Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Jonathan Mooney calls out our 'rhetoric of differences'

By Louise Kinross

Author Jonathan Mooney has a brilliant piece in the New York Times' disability series this week: You are special! Now stop being different (illustration by Dadu Shin).

In it, he recounts how the education system's focus on fixing, instead of embracing, his attention and learning disabilities stomped the creativity and self-worth out of him, and left him a depressed school drop-out at age 10. "I spent hours a day being fixed," he writes. "I was turned into a 'patient' who needed treatment rather than a human being with differences to be empowered."

I interviewed Jonathan in 2010 after he graduated from Brown University and published The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal about his trip across the U.S. in a yellow, special-ed bus to meet kids and adults who've been told they're broken. It was one of my all-time favourite interviews.

What Jonathan finds in these folks is beauty, strength and a common humanity. "If you watch the strange, the other, the bizarre long enough, if you really see these people, you will find familiar pieces of yourself in their experience," he writes in that book. 

What he nails in his New York Times' piece is the way American culture preaches a "rhetoric of differences" and love of the individual, but as soon as a kid starts kindergarten, the message is "sit down, keep quiet and do what everyone else is doing." 

In reality, "all of us, even the so-called normal, move in and out of states of ability and disability every day," he writes. 

Jonathan notes that he still can't spell or sit still, but his success is built on "using support and technology to mitigate my weakness and build a life on my strengths."

He calls for a civil rights movement that rejects the idea that disability is the problem and calls for schools and workplaces flexible enough to include everyone. "We have to fight for every person's right to be different," he says.

I've never heard disability rights expressed that way. But it makes perfect sense. It's a rejection of sameness and convention.