June 28, 2011

Just a word: Tracy Morgan Edition

Just a word, Redux by Citizen Rob
Just a word, Redux, a photo by Citizen Rob on Flickr.
It's been almost two months since I gave my own perspective on the so-called "R-Word" (May 5, 2001 - "Just a Word"), and an interesting conversation has grown out of it. The discussion gave me the opportunity to clarify my position a bit, and to also navigate some of the grey areas in my own thinking.

The most important point for me was that I'm not looking for some kind of ban on the word, which is a silly idea anyway. I don't want to stop people from saying that someone or something is "retarded" if they really want to. If someone feels compelled to use a word like "retard", I think they should absolutely do so, because I want to know that about them and the kind of person they are. And as a person who once used that word fairly frequently, even in my writing (and as recently as four years ago), I felt a little like Nixon going to China. If I can change because of my own experiences with my daughter and the people who would use that word on her, then maybe other people who have greater sensitivity than me can do it, too.

And honestly, I also want to give them a chance to convince me. I want them to understand exactly how powerful a word like that can be, and if they DO get that and still think it's the word they need to use, then I'm all ears. I'm probably not going to agree with them, but I don't think I'm going to change anyone's mind if I try to silence them from saying what they want to say.

Mostly, I want them to NOT want to say it in the first place. I want the word "retard" to taste bad in their mouths.

I was asked to join a Facebook group the other day, one that takes a fairly hard and unforgiving line against any use of the word "retarded" in the entertainment world. Ultimately, I declined. I understand what they wanted to do, but when someone like Lady Gaga or even President Obama slips up and makes an insensitive remark, it's their reaction and the steps they take to make it right that I think provide a chance for real change. You learn a great deal about a person's heart by how they react when they screw up. The word "retarded" has become such a part of the popular culture, and prying it out of the vernacular is going to take some patient work.

Furthermore, I couldn't get behind the group's blanket boycott of television shows and films with characters who use the word. When a celebrity makes a stupid remark in public, I am all for holding them responsible. But what about when a writer uses a word like "retarded" in a line of dialogue to help create a realistic character, like when portraying a snotty teenager on "The Killing"? (The most offensive thing about that show was the season finale; don't even get me started.) Or if the word is used by despicable characters in order to make a larger point about society and the entertainment industry, as in "Tropic Thunder"? As a writer, I have to respect that nuance, and the right of other writers to use ugliness to draw larger pictures.

There's a saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem starts to look like a nail. I don't easily take up that particular hammer.

So there are grey areas, and there are honest mistakes that can be remedied, and in those remedies, further awareness of the power of words can be increased in society. If we attack every single utterance of "retarded" and refuse to accept the apologies of those who offer them, we're going to be using our very limited resources to play a gigantic, losing game of Whack-A-Mole. In most cases, we need to educate, not punish.

Because sometimes, there are battles that are truly deserving of every ounce of outrage we can muster. There are people who use the word "retarded" deliberately, not with the slip of a tongue and not wielded satirically, but with cold, cruel calculation, for the purpose of mocking children with disabilities. For easy laughs.

Cue Tracy Morgan...

(From NYTimes.com:)

After another brief flirtation with a woman in the crowd, Mr. Morgan turned sincere. "I love you all so much," he said, "did I tell you that tonight? I've been in trouble lately, and this was big for me that you all came out."

Whatever he had been accused of, Mr. Morgan said, "I don't have that in me. I believe gay, straight, anybody, everybody's supposed to be happy in this world, man."

Resuming his routine, Mr. Morgan warned his audience, "Don't ever mess with women who have retarded kids." As groans and cries of "Uh-oh" were heard, he continued, "Them young retarded males is strong. They're strong like chimps."

Finally, he concluded with a bit about his alleged teenage romance with a girl he described as "a cripple" with a prosthetic arm, a mechanical larynx and a portable dialysis machine.

Read it again.

Tracy Morgan didn't make a mistake, any more than his recent and vile anti-gay remarks were an accident. It wasn't an "oops" moment. He couldn't have thought for a moment that no one was paying attention, not on the heels of his previous homophobic remarks. It wasn't off the cuff. Knowing the risk he was taking, Tracy Morgan deliberately made a horrible, stupid and premeditated joke about a specific group of people whom he concluded were mostly powerless to push back.

