The return of Rudolph

Because I’m up to my tuchis here getting ready to prepare the chicken tamales, baklava, mince tarts, potato latkes and whatnot, here’s a re-run of a holiday-oriented classic post (from 2006):

TODAY’S QUOTE:
“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.”
~Albert Camus

There’s a newsclip kicking around the Web, from the CBS Evening News of February 23rd, 2006.  Normally I don’t pay attention to basketball.  Or baseball.  Or football.  Or hockeyball (joke).  This newsbite is different.  So different that CBS felt compelled to make a last-minute change in their programming plans to show this “incredibly powerful” story.
The newscaster explains, “Because he has been so devoted to the team, for the last game of the season, Coach Johnson actually decided to let Jason suit up – not to let him play necessarily, just to let him feel what it’s like to wear a jersey.”
And then near the end of the game the coach even lets him onto the court.  Finally getting to play in a game, rather than fetching water and toweling down sweaty team-mates, the basketball player made six three-point throws.  The crowd goes wild.
Gee, you’d think that a coach would want a player who could shoot like that to be on the court all the time …

View the newsclip now

The whole situation reminds me of how I felt every year when the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” animated Christmas show appeared on television. (links to show posted on YouTube; Rudolph introduced at 4:06.)  There was always something unsettling about the whole story of this reindeer with the glowing nose, and it wasn’t until late in my own high school years that I figured it out.
No one liked Rudolph because he was different.  In the beginning, his family tries to hide his nonconformity, covering up his nose with mud, but then Rudolph talks funny from the congestion.  Still, it is deemed better that Rudolph be perceived as talking funny, than for everyone to actually know the truth.  Eventually the disguise breaks down, and Rudolph’s glaring, glowing nose is revealed in the rough-and-tumble of playground mischief.  Everyone is horrified.  They always are when someone tries to “pass for normal” and is eventually outed.  People feel deceived, because the Other was not what they thought.
The reindeer games coach orders Rudolph away. So shunned, he leaves his North Pole village, joining up with another misfit, Herbie the elf, who wanted to be, oh horror, a dentist rather than a toy-maker.
A few years later there is a Christmas eve of such epically foggy proportions that Santa Claus cannot make his usual gift-giving rounds.  Santa realizes that he can still do so if Rudolph is allowed to lead.  Eventually everyone decides to tolerate the mutant reindeer, perhaps accept Rudolph a little bit, but only because he can be useful to them, lighting the way for Santa’s sleigh.  (Herbie gets to be a dentist, another occupation that is tolerable because it is useful to the others, rather than because Herbie has a passion for dental care.)
The program was made in the early 1960’s, coming off of the ultra-conformism of the 1950’s.  Everyone thought it was cute and sweet.  I couldn’t explain the intrinsic discomfort I felt as a child, not from viewing that particular show, or even in everyday life.  Nor could I explain why I identified so strongly with Rudolph or for that matter, the alien Spock from “Star Trek”.  When the neighbor girls compared me to the Professor from “Gilligan’s Island”, I couldn’t understand why that wouldn’t be a compliment – he was the only sensible one of the castaways!  But even the Professor, a quintessent geek (though thankfully neither of the foolish nor ugly duckling sort), was the odd one out.
The telethon poster child or “odd team-mate” is held up in the same way, but also held away at arm’s length, and Othered.  We’ll let him be on the team in an accessory manner because it makes us feel munificent, and because he might be exceptionally good at something we need.  (Were he merely mediocre, or even near or at the bottom of the list for overall skills, would he be on the team?)
But the mere fact that a team-mate is known more for being different than for any aptitude or acquired skill, and even the fact that stories about such people are circulated as ABSOLUTELY AMAZING! and exceptional shows that pity is still stronger than acceptance.
The problem with pity is that it creates division; it puts distance between people.
Pity prevents respect by implying inferiority; there is a humiliating lack of worth, because the person is defined by what they cannot do instead of what they can do.  Victims receive pity – but nobody wants to be a victim!
Pity is disempowering.  It does not decrease burdens by sharing resources and abilities. The people who see only the “broken” part are uncomfortable; that discomfort is a kind of Schadenfreude, a sense of relief that the bad thing (the disability) did not happen to you.
Pity is like magical thinking, where people want to give Fate some kind of token payment to avoid similar disaster from befalling them.
Pity is similar to both fear of the other, and to contempt for the Other; the Other must somehow have done something bad, and “deserved” their fate (as given to our social mores from the Puritan ethos).  Either way, it is dismissive of the person’s concerns, and denies their opinions, and their own personal view of reality.
Pity is not the same thing as compassion, where the other person is seen as being similar to one’s self, and is identified by who they are, is known for what they can do, and is accepted as being a worthwhile person to play with or work with, and to know and to love.
“Because he has been so devoted to the team, for the last game of the season, Coach Johnson actually decided to let Jason suit up – not to let him play necessarily, just to let him feel what it’s like to wear a jersey,” says the newscaster.
::BARF::
Meanwhile, too many people work endlessly hard at trying to “pass for normal”. The problem with pretending to be normal is that it gives power to the paradigm, to this concept of normalcy.  As long as the person is pretending to be whatever kind of average-normal they are not, they are devaluing themselves and allowing others to devalue them, and they are handing over their personal power to the realm of the imaginary Normal people.
Normal, average people are imaginary, because no-one is wholly average and normal.  However, the imaginary-normal people are a very real majority group.  They all pretend to be normal, and en masse they have majority power under that paradigm.
Wow, isn’t it absolutely amazing!  Autistics can play basketball.  Next thing you know, they’ll let Negroes or women play basketball …
Feh.

