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:

Free, life-changing, and available to everyone. Provide freedom to those who deal with a world that’s built to be hostile toward them.

Public education and open source. Let’s help people get free, for free.

“Free, life-changing, and available to everyone” and “provide freedom to those who deal with a world that’s built to be hostile toward them” are ideas I steer by.

“Free, life-changing, and available to everyone” is what I and my peers in WordPress and open source work for. It’s what teachers work for in public education. NeuroTribes invokes this rallying cry for the commons in its introduction.

He told me that he wanted the code to be like Jesus in its own humble way: “Free, life-changing, and available to everyone.”

Source: Silberman, Steve. NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (p. 2). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The code mentioned above is Perl, an open source programming language I have a long relationship with, and the he is Larry Wall, creator of Perl and a big influence on me. I first read NeuroTribes when it came out in 2015. I was an undiagnosed autistic father with a newly diagnosed autistic son, and there on page 2 of the introduction of a book that changed my life and worldview are “free, life-changing, and available to everyone” and “there is more than one way to do it”, two ideas that, thanks to Larry Wall, have influenced my entire career.

On a bright May morning in 2000, I was standing on the deck of a ship churning toward Alaska’s Inside Passage with more than a hundred computer programmers. The glittering towers of Vancouver receded behind us as we slipped under the Lions Gate Bridge heading out to the Salish Sea. The occasion was the first “Geek Cruise”- an entrepreneur’s bid to replace technology conferences in lifeless convention centers with oceangoing trips to exotic destinations. I booked passage on the ship, a Holland America liner called the Volendam, to cover the maiden voyage for Wired magazine.

Of the many legendary coders on board, the uncontested geek star was Larry Wall, creator of Perl, one of the first and most widely used open-source programming languages in the world. Thousands of websites we rely on daily- including Amazon, Craigslist, and the Internet Movie Database- would never have gotten off the ground without Perl, the beloved “Swiss Army chainsaw” of harried systems administrators everywhere.

To an unusual and colorful extent, the language is an expression of the mind of its author, a boyishly handsome former linguist with a Yosemite Sam mustache. Sections of the code open with epigrams from Larry’s favorite literary trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, such as “a fair jaw-cracker dwarf-language must be.” All sorts of goofy backronyms have been invented to explain the name (including “Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister”), but Larry says that he derived it from the parable of the “pearl of great price” in the Gospel of Matthew. He told me that he wanted the code to be like Jesus in its own humble way: “Free, life-changing, and available to everyone.” One often-used command is called bless. But the secret of Perl’s versatility is that it’s also an expression of the minds of Larry’s far-flung network of collaborators: the global community of Perl “hackers.” The code is designed to encourage programmers to develop their own style and everyone is invited to help improve it; the official motto of this community is “There is more than one way to do it.”

In this way, the culture of Perl has become a thriving digital meritocracy in which ideas are judged on their usefulness and originality rather than on personal charisma or clout. These values of flexibility, democracy, and openness have enabled the code to become ubiquitous- the “duct tape that holds the Internet together,” as Perl hackers say.

Source: Silberman, Steve. NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (pp. 1-2). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

“Provide freedom to those who deal with a world that’s built to be hostile toward them” is a recently acquired phrase. I picked it up from this HeroPress piece by Topher DeRosia, “Accessibility Where It Matters – HeroPress”.

One of the things that I’ve always loved about WordPress is how it provides things to people. It provides a living to those who have none, it provides community to those without one, and it can provide tools to those who need them.

Amanda Rush is blind, and navigates a world that is often hostile to blind people. WordPress developers work very very hard to make the WordPress software usable by people with no sight.

A wonderful by-product of that is that Amanda and people like her can build a career for themselves, without depending on a physically friendly workplace and a physically friendly transit.

WordPress provides Freedom to those who deal with a world that’s built to be hostile toward them.

Source: Accessibility Where It Matters – HeroPress

Through WordPress (and by extension open source software), I’ve improved my circumstances, become more self-sufficient, and I’ve been able to assert some control over my life in general. It’s improved my employment prospects drastically, which means I no longer have to work whatever low-paying odd jobs I can find to keep the bills paid. I believe that it can help other blind people as well. We have an eighty percent unemployment rate in this community.

We’re still fighting discrimination in the workplace, and we’re still fighting for equal access when it comes to the technology we use to do our jobs. But the beauty of WordPress and its community is that we can create opportunities for ourselves.

With WordPress, we can make decisions for ourselves, and have all kinds of help along the way from the community. I urge my fellow blind community members to join me inside this wonderful thing called WordPress. Because it will change your lives if you let it.

Source: Finding Freedom in WordPress – HeroPress

“Provide freedom to those who deal with a world that’s built to be hostile toward them.” That is a clarion call for both open source and public education. I hear the social model, intersectionality, structural ideology, equity literacy, designing for pluralism, and designing for real life in these words.

Public education and open source. Let’s help people get free, for free. Let’s get structural, get social, get equity literate, and build an indie ed-tech that confronts injustice instead of amplifying it.

Free, life-changing, and available to everyone. Provide freedom to those who deal with a world that’s built to be hostile toward them.

See also,

Equity Literacy in Diversity and Inclusion Statements

Our diversity and inclusion statements need to get structural, get social, and get equity literate. Use them to directly challenge the meritocracy myths, deficit ideologies, and politics of resentment that are toxic to culture, teams, and collaboration.

I evaluate D&I statements by the extent to which they acknowledge and represent these ideas:

The Direct Confrontation Principle: There is no path to equity that does not involve a direct confrontation with inequity. There is no path to racial equity that does not involve a direct confrontation with interpersonal, institutional, and structural racism. “Equity” approaches that fail to directly confront inequity play a significant role in sustaining inequity.

The “Poverty of Culture” Principle: Inequities are primarily power and privilege problems, not primarily cultural problems. Equity requires power and privilege solutions, not just cultural solutions. Frameworks that attend to diversity purely in vague cultural terms, like the “culture of poverty,” are no threat to inequity.

The Prioritization Principle: Each policy and practice decision should be examined through the question, “How will this impact the most marginalized members of our community?” Equity is about prioritizing their interests.

The “Fix Injustice, Not Kids” Principle: Educational outcome disparities are not the result of deficiencies in marginalized communities’ cultures, mindsets, or grittiness, but rather of inequities. Equity initiatives focus, not on fixing marginalized people, but on fixing the conditions that marginalize people.

Source: Basic Principles for Equity Literacy

With this in mind, my purpose is to argue that when it comes to issues surrounding poverty and economic justice the preparation of teachers must be first and foremost an ideological endeavour, focused on adjusting fundamental understandings not only about educational outcome disparities but also about poverty itself. I will argue that it is only through the cultivation of what I call a structural ideology of poverty and economic justice that teachers become equity literate (Gorski 2013), capable of imagining the sorts of solutions that pose a genuine threat to the existence of class inequity in their classrooms and schools.

Source: Poverty and the ideological imperative: a call to unhook from deficit and grit ideology and to strive for structural ideology in teacher education