The Learning Renaissance

What’s in a Name? Classifying of the ‘others’ over time: Handicapped, Disabled and Neurodiverse

Photo Courtesy of Campaign Live

I grew up with an elder brother who had, what at the time were described as a mental handicap. This was caused by oxygen starvation at a critical point in a home birth (which was the norm at the time.) But for those vital few seconds, his life would have been completely different. It is only now, some ten years after his death that I can speak rationally, and I hope objectively, about the difficulties that those few seconds brought to his life.

I do not wish to recount the many indignities he had to face in his daily life from his contemporaries, some of whom beat and taunted him because he was physically weak and intellectually different. I won’t go into detail about the fact that he never named his tormentors because he felt he had done something wrong to incur the wrath of people he considered friends. I’d rather concentrate on those people who helped him function in the community as a child and an adult and made him a valued and valuable and much loved feature of the seaside town in Wales where we grew up.

Had the research been done, and it most certainly wasn’t, he would have been considered what was defined as a ‘calendar savant’. As everyone who knew him in our home town could testify, he had instant recall of names, dates and events. Meeting someone for the first time people would say their age and birthday and he would tell them what day that was and all the events associated with it, the weather, what was on the television, what we had for tea and what people had said to each other. He was totally infallible in these calculations and recourse to old TV schedules or mention of specific dates would draw the correct events that had appeared o that night’s news. The nearest equivalent I’ve seen to this facility was in Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of the character in Rain Man – as everyone who knew him noted when the film was released.

I used to try and catch him out with false dates, or ones before his birth date, thinking that he would be unable to apply the calculation to such dates. This did not deter him as there was no system or calculation involved. He was not using a system to drag the information from his deep memory, all this information was held in his working memory and was instantly accessible.

In that sense, Graham did not have a deficiency, he had an overabundance of working memory on which to draw.

Since his childhood, the definition of what was seen as a ‘handicap’ or more recently a ‘disability’ has changed radically. Sometimes the change in terminology and definition was way ahead of the previous societal attitudes. The change from ‘handicap’ to ‘disability’ was a softening of the terminology, but still stressed the ‘otherness’ of Graham’s condition in deficit terms.

I’ve seen this sense of other, and deficit, in the mainstream schools where I spent most of my career and in my work with adults with ‘learning disabilities’.  It really is an unhelpful definition of conditions, and a terrible burden to carry through life.

In this context, I have been greatly indebted to the work of Professor Amanda Kirby in challenging definitions and promoting the universal term ‘neurodiversity’ to describe the range of abilities every human being exhibits. Everyone sits on the neurodiverse spectrum; it recognises diversity as well as the core traits and abilities that define us as human.

Applying it universally will make a significant difference to a large number of lives.


About educationalist04

I'm convinced we can, as a species, do much better than this if we set our minds to being much more positive and productive towards our fellow humans. The solution is learning - creating independent and autonomous learners who can problem solve, innovate and create a better more equitable and sustainable world. My books, Future Proof Your School and Re-Examining Success together with this blog, explore how better learning outcomes for all can be achieved.

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