Getting permission

The last time I taught one of my gardening classes, I ran into an interesting intersection of personal change, horticulture, and pedagogy.
At the end of the sessions, the students have (optional) evaluation forms to fill out about the class and instructor. On the front is a ranking various qualities of the facility, the topic, the instructor and so on, and the back has open-ended questions about what you liked best, suggestions for improvement, other courses and what-not. These review forms are very helpful to both myself and the college.
During the last class, under the “what you liked best” section, I got a comment that I’ve never had in 15 years. Usually the positive remarks are about the handouts, the photographs, my sense of humor, and willingness to answer questions. But today one of the evaluations had minimal responses, aside from this comment: Continue reading Getting permission

I Will (not) Overcome

I’m not dissing a great protest song. I am however, getting really tired of the whole “overcoming one’s disability” cliché. For someone who does spend a lot of effort dealing with issues, that may sound odd. Why don’t I want to “overcome” my problems?
To overcome one’s disability does not just means to succeed in doing things in life that are personally difficult. It also carries the social and verbal subcontexts that one has not only succeeded, but also Continue reading I Will (not) Overcome

Box? What box?

When I first read this job advert, I began to weep. I didn’t know anyone else understood what it was like to be this sort of person – to have this kind of mind – much less that anyone out there valued it.

Miscellaneous Vacancies
Are you:
• A creative, articulate scientist with research experience in biological, medical, chemical, electrical, mechanical or materials engineering disciplines?
• A lateral thinker, passionate about science and your own discipline, yet able to think outside of the box and make connections to other fields?
• A great listener with highly developed interpersonal skills, with career goals in commercialisation, technology transfer or business development and able to manage relationships with clients in a highly fluid environment, respect confidentiality and work with people across all levels of an organisation?
Do you:
• Thrive on change and derive great pleasure from making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas?
• Get a buzz from finding new routes that others have not trodden before and yet would be comfortable with working collaboratively to develop your ideas and those of others without expectation of extra personal or monetary recognition?

Sadly, the closing date for the position had long since passed by the time I read it. But like so many dangerous ideas, knowing that such a thing even existed reverberated up and down my mental timelines.
In graduate school, the entomology professors didn’t understand how or why I kept making connections between ecology and learning disabilities. Such details were certainly not necessary to researching insect behaviour, no matter how much they might apply to some of the students in the department.
In a recent New York Times article, “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike”, Janet Rae-Dupree describes the “so-called curse of knowledge” where experts are so familiar with traditional means of getting things done that their expertise gets in the way of innovation. The article also describes how bringing in people who have other fields of knowledge, but who are not bogged down by the specialist jargon that reinforces and limits the current understanding, can free up boxed-in thinking and create new ideas.
It’s a conundrum how organisations (academic or otherwise) claim to want innovation, but are resistant to novel suggestions that often go against what everyone knows will work. But as the saying goes, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.”
More recently, an education professor was not only unfazed by my entomological background, but thought it “wonderful” and mentioned that Jean Piaget had worked on snail behaviour before working with children. I was flabbergasted. I so rarely get such unexpected, sincere kudos that such a moment can keep my spirits buoyed for weeks.
“Thinking outside the box” has always been easy – rather, it’s trying to figure out just what the hell others perceive as The Box that’s hard. I’ve spent decades struggling to understand what people’s boxes are like, how they construct and use them, where the boxes came from, and when I am supposed to intuit and conform to those boxes.
Unfortunately, because of everyone’s jargon-constrained knowledge boxes, it’s hard to describe my own kind of lateral, inter-disciplinary thinking. Trying to convince others that they can benefit from such seems almost beyond my abilities, as I’m not a natural salesperson who can schmooze and easily persuade others.
Meanwhile, I’m still buzzing about, looking for a good niche. At least now I have a few more um, “buzz-words” that will help me describe what I can offer.

