HELL-BENT ON HELPING:
Benevolence, Friendship, and the Politics of Help
Emma Van der Klift & Norman Kunc
Axis Consultation and Training Ltd
Originally published in: Thousand, J., Villa, R., Nevin, A. Creativity and Collaborative Learning: A Practical Guide to Empowering Students and Teachers. Baltimore: Paul Brookes, 1994.
© Copyright 1994 Paul H. Brookes Publishers.
Reciprocity and Contribution
Although a majority of educators acknowledge that the rights of students with disabilities should be respected, there is an ongoing debate about whether reciprocity is really possible, and what kind of contribution is realistic to expect. “What,” we’re often asked, “can a student with a disability really bring to a relationship?”
This question usually reveals more about our own stereotypical views about the idea of disability than about the limitations of a disability itself. After all, there is nothing universally “true” about any disability. Generalizations about “the disabled” will never generate the information necessary to address serious questions about the nature of reciprocity or contribution.
Dembo, Leviton and Wright (1975), first identified a societal tendency to generalize and make broad inferences about the nature of disability. They called this common phenomenon “disability spread.” Specifically, “disability spread” is what happens when we extrapolate the characteristics we associate with the notion of disability to the particular individuals we meet. These perceptions are often based on stereotypes, and what we think we know about a particular disability. They are expressed in predictable ways. For example; “All people with Down Syndrome are happy.” “People with cerebral palsy usually have a mental handicap.” In fact, these characteristics may or may not actually be true of any individual. The figure below illustrates this concept.
FIGURE 1: DISABILITY SPREAD
Many inferences and assumptions are made about disability in our society. For example, we are inclined to see people with disabilities as a collection of needs and deficiencies (McKnight, 1977). We are led to evaluate people based on what is missing rather than what is present. When our perceptions are based on stereotypical myths and misperceptions we will not see a real person with any clarity.
In fact, every individual is a complex collection of components. Each of us has a variety of interests, skills, capacities, and a unique background. We all have different physical characteristics, and our own idiosyncratic personalities. In our interactions with others, we want most to be understood and seen for who we are, and hope that we will not simply be judged at face value. However, for individuals who have visible disabilities, being judged at face value is precisely what happens most often. When disability is seen as the largest component of a person, much of what is unique and “human” about her or him will be obscured. When needs and deficits are what we see, we only see what that person cannot do.
We will not recognize the diverse contributions of those who wear obscuring labels until we move our focus from the disability and look for the complexity and individuality we take for granted in ourselves. Only getting to know a person in all their multi-faceted individuality can cause the “huge” disability to magically shrink and assume its real proportion — only one small facet of who a person is. Only then will we find ourselves able to see and receive the variety and richness of possible gifts.