I'm going to cynically suggest that he may very well have concluded correctly.

One of the most surprising defenses of using the word "retarded" as an insult that I've heard, on many occasions, is the idea that it's okay because a great many of those in a position to be hurt probably don't even know they've been insulted, and can't really respond meaningfully. (If you truly believe that makes it better and not worse, I have two words for you, and they're not "Happy Birthday".) But that argument might actually speak to an ugly truth, at least indirectly. In the entertainment industry, I suspect that the degree of the offense is largely determined by the power of the group being offended. Power as defined by purchasing power, political power, the power to organize and fundraise, the power to withdraw financial support, the power to boycott. The power to be heard.

Who's going to speak up for "retarded kids"? Parents? Kennedys? Is NBC going to risk firing their 30 Rock cash cow over this? Will Tina Fey and Star Jones express any regret for their earlier defense of Morgan's "good heart"?

If you've read my thoughts on use of the word "retarded" and wondered where I draw the line without nuance or shades of grey, here you go. I know he's not alone in the comedy world, but he's got a bigger platform than most. Tracy Morgan just set my gold standard for "Don't say that."

I hope I'll need to update this post to report on real consequences as a result of Tracy Morgan's attack on children with disabilities, probably the most powerless among us. But I'd be lying if I said I thought that was going to happen.

THIS is the fight. THESE are the kinds of things that lurk out there, the attitudes towards a segment of our population that struggles for respect like no other. We simply must make significant cultural and societal changes and acknowledge that the struggles of those with disabilities are nothing less than human rights issues.

Sometimes it's hard to identify the battles that are worth fighting.

Sometimes? Not so hard.


Update, 6/30:  Well, more of a non-update.  The Associated Press put it succinctly.
(AP) – Thus far, Morgan has offered no response.
Well, why would he?

June 24, 2011

The cheese stands alone.

I've described how Schuyler tries so hard and almost succeeds in being just like everyone else, but within that "almost" lies an unhappy and oft-repeated story. That's never more true than in her relationships with neurotypical kids.

I'm going to just say it. I feel like this is probably my fault, mostly. There was a time, back when she was much younger, that Schuyler lived in a very internal world. In the months before and a year or two after her diagnosis, we were at a loss as to why she was so very very different, so very Schuyler. It was unclear just how much of her remoteness and ethereal quality was due to her lack of communication, and how much was from something more. More serious, more difficult to identify, more developmental in nature.

When Schuyler was old enough for school, and especially after we began looking for news ways for her to communicate, we made a choice, and it probably wasn't even a conscious one, either. We didn't worry about, or even consider, whether she would ultimately be happier simply growing up to be who she was, without forcing her into the world. We believed, as we continue to believe, that Schuyler had the ability to learn and to adapt and to one day live independently in the neurotypical world. Whether or not that was actually the most desirable goal never occurred to us.

Now, though, I'm not so sure. Did we push Schuyler to work hard, and to wish hard, for something that was ultimately going to be out of her reach, even if it is just out of her reach? I don't know. I still feel like anything less than a total commitment to the fight for inclusion, both academic and social, would be cheating Schuyler, but I'm no longer certain. I once thought that Schuyler's transition from her beautiful but mostly opaque inner place to the imperfect and sometimes cruel world of the rest of us was a mostly positive thing. She was smart enough to do it, she was ambulatory, she was socially precocious. If she could get close, what could be better for her? If Schuyler could become mostly one of us, surely we could all make up the difference.

Now I'm terribly unsure. I think perhaps I set her up to fail.

What do you do with a kid like Schuyler? More to the point, how do neurotypical kids roughly her age process who she is? She falls into a very specific crack, and it's no doubt a confusing space for typical kids to understand. I think most of them understand how to approach a kid with more severe (or perhaps simply more apparent) disabilities; kids are learning compassion from their families and teachers (or at least we hope they are), and they put that to good use with their disabled classmates. Likewise, I think they know how to navigate relationships with kids whose impairments are more superficial in nature. They know how to reach past those obstacles and reach a kid like themselves, and build relationships with those modest accommodations in place.

Schuyler continues to present a middle place, a child who looks and plays just like them, but for whom those standard rules of human interaction don't apply. It's not entirely, or even mostly, about communication, either. Schuyler presents as much younger, and frankly much stranger, than she appears, and it doesn't help that she has grown into a very tall girl, one of the tallest in her class. Schuyler can be very hard to understand in her entirety.