Rudolph Redux

I’m trying to paint a small bedroom (doing so slowly, over the course of the day), which means no time for blogging.  But it’s also that time of year when the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” animated Christmas show appears on television.  There was always something unsettling about the whole story of this reindeer with the glowing nose, and it wasn’t until late in my own high school years that I figured it out.  Here’s a link to my post from last year, “Games People Play (off and on the court)“.
Some things never change.  ::sigh::

Liberation by Disability: the paradox of Competency and Inclusion

“Because there is no way for good people to admit just how bloody uncomfortable they are with us, they distance themselves from their fears by devising new ways to erase us from the human landscape, all the while deluding themselves that it is for our benefit.”
~Cheryl Marie Wade

Disability is usually defined by what a person cannot do. But outside of the normative social realm, disability is really about how a person does things differently.
Within the cultural status quo, the onus of being “acceptable” for consideration to being included by others, is placed upon the person in question, rather than by those who are creating the standards and are choosing to accept or not. Frequently, inclusion must be “earned” by first Continue reading Liberation by Disability: the paradox of Competency and Inclusion

Wicked Good

This is SO cool! The Disability Rights Commission put together a video (split into Parts 1 & 2). The official description for Talk:

The award-winning ‘Talk’ portrays a society in which non-disabled people are a pitied minority and disabled people lead full and active lives. Jonathan Kerrigan, of BBC’s ‘Casualty’ fame, plays a business executive whose negative preconceptions of disability are dramatically shattered.

“Coffee-spew warning”: their official description doesn’t begin to describe the wicked-good bits; they’re absolutely spot-on with digs at disablism!
This particular version is both subtitled (open-captioned) and signed. I think that’s signed in BSL; someone kindly let me know. Be sure to scroll downpage for the Part 2.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSG6LGutkHo]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpdyIYEmrs8]

 

Asking questions

Well, it’s horribly hot outside, which means that the classrooms are either quite stuffy and humid-sticky, or due to HVAC design errors, uncomfortably cold for 95% of the personnel using them. The faculty, staff and students are all yawning from screwed-up sleep schedules, and from being bombarded with mind-numbing amounts of new information, masses of new people to become acquainted with, and multiple changes in their schedules. In other words, it’s once again the first days of school.
Once we get past the obligatory, “Here’s what we’re gonna learn, and here’s the class rules” lecture, we get to finally sink into the actual teaching-learning part of the class. Alas, there is a definite sinking feeling in the classrooms, as for the first few periods of the day many of the students are still half-asleep (a few gave up and have totally succumbed), are often suffering from low blood-sugar levels because they skipped breakfast, and/or just generally cannot rouse enthusiasm for studying biology, algebra, government or whatever subject was given to them for 7:40 a.m. (Omigod, these are teenagers — if pedagogy actually followed research-based practice, none of them would have class until 10 a.m. when they would physiologically be ready to be awake. But of course, that would –godforbid– mess up the sports practices.)
So the teachers are desperately trying to keep their charges engaged by encouraging dialog. You say, “Let me know if you have any questions.” Judging by the general lack of responses regarding the lecture topic, the blank stares, and the mass confusion when given labwork and projects, the students should be asking questions. Or, should be asking more appropriate questions.
But actually, this issue is not the proximate question of, Continue reading Asking questions

What I Learned From the Bugs: Alienation and Othering

“Great truths are sometimes so enveloping and exist in such plain view as to be invisible.” ~Edward O. Wilson

I went to study Entomology, and four years later found that I had discovered far more about my own species than I had about insects and other arthropods. What I learned about humans was enlightening, and often very disquieting.
Frequently, if you can’t see something, it’s because it seems normal and appropriate. Alienating and Othering so permeates the many facets of culture as to be invisible.
Take for example writings about people, either individuals or groups. These can be works of fiction, clinical accounts, self-help or parenting or therapy books, historical or sociological analyses, in fact, any sort of book whatsoever that refers to people with differences. (I was going to say “differences from the norm” but we also find this in books about women, and surely half the population has to be considered a “norm” from a sociological if not a statistical perspective.)
Frequently such accounts use the omniscient writing perspective, which makes it very easy to Continue reading What I Learned From the Bugs: Alienation and Othering

The Privilege of Being Clouted By Cabbage

Yesterday I went to the grocery store.
I wandered up and down the aisles, repeating a few aisles in my (typically ADHD-forgetful) journey to fetch the items on my list (and I still forgot a couple of items, despite using a list). I selected various pieces of produce and only had one head of cabbage leap from its cruciferous ziggurat to hurl itself at my feet. (I was examining a pineapple at the time – what is it with kamikaze produce?) I paid for my groceries, uneasily navigating volleys of largely meaningless chit-chat from an exuberantly loquacious checker. I loaded the bags of groceries into my vehicle, and drove home. Aren’t you thrilled.
Doing all that was possible because I am privileged to do so.
Privilege means Continue reading The Privilege of Being Clouted By Cabbage