety of labels. There was a great contrast between the way people were treated. There was, yet again, less innate contrast between the people involved than most people imagine.

If I were to describe being places where people routinely ate non-food items; had a variety of unusual tics; appeared to believe things that most people would call delusional; found it impossible to learn in regular classrooms; looked at first glance (and had been thought to be by others) what most people call “crazy” or “retarded”; were frequently under the care of neurologists, psychiatrists, and other such professionals; had unusual mannerisms and postures and behavior that in most places would be considered bizarre; and frequently had pretty extreme delays in areas like self-care; which one of these places do you think I’d be talking about?

If you thought special ed… the answer is yes.

If you thought mental institutions… the answer is yes.

If you thought gifted programs… the answer is yes.

I made the transition between these situations more abruptly than most, so I was able to see the similarities and the contrasts very starkly. Most people who have been in only one or the other situation, or whose transition between one and the other situation is gradual, or whose perceptions of other human beings come pre-filtered and pre-packaged to the extent that they see great differences merely based on what classifications the people belonged to… these people would not necessarily observe these things. I did observe them.

Lying on the floor is one of the things that starkly cuts through all of these situations in my memory.

I remember me, and a lot of other people, lying on the floor at places like nerd camp and other gifted programs. We were seldom, if ever, chastised for it.

I remember a tall boy in a mental institution who tried to lie on the floor in the hallway. I remember staff converging on him and saying they would have to do something about it. He wasn’t hurting anyone. He wasn’t even blocking anyone’s entrance to anywhere. Another inmate tried to say so. The staff told her that he needed to learn to do as he was told and needed to learn to look appropriate. They called for reinforcements, since he was a really big guy, and then grabbed him and carried him off to the isolation room while he fought them. His fighting them was seen as a symptom of a violent nature, rather than the natural reaction of someone who has been grabbed by several people to be carried off to a small, locked room, for doing something he considered totally normal.

People don’t always realize this simple fact: Lots of people do the same things for the same reasons, regardless of how they have been classified by the medical profession. Once the people doing these things are in an environment where their every move is watched and pathologized, they can get in trouble for it, or get put on an extensive behavior program for it. My ex-boyfriend ate paper and most people saw it as an eccentricity, because he was labeled gifted. There were a lot of people who ate paper in other settings, probably for the same reasons my ex did, whatever those reasons were (I never asked). People put them on behavior programs for it, because they were considered to be doing it “because they didn’t know any better” (and whatever anyone said in public, it was obvious they thought of a lot of us as “crazy” or “stupid” or both, and thought those to be the reasons we did anything they didn’t like).

I used to be unafraid of doing things like lying on the floor, even sleeping on the floor. Psychiatry made me afraid and called that an improvement. I walked into MIT afraid, and they were astounded at my fear, and disgusted at the sources of it.

I went through gifted programs terrified of when someone would discover that I understood less than they thought I did (in sociological terms I was aware, as few others were, that I was discreditable, but only partially discredited). But because of the privileged life I’d led in terms of that classification, while I legitimately feared being put in mental institutions and labeled, I never dreamed that I would become afraid of as innocuous actions as lying on the floor, running around squealing in happiness, or a number of actions that were deemed totally normal in the environments I lived in. But I did become afraid of those things.

For three days, twenty-nine staff members at Elgin State Hospital in Illinois were confined to a ward of their own, a mental ward in which they performed the role of “patient.” Twenty-two regular staff played their usual roles while trained observers and video gameras recorded what transpired. “It was really fantastic the things that happened in there,” reported research director Norma Jean Orlando. In a short time the mock patients began acting in ways that were indistinguishable from those of real patients: six tried to escape, two withdrew into themselves, two wept uncontrollably, one came close to having a nervous breakdown. Most experienced a general increase in tension, anxiety, frustration, and despair. The vast majority of staff-patients (more than 75 percent) reported feeling each of the following: “incarcerated,” without an identity, as if their feelings were not important, as if nobody were listening to them, not being treated as a person, nobody caring about them, forgetting it was an experiment, and really feeling like a patient. One staff-member-turned-patient who suffered during his weekend ordeal gained enough insight to declare: “I used to look at the patients as if they were a bunch of animals; I never knew what they were going through before.”

from The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo

And that’s what happens during what people know as an experiment. Imagine being put in such a situation because something about you was deemed pathological, by people who viewed you as such.

I enjoyed my week at MIT. But every moment I was there, I was conscious of what an autism “expert” had told me, which was that I didn’t belong at a university at all (if I ever get an MIT business card, she will receive one in the mail). I was conscious of being a privileged member of what was otherwise considered an outsider-caste to that whole system, conscious of this in a way that even with my fears I had not been conscious of prior to experiencing being shoved into the typical environments of that caste once others discovered my place in it. I was conscious of a society that tolerates and even celebrates certain behavior among those it considers highly intelligent, while condemning others to torture for the exact same behavior because they are considered either not intelligent enough, or too crazy, or otherwise deviant, or some combination of the above.

And I came home to my own apartment, where last week a staff person felt he had the right and even the obligation to report to my case manager that I was grumpy in the morning before breakfast (edited to add: in fact, he never made me breakfast, or lunch either). How many of you out there who share this morning grumpiness trait with me have it reported to a case manager and put in logs that would normally go into your permanent record, and even treated as signs of your overall personality?

(I should note that even many of those considered “highly intelligent” do, have, various, labels, and things like racism and classism can greatly influence what label a person gets. If I were anything other than white or middle-class, I might have had very different sets of labels much earlier.)

It’s because of experiencing the extremes of this so rapidly and close to each other, sometimes in such combination with each other (because my life can’t just be sliced up into two categories without any complexity to them), that simply having my normal behavior accepted at MIT for a week isn’t good enough for me. I won’t be satisfied in this regard until everyone else with a psychiatric or developmental label (or who would get such a label in certain situations) can enjoy the same freedom to be themselves in completely harmless ways, and the same level of inclusion in society and decision-making that affects us, that those of us considered “highly intelligent” often enjoy, and until nobody gets written notes in their official record for being a grumbly grouch before their morning breakfast or coffee.