Grown-ups get this, and if you asked Schuyler to list the people she loves most in the world, almost all of them would be adults. But for kids, even those who know Schuyler well, she's confusing. She's happy and she wants to be their friend, but she's inexplicable and unable to play by the rules that they've been learning. It's not just communication, although that's part of it. It's also that she doesn't fit; she's not age-appropriate in some ways but ahead of her years in others. It's not anyone's fault, certainly not the typical kids who push her away. She's simply broken in ways they don't know how to accommodate.

This is inclusion's dirty little secret. It's a story I have heard from more parents than I can even number.

We've been having conversations with Schuyler this afternoon, trying to help her understand. How do you explain to a kid like Schuyler that because she's different (which she very much knows that she is), sometimes other people don't know how to be her friend? How do you get her to see the difference between a kid who doesn't know how to play with her and a kid who is being mean?

I'm not sure if she understands. She moves on quickly, so it seems like she's blowing it off, but then she'll mention some slight at a later time, perhaps days or weeks after. That's when it becomes clear that she carries all the little hurts with her, as if stuffed in her pockets. She doesn't obsess about them, but she doesn't forget.

I wish I had some answers.

June 17, 2011


R & S by Citizen Rob
R & S, a photo by Citizen Rob on Flickr.
This Father's Day weekend, I'm going to take it easy, maybe hang at the pool with Schuyler, get some barbecue with the fam on Sunday, that sort of thing. Not so much with the sitting at the computer, hopefully.

I did contribute to some Father's Day items elsewhere, however. I was one of the fathers quoted over at Love That Max: Why dads of kids with special needs rock, and you can read my thoughts on expectations for special needs dads over at Support for Special Needs: One Father’s Perspective on Father’s Day. So there you go, lots of fatherly pontification for the weekend.

Here's some interesting news as well. I'll be speaking at the Special Needs Mini-Conference at BlogHer '11 in San Diego in August. So stalkers and killers, go gas up your windowless vans and make room in your freezer for my head. I'll be easy to pick out of the crowd, I suspect.

Anyway, Happy Father's Day, everyone. No ties, please.

June 15, 2011

A story of distraction

There's a story making the rounds, from North Carolina:

MATTHEWS, N.C. -- The mother of 12-year-old Jackson Helms said her son was removed from Elevation Church for being a “distraction” during their Easter service on April 24.

He has cerebral palsy.

She was supposed to meet with the church leaders to discuss what happened, but the pastor canceled the meeting when he heard she had contacted Channel 9.

We spoke with Jackson’s mother, Kelly Helms, today, and she says each day is a little tougher for Jackson than it is for normal children.

“Easter Sunday he got all dressed up, got ready to go, no small feat with a kiddo like him,” she said. But, right after the opening prayer inside Elevation’s sanctuary that Sunday, Helms said Jackson voiced his own kind of “Amen.”

“We were very abruptly escorted out.” Kelly Helms said.

Helms said a volunteer at Elevation took her and Jackson to the lobby to wait out the remainder of the service.

Helms said it was not a good feeling but saw an opportunity to contact the pastor with an offer to start a ministry for special needs children. She says the idea was rejected.

When Eyewitness News went to Elevation Church, an employee told us they focus on worship and not ministries.

But Elevation Church officials emailed Eyewitness News Wednesday night after our story aired. In a statement, a spokeswoman said "Everything we do is about ministry. We focus specifically on our worship and children’s ministries – and we partner with many other ministries in Charlotte."

The church statement continued to say "...this young man and his family were not removed from our church. They were escorted to a nearby section of our church where they watched the service in its entirety.".

Earlier Wednesday, the church issued a statement that said, “It is our goal at Elevation to offer a distraction free environment for all our guests. We look forward to resolving any misunderstanding that has occurred.”

Even though the pastor canceled the meeting with Kelly Helms, he called the Mecklenburg County ARC, an advocacy group for the disabled, and asked for special needs training for his staff.

When Channel 9 told Helms, she said this was the answer to her prayers.

I suppose that as a reader, you have to decide what the story is here. Because it seems to me that there are a few things at work.

