Normal Sucks: Author Jonathan Mooney on How Schools Fail Kids with Learning Differences

I’m a big fan of Jonathan Mooney’s neurodiversity advocacy. So much of the work of neurodiversity and disability advocacy is getting folks to reframe from the medical and deficit models to the social model. Mooney is good at this reframing.

Here are some selected quotes from a recent interview with Mooney at Longreads where he shares his journey through school and reframes deficiency as difference.

Reframe these states of being that have been labelled deficiencies or pathologies as human differences.

The ultimate thing we should be fighting for is to not have to pathologize yourself to get your individual needs met. Something’s wrong with a system that requires parents and children to say, “I am sick or defective.”

We need to have universally designed systems designed around the reality of human variance opposed to the myth of human sameness.

We privilege some brains over other brains. We privilege some bodies over other bodies. And that gets embedded in our institutions.

There is conscious and unconscious bias about people with a whole continuum of atypical brains and bodies. And when we judge someone’s intelligence based on their spelling and we rule out their capacities as a human being because of their bad handwriting…,we are participating in a subtle and yet very powerful form of institutionalized ableism.

Accommodation is fundamentally about not changing the person but changing the environment around the person.

It’s going to be not fixing what’s wrong with them that changes their life, it’s gonna be building on, celebrating, and scaling what’s right with them.

When we say that somebody “overcame” dyslexia, cerebral palsy, whatever it is, we imply that that state of being is inherently deficient and it’s a problem inside of them.

I didn’t overcome dyslexia; I overcame dysteachia.

It’s not a problem in the person; it’s not a problem with the difference; it’s a problem in the interaction between a difference and a context built for the myth that we should all be the same.

Elevate ableism as one of the injustices of our world.

I’m tremendously optimistic about the broad cultural movement around equity, diversity, and inclusion. And I think we need to hold on to that as a culture. And we need to demand that that core philosophical and ethical commitment to having a world that doesn’t just work for some, but works for all, starts to come into our systems and we to some real difference in our systems. I think we have to fight for that. It ain’t going to happen on its own.

Source: Normal Sucks: Author Jonathan Mooney on How Schools Fail Kids with Learning Differences

Mooney is an engaging and inspiring talker. Give the entire episode a listen.

More from Jonathan Mooney:

Neurodiversity, the social model of disability, intersectionality, and equity literacy are necessary professional development.

As my neurodivergent and disabled family navigates healthcare, school, and life, I wish over and over that the professionals we interact with knew something about neurodiversity, the social model of disability, intersectionality, and equity literacy. We spend so much time educating folks in hopes they’ll gain the framing needed to see our family.

These are essential frameworks that every professional should be conversant in. In my experience, corporate harassment and discrimination training doesn’t really go into any of these. Wishing it did. Let’s bake them into our annual training and our company cultures. Let’s bake them into the curriculum for everyone. Those wanting to do ethical, inclusive, and informed work need to do the work of obtaining these tools.

Here’s my attempt at an introductory primer that got some good feedback on Twitter this week:

Design is Tested at the Edges: Intersectionality, The Social Model of Disability, and Design for Real Life

Further, we need MESH in our schools, our companies, and our professional development:

View at Medium.com

We all need these lenses and tools. Start baking them in so that the most marginalized and vulnerable people don’t have to provide free emotional labor and education over and over and over. It’s exhausting.

For “All means all” to actually apply to neurodivergent and disabled and marginalized kids, public educators need these tools.

To avoid building behaviorism and bias into our systems, tech workers need these tools.

Everyone working with other people need these tools.

Foregrounding of Complexity as the Baseline

Neurodiversity and the social model for bodyminds are about the “foregrounding of complexity as the baseline.”

I foreground all of this to underscore that there is a neurological difference, or a spectrum of neurology, that must be attended to. The movement for neurodiversity is not interested in homogenizing experience. We are different and we require different accommodations. On the other hand, my interest is not in the neural per se, which I find quickly loses its usefulness in such discussions, particularly in the ways it can be taken up in the humanities and the social sciences as an explanatory category. The neurological is only one point of departure for the question of autistic perception, and of autism more broadly.

So I would say that the concept of the neuropolitical is not particularly interesting to me. I want to support the movement for neurodiversity because I find it exciting and deeply important in its foregrounding of complexity as the baseline. And I want to think about the ways in which an engagement with neurodiversity affects how we think of the political and how we effect change. The political emphasis here is less on neurology than on the question of how normative modes of being subsumed under the unspoken category of the neurotypical organize experience, and how an engagement with neurodiversity changes the questions we ask and the actions we support.

Neurotypicality is a grounding narrative of exclusion. The neurotypical is the category to which our education systems aspire. It is the category to which our ideas of the nuclear family aspire. And, it is the category on which the concept of the citizen (and by extension participation in the nation-state and the wider global economy) is based.

In the context of education, which is the one I am most knowledgeable about, the mechanisms for upholding the neurotypical standard are everywhere in force. Every classroom that penalizes students for distributed modes of attention organizes learning according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that sees the moving body as the distracted body is organized according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that teaches predominantly for one mode of perception is organizing its learning according to a norm. Every classroom that knows in advance what knowledge looks and sounds like is working to a norm.

Intelligence, understood as the performance of a certain kind of knowledge acquisition and presentation, is built on the scaffold of neurotypicality as the unspoken norm. To speak of the normative tendencies of education is not new. My concern is with what remains largely unspoken in that conversation. Having “special needs” classrooms upholds neurotypicality, for instance, as the dominant model of existence. Drugging our children because of their attention deficit is upholding a neurotypical norm. Sending our black and indigenous children to juvenile detention centers in disproportionate numbers is upholding a neurotypical norm which takes, as neurotypicality always does, whiteness as the standard.

To engage with neurodiversity is to speak up about the extraordinary silence around neurotypicality and to acknowledge that we do not question ourselves enough as regards what kinds of bodies are welcomed and supported in education, and in social life more broadly. It is still far too rare that we discuss neurotypicality as that which frames our ways of knowing, of presenting ourselves, of being bodies in the world.

Source: Histories of Violence: Neurodiversity and the Policing of the Norm – Los Angeles Review of Books

“We’re advancing inclusive design now in Tech — which means that everyone’s individual identity and/or state will compete with each others’. Working collaboratively needs to become the norm.”

Source: John Maeda’s #DesignInTech

Previously: