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Classifying Disability: Interpreting Jonathan Mooney’s The Short Bus

achiles's picture
Anna Chiles
Biology 103
Professor Grobstein
Book Commentary due 12/18/09
Classifying Disability: Interpreting Jonathan Mooney’s The Short Bus
"Blaming kids for their academic failures leaves our culture's definition of intelligence unquestioned. Blaming defective neurology, not educational systems, keeps parents focused on the needs of their individual LD child, not systemic reform for all kids" (47).
In The Short Bus, Jonathan Mooney chronicles his epic, self-reflexive journey in a short, yellow school bus, which takes him across the country and through the spectrum of disability and difference. Mooney makes stops all over the country to meet characters like Ashley, a girl who has both visual and hearing impairments, and Brent, an adolescent boy who is diagnosed with ADD and language-based learning disabilities, that, like him, share the label of disability and the experience of frustration in education. His exploration of disability, of the problematic reality behind diagnosis and the undervaluing of multiple intelligences[1] in the traditional classroom, brings to light interesting theories regarding the diagnosis of disability. He compiles three approaches to the understanding of disability in society, the Deprivation Approach, the Difference Approach, and the Culture as Disability Approach, to argue that institutions of education define traditional academic achievement (in math and reading) as the key to success and, in so doing, retract the margins for what is rewarded as successful behavior in the greater society.
The debate over the science of diagnosis and the notion that disability is a social construction of exclusion rather than an exact science resonates within the context of exploring Biology and classification. Our lab work and class discussions have questioned the value and precision of classification by suggesting it to be a purely relative and contextual science; classification depends wholly on the perspective of the classifier. Applying this concept to the study of disability would suggest that the disabled are only so labeled because of their difference from the hegemony.
This idea reminds me of a story within an article referenced by Mooney: “Culture as Disability” by McDermott and Varenne. They use a short story written by H.G. Wells to illustrate that very point, that disability is a classification of relativity. The story is about a seeing man, Nunez, who falls down a mountain in Latin America and into an isolated society in which every member is blind. Within his new context, Nunez is considered to be diseased; his difference, or otherness, labels him disabled in relation to. Eventually, the village doctor recommends an operation to remove Nunez’s eyes and quell his “diseased imagination.”
Wells’ “Country of the Blind” underscores the sentiment that science adapts to account for ineptitude of the institution. As our debate in class regarding the Breast Cancer screening guidelines emphasized, medicine and science cannot be accepted as Truth, or fact. Mooney would argue that this is especially true in the case of the diagnosis and treatment of learning disabilities. Our schools are ill equipped to facilitate alternative learning and those who do not fall into the category of traditional learners will be put neatly away into a separate, isolated category as disabled.
So, while classification is flawed and rooted in subjectivity, it is still functional within our society. We use classification to compartmentalize, or to attempt to explain what we do not understand. Failure to question classification, especially medical classification, has fortified its status as natural, biological, and scientific.
In reading The Short Bus critically, I was unable to ignore the fact that Mooney’s intentions seemed more exploitative and self-serving than beneficent. He writes with the projected goal of proving the humanity and true individualistic intelligence of his “characters,” but I cannot help but notice that he cannot let go of traditional notions of success. On several occasions throughout the book, Mooney mentions that he graduated from Brown University with a 4.0. Yet the underlying theme to ever chapter is “I can barely read and I did horribly in school, but I am intelligent and successful.” Why, then, must he reassure himself and his audience that he is also intelligent within the dominant discourse. It is counterintuitive to his mission of questioning traditional measures of intelligence in the pursuit of discrediting the definition of disability.
Final Thoughts
In spite of its shortcomings, The Short Bus allowed me to make an important observation. Education, like science, is a process, an unending dialogue between society and the individual; perpetual reevaluation of the institution is the only way to continue the dialogue.
Works Cited
McDermott, Ray and Varenne, Herve. “Culture as Disability.” Sept. 1995. Anthropology & Education Quarterly. JSTOR. 12 Dec. 2009 <>.
Mooney, Jonathan. The Short Bus. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007.

[1] Howard Gardner identified the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, asserting that there are 7 areas in which an individual can excel and prove intelligence. They are in no way limited to reading and math, and the measures of intelligence run the gamut from Intrapersonal to Natural to Kinesthetic.  


Paul Grobstein's picture

Problems of classification of humans by humans

Sounds interesting indeed.  "Culture as disability" is actually available on Serendip here.  Some other Serendip materials that bear on the problems associated with the human tendency to classify humans include excerpts/commentaries on