Is this a story about the loneliness and isolation of parenting a child with special needs? That's the first thing that jumped out at me. I thought of this family, looking for spiritual refuge and instead finding a kind of judgment and rejection. I wonder about this mother, if she wondered why God would reject her and her son. I think the feeling that God has abandoned your child and your family occurs to just about every special needs parent at some point.

Is this a story about yet another failure of Christian values put to the test? How would the members of this church answer their bumper stickers? "What would Jesus do?" Is Jackson Helms a child of God? Does he have the same value in the eyes of God as a child with full control of his body and the ability to express himself "appropriately"?

Is this a story about overzealous disability parents making unreasonable demands of the world around them? Should the rest of the congregation be forced to endure the distraction of a child with CP in their midst, making a noise that they are unaccustomed to? There are a lot of people in the comments to that story that say exactly that.

"It seems to me that the Helms need to be the ones to get some sensitivity training on the rights of others (non-handicapped). A disability does not trump the rights of the rest of us, sorry. [...] I haven't said anything negative about the disabled child. I also have compassion for him and hope, as his Dad noted, that Divine Intervention will cure his condition. The problem is with his Mom and her lack of understanding that his disability does not give her special privileges over the rest of us."

"Why do you think that you have a "right" to inflict your kid or your dog or your parrot or whatever on other folks?"

"A "special needs child" is really no more different that a newborn baby. Constant need 24/7 noisy when in needs etc etc."

"If it was a crying baby, old man farting, or some redneck lighting up a smoke you all wouldn't mind kicking them out. Just because a child has special needs and is a bit of a distraction does not give him or her the right to make others peoples time at church uncomfortable."

"He was treated no different than anyone else who makes noise during service."

But of course, he IS different. He has cerebral palsy. And that difference isn't cultural or religious, and it's not one that he asked for. Most of all, it doesn't change his value as a human being, or his need for spiritual enrichment. For me and for my family, church is not the place where that's going to happen; a story like this just re-enforces that conviction on our part.  But for Jackson and his family, the Elevation Church was the house of worship where they sought that experience. The church failed them, and it failed Jackson Helms because of his disability.

Jackson was removed from the service after making a noise. A single sound. But the sound he made was a "non-typical" noise, and that noise was deemed inappropriate for a house of God. If you consider the story carefully, you'll see how that's what it boils down to.

You can decide what this story is about, but I can tell you what it's NOT about. It's not about someone being disrespectful or distracting. It's about a mother making other people uncomfortable with the mere presence of her disabled son.

The fact that it happened at all is terribly sad. The fact that it happened in a church? You decide what that feels like to you. I find it unsurprising. But that's me.

June 13, 2011

Mermaid soul

S by Citizen Rob
S, a photo by Citizen Rob on Flickr.
We are at the pool, and Schuyler is swimming.

If today were a Saturday or a Sunday, the place would be crowded, mostly with brash teenagers loudly claiming their territory. But it's late, just before sundown so the heat is ever-so-slightly less oppressive, and it's a Monday. We almost have the pool to ourselves.

Schuyler swims. Julie and I don't, not today, although one or the other of us usually will. Julie has just gotten home from work, a job she likes but which is sometimes more stressful than it should be. When she's home, Julie has the weight of the world on her shoulders, sometimes money and sometimes her health or mine but mostly the constant consideration and work and concern for her broken little girl. She shouldn't require decompression after work, but fairness isn't a right and that's just that. Today was a good day; Julie doesn't swim but instead soaks up the last bit of sun. I sit beside the pool as well, reading a book. This happens much less often than I care to admit, to my shame.

Schuyler swims, mostly alone. Something has changed since last summer, seemingly at once. Schuyler has always seemed fearless, but the truth is that until this summer, she was never entirely comfortable in the water. In the past, she loved to swim, but always with a hand close to the edge. The moments when she went underwater were always followed by a few sputtering seconds of recovery, hands flapping and panic in her eyes. Last summer saw some improvement, but still. There were Issues.

This summer has been different, and without transition. The first moment she jumped into the pool, she was entirely comfortable, and fearless. Now she leaps from the high walls around the edge with abandon, in a position resembling nothing so much as a jumping spider, pouncing on its prey in tv slow motion. She spends as much time underwater as her lungs can handle. When she swims, she keeps her legs together and does what Julie calls a dolphin kick but which looks to me exactly like the mermaids she loves.

