On being mischaracterisedPosted: May 31, 2016
Following my last post, I was at the centre of something approaching a Twitter storm. This seemed to be sparked by Nancy Gedge Tweeting:
I had not mentioned ‘the idea that there are good/bad sorts of disability’ in my post and so I took issue with this. Nancy could not support her tweet. Instead, she stated, “I know there is no direct claim there, Greg, however I do see your post as part of a wider school of thought – a wider narrative.”
So that’s OK then? It’s not what I wrote or what I meant but it can be characterised as part of a ‘wider narrative’? No, I don’t think that’s OK at all.
The problem for me was that I was now deluged with people in my timeline taking offence and calling me names. Some sought to educate me that there are neurological conditions that can cause behaviour problems. When I pointed out that I had written pretty much the same thing in my post, this was either ignored or the claim shifted to suggestions that I had been clumsy in how I had expressed myself. It seems that I touched a nerve by referring to a physical disability to illustrate my point. So let me make my position as clear as I can.
I did not seek to draw a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sorts of disability. Instead, I sought to draw a distinction between a special educational need and a disability, particularly because the articles that I was commenting upon appeared to be conflating the two. Special educational needs might be caused by a disability but they might not be. Or at least they might not be caused by something that would be widely recognised as a disability.
This is a complicated area, but let’s step away from obvious classroom issues for a moment and look at the interesting example of “Antisocial Personality Disorder”. According to the UK National Health Service website, Antisocial Personality Disorder is diagnosed in the following way:
“To be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, a person must have a history of conduct disorder before the age of 15.
Antisocial personality disorder is diagnosed after rigorous psychological assessment. A diagnosis can only be made if the person is aged 18 years or older and at least three of the following criteria apply:
- repeatedly breaking the law
- repeatedly being deceitful
- being impulsive or incapable of planning ahead
- being irritable and aggressive
- having a reckless disregard for their safety or the safety of others
- being consistently irresponsible
- lack of remorse
These signs must not be part of a schizophrenic or manic episode – they must be part of the person’s everyday personality.”
In other words, the diagnosis is based upon the individual’s behaviour. Therefore, it logically cannot act as an explanation of this behaviour because this would be circular: Person A behaves in a certain way because he has an antisocial personality disorder. How do we know that he has an antisocial personality disorder? Because he behaves in a certain way.
The label acts as a description – perhaps a very useful one – but in the absence of anything else it cannot also serve as an explanation.
It seems perfectly feasible that we could construct some kind of disorder around any pattern of challenging or unusual behaviour that we might see in a child. But this would not explain this behaviour or shed any light on whether a child had agency over this behaviour. Furthermore, if we decide that this disorder classifies as a ‘disability’, we must then avoid discriminating against an individual on the basis of it because we have laws that say that we can’t. So a child who behaves in an antisocial way must be given the same opportunities as a child who does not because the antisocial behaviour is part of his disability.
We see something similar with dyslexia. Despite attempts to rigorously define the term, it does lend itself to circular reasoning: This child cannot read because she has dyslexia. How do we know that she has dyslexia? Because she cannot read.
If we then apply the logic of accommodating a disability to the example of dyslexia, we might conclude that the child should be given audio versions of written instructions so that she can access the same curriculum as her peers. However, it might be the case that this particular child needs a rigorous reading intervention and the opportunity to do more reading than her peers rather than less.
Similarly, if we simply try to accommodate all behavioural problems on the basis that they are caused by a disability then we might miss an opportunity to do something about it. It’s quite a pessimistic outlook. The child might have agency. He might have chosen to misbehave or he might be able to reframe his thinking in ways that lead to better behaviour, more academic success and ultimately a more fulfilling life.
Moreover, if we simply seek to avoid discrimination – we don’t want to exclude this child from activities on the basis of his disability – then we also risk damaging the prospects of his peers.