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CONTRIBUTION · 12th February 2010
Carrie Chapple
One of the problems with definitions of normalcy is that they are arbitrary, based on social perceptions which often have little basis in fact, and which may pathologize individuals or groups. Take homosexuality for example. It used to be included in diagnostic manuals as a psychiatric disorder, and was widely, and unsuccessfully, treated, before researchers such as Kinsey make it clear that sexuality is a fluid continuum, and that homosexuality is not something that could be “cured.” Such discoveries led to a paradigm shift that had far-reaching social consequences in terms of employment practices and definitions of the family. Not long ago, I reread Ursula K. Leguin’s book, “the Left Hand of Darkness” which brilliantly illustrates Kinsey’s findings. Her fictional characters change gender, thereby making any individual capable of being father, mother, or both.

Similiarly, PMS is listed in the DSM-IV, thereby converting the natural fluctuations of a woman’s cycle into something deviating from the norm. Pregnancy is yet another natural phenomenon which, when taken out of the hands of midwives and placed in the male-dominated realm of the physician, became something requiring medication and hospitalization.

As a young girl, I read a wonderful science fiction story about a sighted man who lived in a sightless world. He, rather, than the other blind occupants, was different, “disabled” by his vision, which dominated, and impaired, his other senses. There are films, such “Rainman” and “House of Cards” which demonstrate that persons with autism can have extraordinary gifts. One of the wonderful things about Art is that it can open doors in the mind, enabling us to see beyond surface, apparent truths, to the essence of things. I find, for example, that in the act of writing, I sometimes discover things that I did not know I knew. This kind of mental flexibility is something that more “primitive” societies possess, with cultures still imbued with magic and mythology; the loss of which has led to a kind of rigidity in our modernity.

I have been told that I am not a “normal disabled person,” presumably because I do not currently use a walker or a wheelchair, but have mobility issues that are not readily apparent. In fact, there are a great many disabilities which are invisible. Learning disabilities include conditions of neurodiversity such as Asperger’s Syndrome (part of the Autism spectrum), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Tourette’s, and Dyscalculia, usually dating from birth, and other conditions such as Alzheimer’s which occur late in life, or Aphasia, which can come as the result of an accident or stroke, and in which the person loses the power to use and understand language.

Although some agencies insist that a diagnosis is dependant on three factors: impaired social functioning, accompanied by low IQ and having begun in childhood, the reality is that there are persons whose IQs are in the superior range yet can still have learning disabilities. Sadly, the more intelligent children are more likely to “fall through the cracks” of our educational system, since the fact that they are highly functioning in other areas can mask their need, or make others believe that they can “compensate.” Such lacks of support can lead to delinquency, depression, and other social consequences.

When I grew up, there was no such thing as a “hyperactive” child. Some children were merely considered “active” and parents sent them outside to play as often as possible. This encouragement to socialize and to direct the energy positively was far better, it seems to me, than the current practice of medicating vast numbers of children and allowing them to spend their days inside, socially isolated, and glued to television or computer screens.

What are the alternatives? Specialists say to limit computer and television time, to encourage socialization, and to provide structure and in-class support. For some parents, home-schooling is the best option, but not one that every family can afford to pursue, in a time when few families can survive on a single salary. Ideally, schools should reduce class size, shorten the school day, increase after-school activities, and make classes year-round, thus compensating for fatigue and lagging attention spans. The Japanese do this with superior academic and social results.

(an original, copyrighted work, no reprint w/o permission)

photo of the author