After years of trying, Schuyler has found her mermaid soul.

There is another person in the pool, a shy little boy maybe a year or two younger than Schuyler. His grandmother watches him and tries to convince him to talk to Schuyler. Schuyler is all for this plan as well and invades his space with enthusiasm, but the boy is hesitant. We've seen it before, often when Schuyler is paired with autistic children in school or at conferences. For kids who are timid or who have social anxieties, Schuyler is kryptonite. She is a shy kid's devil.

The grandmother asks questions, but of course the pool is a place of vulnerability for Schuyler, without her speech device to answer for her. Schuyler wants to give her name, but she can't, and really, it doesn't seem to matter to the boy. He doesn't want to be left alone, exactly; as Schuyler swims and plays, he approaches her slowly, fascinated but confused by her, which puts him in league with basically the whole world, myself included.

Julie and I could get up and walk around the pool to be near the grandmother. We could make ourselves available to answer her questions, the ones she has been shouting to Schuyler in the fleeting moments that her head is above water. But we don't. We don't even discuss it; it's not a team snub. When we discuss it later, we discover that we were on the same page. Maybe we came across as impolite. Perhaps we actually were rude. It certainly wouldn't be the first time I've intentionally chosen to be chilly to someone, and not even in response to some perceived slight. The grandmother didn't do anything wrong, and yet we both chose to let her sit in her own confusion rather then enlighten her as to Schuyler's... schuylerness.

It's not something I can complain about, because I've clearly made something of a career out of it in recent years, but we don't always feel like we need to explain Schuyler. I've been more aware of it recently as I've been reading Jean Vanier and Ian Brown. We've spent so much time and energy trying to integrate Schuyler, and it's always been something that she has wanted. To fit in, to make her way in the typical world, these have been Schuyler's dreams, more hers if possible than ours, even. The fact that we've been unable to do that in some significant ways feels like one of the areas in which I have failed her the most. There's a lot I've gotten wrong with Schuyler, but perhaps my attempts to help her "pass" are the greatest. I'm no longer confident that it was ever the right thing to do, although she has certainly worked hard to make it happen, the thing she's wanted more than anything else in the world. She's always been Pinocchio, but there's never been much of a Blue Fairy to help her.

But lately, I've thought a great deal about Schuyler's right to exist on her own terms, without the pressure of a world in which she almost fits, but never completely does. I'm not talking about giving up on integration, certainly not in school, but at times like this, sitting by the pool and watching her swim like a sea creature, totally in her element, I understand that Schuyler doesn't need to fit. She doesn't need to talk, and we don't need to explain why she does what she does and can't do what she can't do. She only needs to swim, and we only need to watch, quietly and with something very much like peace.

Schuyler finally figures out how to reach the boy. She climbs out of the pool and up onto the wall, and she leaps fearlessly into the water, splashing down in her angry crab position. She swims to the surface and then points to him, a gauntlet playfully laid down. He smiles, maybe for the first time since she noisily entered his world, and then he climbs out of the pool and takes his place on the wall. He cannonballs into the water, and when he breaks the surface, he hears Schuyler clapping for him.

And that's it. Whatever connection they've been looking for has been made. The wordless girl and the shy boy take turns leaping from the wall. When they take the air, their anxieties remain behind them. They don't know each other's names or what grades they are in or any of the other questions that the grandmother tried to ask. They're not here to talk. They're here to swim.

When we leave, they wave to each other. "See you tomorrow," she says, although I have no idea if he understands her. I suspect he might.

June 6, 2011


Every family has its traditions. A few of ours are a little strange, I suppose. Some have nothing to do with Schuyler's disability. When a new monster movie comes out, for example, Schuyler and I always go to see it together. Always. This dates back to King Kong when she was five and has included such kid-friendly fare as War of the Worlds and Cloverfield. I haven't checked to see what Super 8 is rated yet, but I suspect it won't matter. We'll be there on Friday morning.

When traditions come from a broken place, though, they can still have their unique ceremony and their own kind of charm. We don't think of them as having anything to do with disability until later, if at all.

Today Schuyler came home from her final day of classes, backpack full of the detritus of the fifth grade. She took off her shoes and threw them in her closet, and I'll be surprised if they see the light of day again before September. We went through her stuff and read through the comments written in her yearbook by her friends and teachers. I was happy to see that they pages were mostly full.

