Recognizing uniqueness is not a substitute for thinking about disability

Teachers who are really good at teaching typically developing kids sometimes have trouble understanding the significance of disability. I’ve heard a lot of things like “all kids are unique” and “I always individualize my approach for every kid” and “I don’t see the need to label any kids as disabled, it’s just a matter of finding what works for them”.

This sounds positive, but it can be a disaster for kids with disabilities.

We talk a lot about uniqueness, but a lot of effective teaching depends on understanding ways in which kids are similar to each other. Developmentally appropriate practice means understanding how kids the same age are similar to each other — then being flexible in ways that recognize kids’ unique humanity. We develop a sense of what the range of difference is for kids of a particular age.

Kids with disabilities are more different than that, and we need to take those differences seriously. Disability matters, and practices based on typical developmental milestones don’t account for it.

For instance:

Developmental milestones tell us:

  • Two year olds don’t have the motor skills to support handwriting.
  • Early education helps two year olds develop the motor skills that will eventually support handwriting.
  • Ten year olds do have the motor skills to support handwriting.
  • If they’ve had appropriate education, ten year olds should be able to write.

Developmental milestones don’t tell us:

  • How to teach ten year olds who don’t have the fine motor skills to support handwriting.
  • What early literacy and pre-writing instruction looks like for young children who are unlikely to develop the motor skills needed to support handwriting

It’s also important to understand the difference between unusual and unique. Disability means having unusual differences. But not every difference is unique. Some differences are shared by other people with disabilities. Those shared differences are important.

We need to understand the disability-related similarities. Part of that is having the right words to describe them. Calling disabilities by their right names isn’t about labeling, it’s about breaking isolation and making important things speakable.

For instance:

Braille:

  • Braille exists because blind people need it to exist
  • The differences between sighted people and blind people are a reason that braille needs to exist.
  • (And a reason that Braille is better than raised print).
  • The similarities between many blind people are a reason that braille *can* exist as a standard way of accessing literacy. 
  • If each blind person was completely unique, there would be no way to create a reading and writing system that would work for large numbers of blind people.

Some other examples:

  • Wheelchairs.
  • Ramps.
  • Large print.
  • Cars with hand controls and/or wheelchair lifts.
  • Text-to-speech communication devices.
  • VoiceOver and other screen reading software.
  • Signed languages.
  • Medications that manage symptoms.
  • Supportive seating.
  • The ADA, Section 504, IDEA and other disability rights laws.

People with disabilities are unique, and not interchangeable with each other. Similarly, kids the same age are unique, and not interchangeable with each other. Both the similarities and differences are important.

Tl;dr Sometimes progressive educators are uncomfortable with the concept of disability, and want to instead just see every kid’s uniqueness. That doesn’t work, because disability means having unusual differences — and because the differences aren’t unique; they’re shared with many other disabled people. Recognizing uniqueness isn’t enough — we also need to understand and accommodate disability.