Susan Midlarsky

author • consultant • tutor | inspiring excellence
Special Needs US Education

Normal vs. Abnormal


I was at the Westchester County Airport this morning, in the women’s room, when a woman and I started a conversation over soap. The topic soon changed to bathroom decor, which we discussed for a few minutes before wishing each other well.

Then the woman walked out, and I was able to see her gait. It was quite lopsided, and she walked with the aid of a cane. I had noticed that she had mostly been using one side of her face to talk, but now I could see the extent of the asymmetry of her body.

After seeing this, I found myself wondering why. A stroke, some kind of palsy, something else? Then I stopped myself. Why was I focusing on this? The woman clearly wasn’t; she didn’t even use the handicapped stall, though she would have been most entitled to use this spacious stall.

This thought process led me to think about education in general, and how much focus there can be on what is “wrong” with a student, to the point that all we can see are the “problems.” Many educators have written about the issues around labeling, and I think this is what is at the core of the matter: that instead of a whole human being who may be encountering some challenges, children end up being viewed – and often viewing themselves – through the lens of a diagnostic label.

But those closest to them know they are so much more than that label. The families that have cared for the children since infancy and have seen their serious, funny and talented sides need to know that the teachers of their precious children will be seen as the whole people they are.

It’s hard for teachers to do this when under the tremendous pressures of time, curriculum, large class sizes, behavior issues, and most of all, performance on standardized tests. It is also normal for our brains to observe, analyze, and try to understand things we encounter that are outside our typical experience.

If we want children to succeed, though, we need to override this urge to focus on what is “abnormal” and bring humanity back into the classroom as the main driving force behind what we do.

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