And then, as we've done every year of her school life, we got out her speech device and changed a setting on a page of pre-programmed often-used phrases, now telling the world that she is in the sixth grade.

This year, we got to change the school, too.

"I am in the sixth grade."

June 5, 2011

Broken Phantoms

R & S by Citizen Rob
R & S, a photo by Citizen Rob on Flickr.
We talk a lot about the "disability community", and it makes sense to think of ourselves that way. There's strength in numbers, after all, and where disability rights are concerned, it's almost always true that the rising tide lifts all boats. But the experiences that we have with our kids and our loved ones are very different, as are our perspectives and our philosophies. Like snowflakes and unhappy families, we're all broken, and enduring, in our own ways.

If there is any one particularly great experiential divide in our vast community, it may be that between the visually identifiable and the invisible disabilities. It's the difference between a kid in a wheelchair and one who is ambulatory but fighting organ failure; between a child with autism and one with the subtle but identifiable physical markers of Down syndrome; between a blind person with a white cane or a service dog and a deaf person with no visible hearing aids or cochlear implants.

It's the difference between a world of unwanted pity, and one of unwanted judgment.

The public face of disability is different for the visibly and the invisibly impaired, but they both suck the life out of the parents and the children who deflect, and educate on the fly, and most of all endure. I wouldn't trade places with the parent of the child with CP or Down, but that's less about comparing monsters (always a fool's errand), and more about sticking with the devil you know. I've never heard a parent say "I would trade situations with that person in a moment", no matter how broad the disparity. In a very real way, our children's monsters become our own.

Those of us who live in the outside, typical world have a burning desire to understand everyone we see, to KNOW, as if entitled, whatever we think is important about the people around us. I'm as guilty of this as anyone. When we have that information, which we have determined is entirely our business, we can then come to conclusions about the people around us, again as if we need to. We do it to our fellow typical citizens, certainly. And we do it to the broken among us as well.

So when we see someone with an outwardly manifesting impairment, it's tempting to conclude that their lives must be less than ours. Less enriching, less meaningful, and of less value. And we extend pity, because in the absence of a narrative, we've inserted our own, one in which we surely must be better off that THAT poor son of a bitch. It's a pity that is unwanted, and probably unwarranted.

But what do we do when we see someone who shows no outward defect, no physical stamp, no twist of the body as if from the hand of a spiteful God, no sculpted story on their blank faces? What do we do when we are faced with the howling child with the seemingly permissive parents? How do we respond to the older child with a younger child's mannerisms or trappings? Or the little girl who spins and plays as she walks and who speaks, when she does speak, in an alien tongue?

A friend recently recently wrote about a website called Too Big for Stroller. The premise is simple. People take clandestine photos of children in public places who appear to be too old or too big to ride in the strollers. The assumption is that these kids are the spoiled brats of permissive parents. It didn't take much searching, particularly in the comments of NBC and Salon articles about Too Big for Stroller, to find the stories of the broken children.

Some had diseases that robbed them of energy, so the only way to even go in public was to have a stroller as a backup. Some were weakened by failing organs. Some had invisible conditions that left them fragile. One parent told the story of the child whose high-tech wheelchair had malfunctioned and whose insurance carrier wouldn't pay for a loaner. The only way for this child to go out was in a stroller. The alternative for these families is to stay inside, at home, hidden away, or to spend a great deal of money for a wheelchair, exchanging scorn for pity. You pay your money and you take your chances.

And yet, the number of people who felt entitled to make assumptions and judgments was deeply depressing. And not all, or even most, were silenced once the possibility of disability was put in front of them. Adele Melander-Dayton, author of the dismissive and frankly cruel Salon piece (which referred to the site as "hilarious"), tweeted that her piece was causing people to "flip the f out". When I responded with my usual diplomacy and class ("Yeah, some of those 'flipping the f out' probably get sick of their kids with disabilities being mocked by douchebag hipsters."), it brought out this response from an anonymous treat of a tweeter:

"Because ALL seemingly-too-big-for-strollers-kids are disabled, and we are all mocking them with hate speech, right?"

And that's really the crux of it right there. We're not even going to pretend that NONE of them might be disabled, or even most of them. But however many kids with invisible disabilities might be made fun of or hurt by that site, they are acceptable collateral damage, because some of them are probably lazy kids with weak parents, and they must be judged.

