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As I have been travelling internationally speaking on assistive technology, I have been tuning into the fact that we tend to use the idea of disabilities incorrectly.  We tend to use it as a category where we can place children or adults who have issues causing them to be outside of the "norm."  The more I meet these people, the more I see that they have differing abilities from us, but still have a voice (figuratively) and a story to be told.  Do they lack certain abilities that we have, yes.  Do they have other abilities we do not, yes!

The best example I have of this is Breanna Sprenger.  You can look her up on youtube.  Her story is amazing.  More amazing is the reaction of various people to her.  I have had the honor of knowing her for the last few years as she is in my son's grade level and district here in Ohio.  For those of you who don't know, she is an 11 year old who the doctors thought would not live past her first day of life.  She has only one arm and three digits coming from that arm.  Yet, she is as engaging and charming as any 6th grade girl.  Oh, by the way, she has won gold medals in para-olympic swimming events...yes, I said swimming!  She was just elected student council president and is looking forward to her first dance in the spring.  Don't ever tell her she has a disability!  She will let you know that you have the disability for not seeing the real her! 

She has also worked with me and my company on the formulation and the marketing of the TAPit®.  My company received a nasty email from a biomedical engineer in Minnesota who spoke about how children like her do not exist and any pictures were photoshopped and he could prove it.  So, in essence, he focused on this idea of disability and negated, in his mind, the very existence of this precious child.  When I shared this with my son, he replied, "What is wrong with this guy?  Is he stupid or something?  Why do people think that others don't exist?  With his title, shouldn't he be working on something to help her, instead of  pretending she isn't there?"  True wisdom from an 11 year old!

Unfortunately, in society and in school, we still look at the outside rather than the inside.  My son, whose story some of you already know, even cued in to this fact.  He said to me just a week ago, "Daddy, why do they have these tests that we are all supposed to pass when they know that some kids, like Bre, might need more time or other ways to be tested.  I mean, c'mon, she is one of the smartest kids in the school and yet gets penalized for things she can't control."  That's the beauty of the depth of understanding in children.  They see the inside and the potential, until we train it out of them. 

Now, I know that assessment is a necessary part of education.  But we need to review that in the light of all the Breanna's of the world.  Authentic assessment is even more critical.  But this is not about that topic.  This blog post is about the idea of understanding that these people have differing abilities. 

Interesting enough, when I speak of people with differing abilities, we have one mental picture.  When I speak of people with disabilities, we have another.  It is not black and white folks!  We must address that in the classroom first and foremost.  We must also educate the public.  In this time of economic strife, I have seen and heard heated school board discussions about trying to grant equal access for all in the schools.  I even saw an entire commentary based on a school board meeting where constituents used phrases like, "they don't belong in normal society, so why should we pay for them?" and "they take away money from my child who can actually do something in this world."  What a narrow focus and lack of understanding.  Stephen Hawking, Dr. Temple Grandin, and so many others have proven that differing abilities is a better way of looking at these people.

We need to take an honest look at that mentality.  Differing abilities allow all children and adults access to education and making a living for themselves.  Disabilities promote a public perception that they cannot do the above.  As my own son gets ready for his 12th birthday, I hope and pray his wisdom of seeing people for who they are spreads quickly throughout education and into the public view.  I also hope that educators realize that the strategies for working with these students of differing abilities can be beneficial to all. 

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