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Portraying and Perceiving Disability

mheffern's picture

Although I am obviously in favor of the revamped policies that inspired the 2010 Huffington Post article "More Intellectually Disabled Youths Go to College," I took issue with how little attention the article actually gave to Zach Neff, as well as the particular aspects of his persona that it did focus on. The article opens: "Zach Neff is all high-fives as he walks through his college campus in western Missouri. The 27-year-old with Down syndrome hugs most everybody, repeatedly. He tells teachers he loves them." Even though we are only one paragraph in, the stereotype of individuals with Down syndrome being overly loving (and unfailingly lovable) is already engrained into the mindsets of the readers. Even if Neff does routinely hug "most everybody, repeatedly," that is not what this article is about--it is about Neff, and other individuals with disabilities, going to college.

The only quote given about Neff (which is given by one of the administrators who helped form the program he attends at the University of Central Missouri) is also about his hugs. Joyce Downing states that she had to put Neff on a "hug diet," failing to mention the other skills (vocational, academic, etc.) that they are working on in this program. Indeed, this introduction reinforces a stereotype of individuals with Down syndrome as well as gives the impression that decreasing Neff's hugging tendencies is Missouri's primary concern (which we learn later in the article is not true, despite the angling first few paragraphs). Luckily, a more thorough account of Gabe Savage, another participant, is provided at the end. Savage, according to the article, is grateful for "new friends, the chance to try out for a school play, brush up on his computer skills and even take a bowling class with non-disabled students looking to earn a physical education credit." This list gives a more comprehensive--as well as accurate--depiction of what exactly the program at Missouri does. 

My older brother Brian Heffernan, who has Down syndrome, also participated in a college program for individuals with disabilities. As a participant in the "Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Grant Program," Heffernan was able to take classes at the nearby Mass Bay Community College until he was 22: Unlike the Huffington Post article, the lead-in about Heffernan is more multi-faceted: "When he’s not taking classes at MassBay, working at one of his three jobs or volunteering, Brian Heffernan is making sure that other young people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities get the same opportunities he’s had." In this introduction, it is clear that we are about to read about disability equality.

One unfortunate parallel I was not planning on drawing until I retrieved the article on my brother was the ignorance that still exists today regarding individuals with disabilities and their respective capabilities. The fourth search result that appears for "brian heffernan newton mass bay" is this unbelievably offensive and narrow-minded write-up: I just hope my brother never finds that. Similarly, Charlotte Allen's comments in the Huffington Post article are unfounded and rude: "[Going to college] may make intellectually disabled people feel better, but is that what college is supposed to be all about?" Again, we have a long way to go.