And again, I've been guilty of that same thing in the past. I don't know anyone who hasn't, although I sort of wish I did.

We look, and we search within our own world of experience for a template, a perspective that makes sense of people who might otherwise be perplexing to us. When we don't find it, we render judgment. In doing so, we find the troubled autistic boy to be out of control, and his harried mother to be an irresponsible parent. We declare the exhausted child with the failing organ to be "Too Big for the Stroller". We hear the child speaking strangely and judge the parent for allowing their eight year-old to engage in "baby talk". We see the holes in what we know, and we spackle them in with our own insecurities, disguised as judgment fairly rendered.

"Your daughter is a beautiful child. Does not look at all like she was born with anything at all wrong with her. You are blessed."

I received this comment in an email just yesterday, from a very nice person who is reading my book. And she's right, we are blessed.

Schuyler is a beautiful child, much more so than any casual conjecture about my own genetic materials might suggest. She's beautiful, and she's unfailingly kind, and she loves with every cell of her gigantic heart. It's undeniably a blessing.

A blessing, but also sometimes a complication.

Schuyler has had teachers who believe in her, teachers who have worked hard with her for year after year. Her special education team has been tenacious on her behalf; her therapists equally so. We're confident that this will continue with her new team next year. As with any child, atypical or otherwise, the first step towards reaching Schuyler is understanding her. Understanding how she thinks, how she processes information, what she already knows, and how she can be reached.

But what of those who see her but don't understand? What of those mainstream teachers who may see her as a puzzle they never asked for, a challenge they don't wish to step up to? Someone else's job?

Early this year, we met with Schuyler's mainstream teacher, the one who was to teach her science and history and social studies. We expressed our expectations and our hopes for Schuyler. Even then, her response was to lay out the lecture-based plan she uses to teach, and when we expressed our concern that Schuyler might need extra help since she is such a visual learner, she replied that she probably wouldn't have a lot of time to do that. So we knew we were facing some challenges, and the year bore that out.

But at Schuyler's IEP meeting last week, when it came time for this teacher to give her report on Schuyler's academic progress and the work they'd done during the preceding year, she said that she hadn't really had the opportunity to get to know Schuyler all that well, but she was always affectionate and funny, and she did a great job of cleaning up after herself at lunch and was an enthusiastic helper in the classroom.

That was it.

Not a single word concerning academics, about how Schuyler learned in her class, or what this teacher did to help make the material accessible or what accommodations were made. The teacher seemed entirely unaware that she was even expected to teach Schuyler anything. From my admittedly very biased perspective, it was as if the concept of inclusion meant that Schuyler had a right to be parked in her class and to watch the other students, the REAL students, learn. Inclusion appeared to mean being a face in the class photo. Equating equal treatment with fair treatment sounds absolutely right, but that's only true if every student in your classroom has the exact same needs, and of course they do not.

We were shocked, and we were deeply, frustratingly and furiously disappointed, but we weren't surprised. We had been worried all year about this teacher, and we had reached out to try to help her, but in the end, she looked at Schuyler and seemed to see a lovable class pet.

A week later, I remain baffled by how this went down.

I guess it's easy to look at Schuyler and miss the peril she's in. It's easy to look at her and miss the monster. She's a pretty, energetic little girl with a winning personality and not an ounce of guile. She remains innocent to the point of naiveté, which is charming in some ways but also leaves her vulnerable to the world in a way that her outward toughness conceals. Schuyler's positive traits are so strong that her disability really can be invisible, unless you take the time to see, to really see, and to understand. When you do so, and when you project into the future, when she'll be just as far behind and just as in need of help but no longer a cute little girl, you can see just how badly she is wronged by faint praise and academic neglect.

In the absence of that understanding, it's easy to create your own narrative for her, and for us, I suppose. I know that for my own part, I can come across as a one-note tune, and something of a scold. I don't like that about myself, at all. But the thing that Julie and I have become acutely aware of this year, particularly recently, is how much depends on us. Recognizing how nice and pretty and cute Schuyler can be isn't advocacy. It won't save her.

Looking at Schuyler, it's easy to miss her monster. But it's there, and in some ways that matter a very great deal, it's winning.