That’s Not a Disability

That’s Not a Disability

Teach the child how to use their powers and that child will accomplish great things.

Cognitive diversity isn’t some floofy liberalistic ideal in opposition to a reality in which the lion eats the slowest among us and that’s all there is to it. Human beings have over tens of thousands of generations developed a diverse array of cognitive adaptations because it is highly advantageous to our survival and prosperity as a species. Put simply, we all benefit when different people bring different strengths to the table. Shamefully, our schools aren’t set up for it.

Here’s an experiment: make a video of yourself drawing a number line from negative three to three. How did you label the negative numbers? Did you label the 1, 2, and 3, and then go back and add the negative sign to each, or did you write each negative number with the sign before writing the next one?

It seems common sense that there are many different pathways that yield the same result. How you labeled your negative numbers reflects how you view them. You might view negative as merely a property that numbers can have, so that -2 and 2 are basically the same number with a different sign. Or, you may view -2 and 2 as different but related numbers.

Both are correct, but what’s important is that we embrace both kinds of people in order to be successful as a society. For something simple as drawing a number line, this is easy. But there are many adaptations we grossly underappreciate. Our schools are not equipped to handle people who think differently. Worse, people whose brains process information outside the narrow band of normalcy are shunned, treated harshly, and branded names like ‘dyslexic,’ ‘autistic,’ or ‘ADHD.’

Look at how we name them learning disabilities.

In the X-Men comics, people are sometimes born with a mutant gene that imparts some kind of superpower such as the ability to read minds, control metal through telekinesis, shapeshift, heal yourself from injury, teleport, and so forth. Despite the obvious advantages, however, normal people look down upon such mutants as with disdain and sometimes outright hostility. Mutants are forced to either suppress their powers or live as outcasts.

There’s another underlying theme to the X-Men, though, that if you’re not in control of your superpowers, your superpowers will be in control of you.

In 2014, I taught at a school that used online coursework as the sole curriculum. This was a school for students who were unsuccessful in the traditional classroom for reasons such as pregnancy, incarceration, drug addiction, poor academic performance, and so forth. Students would sit at a computer four and a half hours each day and take these online classes, and they were expected to ‘close’ about four or five chapters each day.

Bob (name changed to protect the innocent) did not close four or five chapters per day. He closed about two or three each month.

Bob was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a disease so bad they had to give it two derogatory terms. ADHD people have the ability to what is called ‘hyper-focus,’ meaning they can zone in on a task at the expense of everything else around them. They have difficulty switching between focal tasks; forcing them to switch can frustrate them, which leads to loss of focus, loss of attention, and ultimately in the classroom, behavior problems.

It’s quite an amazing superpower. ADHD people can learn at an astounding rate and retain information better than most normals. The trick is to allow them to use it. At this particular school, the students were expected to take notes on these online courses. There was a specific form they were to fill out and a specific way in which they were supposed to take notes. And if they failed in this endeavor, I was supposed to write them up. I figured the obstacle in activating his powers was the constant switching between the online course and the notes he was supposed to take, and so I told him to put away his notes and focus his full attention on the screen in front of him.

He looked at me funny.

“Don’t take notes?” he asked me.

He closed nine chapters that day, seven the following day. He didn’t go one day after that closing less than five or six. I do not exaggerate; he went from a problem kid to one of the highest achieving students in the school after one conversation.

We expect students to take notes; it’s intuitive. They’re supposed to. And us teachers are supposed to grade them on the quality of their notes and look down upon them if they take poor notes. Indeed, many students benefit from note-taking, and others NEED it. But for ADHD students, forcing them to constantly switch between lecture and notes destroys them academically.

Dyslexia is another one. I edit for other writers often, and sometimes I edit for a writer with dyslexia. I can speak from experience that they do tend to have difficulty with the mechanics, but if you look past that you may find that dyslexic people tell the best stories. Their creativity is enviable. And yet they, too, are branded with a disability.

It’s a shame that rather than teach our children to use their superpowers for maximum effect we call them deficient. And every step of our educational process reflects this reality. We teach children to suppress their superpowers and try to be normal. When they can’t, we drug them.

Research has shown that teams solve problems faster when there is cognitive diversity and each member is allowed to employ their unique style of thinking to the problem.

Teach the child how to use their powers and that child will accomplish great things.

This is cognitive diversity.


Michael Patrick Lewis is a teacher, math nerd, and exhausted father of two. Check out my latest book, A Dance to Remember, a gripping romance that will leave you in tears. You can also find me on Twitter @fakeMikeLewis.

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