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Web event 2: Accommodating Genderqueer and Learning Disabled Students

Ann Lemieux's picture

How can middle and high schools accommodate both genderqueer students (including transgender and gender-fluid individuals) and students with learning disabilities?

There are several things in common between genderqueer students and learning disabled students. Both groups of students have faced a lot of discrimination in the past, and both deviate from what is generally considered ‘the norm’ in schools and in society. By the time they reach high school, gender-queer students may have been told countless times that they are not normal because they do not behave the way they are supposed to according to their assumed gender or sex. Learning disabled students have been labeled as special or having special needs, and their differences from their peers are pointed out every time they need to take a test in class, or every time they have difficulty with a task their peers handle easily. Every minority can feel isolated from their peers at times, and feel like they deviate from a culturally accepted norm, but genderqueer and learning disabled students are often blamed for their differences, and might feel a sense of responsibility for those differences. A genderqueer student might feel like they should try to act more feminine or masculine to fit in with a gender normative group, and a learning disabled student might feel like if only they put more time or effort into school, they could perform at the same level as the rest of the class. In “Queering the Crip or Cripping the Queer?”, Carrie Sandahl explores the intersection of disability and queerness, and the overlap in the academic disciplines of queer theory and disability studies. Sandahl writes mostly from the perspective of physically disabled people, but recognizes that “crip” can also be used to describe the mentally and learning disabled, and much of what she writes regarding the “crip” and queer overlap still applies to those with learning disabilities.

One could argue that learning disabled students are only labeled as learning disabled because of the cultural norms, or standards, present in their schools. If such norms weren’t present, these students wouldn’t feel isolated from their peers by special testing accommodations and IEPs. These students would still have unique learning styles, and have different strengths and weaknesses than some of their peers, but their differences wouldn’t be highlighted since all students learn differently. Last year, I took the class “Critical Issues in Education” at Haverford, and we read an essay titled “Culture as Disability”, which argues this point. McDermott and Varenne say that often in school, the world seems to be a set of tasks, and those who can’t complete those tasks as quickly or well as they are expected to by their culture are labeled as LD, or learning disabled. Then, they describe the view of culture as disability as such: “The world is not a set of tasks, at least not of the type learned, or systematically not learned, at school, but made to look that way as part of political arrangements that keep people documenting each other as failures… school performance has become an exaggerated part of established political arrangements, and, by pitting all against all in a race for measurable academic achievement on arbitrary tasks, school has become a primary site for the reproduction of inequality in access to resources. The use of the term LD to describe, explain, and remediate children caught in a system of everyone having to do better than everyone else is a case in point.” The same can be said for genderqueer students. Mainstream culture has labeled them almost as disabled because of their differences. Just as if there weren’t specific learning standards and norms in schools, learning disabled students wouldn’t feel different because of their unique abilities, if gender norms didn’t exist in our culture, genderqueer students wouldn’t feel different at all because there would be no group that they deviate from. They could express themselves as they please without people wondering why their self-expression doesn’t fit into one of the gender boxes that society has built.

Both of these groups of students feel isolated and discriminated against in their schools because of the normative culture regarding gender and ability. If schools can change this culture into an accepting culture without rigid norms and expectations for behavior and ability, then students who are genderqueer, learning disabled, or both, can feel more comfortable, and their needs can be met. It’s especially important that this new culture is not only accepting of genderqueer students and accommodating of learning disabled students, but that all students are accepted and accommodated, regardless of their ability or identity of any kind. I know from experience how helpful accommodations for specific learning disabilities can be, but it can be embarrassing for students, especially self-conscious middle and high school students, to admit that they have and need such accommodations. Additionally, genderqueer students can certainly find a sense of community in a school club for LGBTQ students, but some might be afraid to join because they don’t want to highlight their queerness, or because a different set of social and cultural norms exist within the club that they might not fit into. In order for these students to feel truly accepted, the school needs to create a safe space and community for them without drawing attention to their differences. There are several ways that middle and high schools can go about this, both on a classroom level, and a higher, institutional level. In classrooms, teachers can practice what Sandhal calls “queering” or “cripping”. In all disciplines, teachers can and should be aware of hetero- or gender-normative biases in the curriculum and classroom, expose them, and abolish them. A Spanish teacher at my high school once noticed while teaching a class that the textbook the course was using defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman; he made sure to point this out to the class and tell them that marriage is actually a union between two adults, regardless of gender or sex. He perfectly demonstrated “queering” in that classroom. A teacher could also “crip” a class by using “crip time” and having flexible deadlines. Allowing students to choose a time to take an exam, and giving a time range for an exam rather than a strictly enforced time limit would give learning disabled students some much-needed accommodations without highlighting their special needs. If high school teachers can practice both queering and cripping in the classroom, and create a classroom culture without any rigid, competitive standards that accentuate difference and disability, it will be a lot easier for genderqueer and learning disabled students to succeed and become comfortable with themselves.

works cited:
"Culture as Disability", Ray McDermott and Herve Varenne, (side note: I really love this essay, and recommend anyone who has an interest in education or disability studies look at it)
"Queering the Crip or Cripping the Queer?", Carrie Sandahl,


Taylor11's picture

In your paper you focus more

In your paper you focus more on the invisibility of learning disabilities and queerness, which relates to my paper because in my paper I attempt to explain that the classroom dynamic needs to change in order to include everyone and that includes people with disabilities that aren't physically noticeable.  

Amoylan's picture

We both discussed the

We both discussed the invisibilty of learning disabilities and queerness in schooling and how there is no way that people openly accomodate that. Students with learning disabilites are so othered because when people think disability, they think physical and visible. There is such a hierarchy in schooling that people with learning disabilities and people with the disability of queerness and genderfluidity are an afterthought in terms of accessibility and accomodation. 

Anne Dalke's picture

Queering and Cripping

Ann Lemieux--
Last month we were talking on-line about presenting ourselves in public, trying to make a “true self” accessible to a variety of others. This month, you are exploring the (very related) question of how self-conscious middle and high school students might admit publicly that they have and need accommodations, without drawing attention to their differences. I see very strong similarities between your work, Amoylan’s essay on queer disability and taylor11’s on changing elementary schools--you should certainly read these two other essays, and discuss them with the authors.

I share your great admiration for Culture as Disability (and along with you, urge everyone to read it!). I love especially this one line that you quote: “The world is not a set of tasks, at least not of the type learned at school, but made to look that way as part of political arrangements that keep people documenting each other as failures.”

What is then the world? How would you like it to look??

Please look also @ the essays written by Amoylan on queer disability, and by taylor11 on changing the structure of elementary schools, in preparation for y'all's talking together in class...