COMMENTING ON THE NEWS

This article is one of a series commenting on current stories in the news. From the Kalamazoo Gazette

A recent story was on the front page with the title ‘Blurring Boundaries’. It was about a program at Portage Central High School in which students with autism socialize with other ‘normal’ students. It is similar to many programs I have observed and heard about over the years. To the extent that they foster good experiences and lead to some kinds of ongoing relationships these programs have value.

What struck me about this story was the awkward effort to distinguish between students with labels and those without labels. The use of parentheses lets the reader know that the writer is aware that the term ‘normal’ is not the best choice, but it also reveals that the writer does not really know how to talk about the differences between the ‘mentor’ and the ‘mentee’.

The use of the term, normal, is not new. It has some technical standing in the disability field that goes back at least as far as the 1960’s when the term, ‘normalization’, was borrowed from the Scandinavian countries. It pointed to efforts to develop programs for people with disabilities using methods that were as much like the experiences of people without disabilities, the ‘normal people’, as it was possible given the degree of the disability of the person in the programs.

The principle of Normalization has been beneficial in many ways. It has led to better treatment. It has provided professionals with standards far more benevolent than those that guided practices prior to the ‘60’s. Yet, what about the awkwardness? We have always known that there is something wrong with referring to a group of people as something other than ‘normal’. Yet, we shrug and add a phrase like ‘so called’ in front of ‘normal’. How to do better?

I think that the answer is just to say that everyone is normal, thereby robbing the term of any practical use and allowing it to eventually be dropped from our vocabulary. Let it go the way of ‘outhouse’, which we don’t need anymore either.

Let’s just call people by their given names and if we have to use language to differentiate talk about the kind of support that person needs to take part in the same environments and in the same ways that we all do. Furthermore, let’s stop ‘treating’ people as a group, as if by grouping them we can actually make them all the same. Let’s ‘blur the boundaries’ to the point where they disappear.

George Martin