August 17, 2010

Chloe knows all her spelling words. This is a huge breakthrough. Last year, even though I (and her teachers and therapists) suspected that she knew her letters, numbers, etc, she didn’t have the motor skills she needed to prove us right. This year, thanks to a small improvement in her hand and arm coordination, she can grab a piece of paper with the correct spelling word on it, and presto, she is officially intelligent.

People with disabilities often have the peculiar challenge of proving that they are as smart as anyone else. Think about it: when you first meet someone, you don’t usually wonder if they can understand what you are saying to them. But if that person uses a wheelchair, carries a white cane, or simply looks significantly different from you, admit it–the question crosses your mind. People who work with Chloe often tell me “she’s smarter than you would think at first.” Instead of being offended at the implications of this, I choose to be grateful that Chloe has the skills to show people her intelligence.

We judge intelligence from subtle and superficial clues: physical appearance, eye contact, clothing choices, speech quality. And some people with disabilities, no matter how intelligent they are, have little or no control over these things. Chloe cannot speak, but luckily, she can partially make up for this through facial expressions; when she makes eye contact, smiles, laughs or frowns, people know she is paying attention.

I realized how much facial expressions convey when I met a four year old kid in Chloe’s preschool class whose facial muscles were less mobile. His expression is common for kids with CP: mouth slightly open, eyes gazing into the distance, head tilted dreamily. You might think there was as little activity in his mind as there was on his face, until he told you about his favorite country band or baseball team, or read you a book.

Given these examples, it’s not hard to imagine a child who is as intelligent as Chloe or her classmate, yet lacks control over both his face and his voice. This is the kid who gets labelled “stuck at the level of a six-month-old” by doctors and declared “not really in there” by relatives. His parents give up trying to communicate with him, and, self-fulfilling-prophecy style, they treat him like a baby for the rest of his life. No matter what interesting thoughts are tumbling around inside his head, he is condemned by lack of evidence, guilty until proven innocent.

To be continued…


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