Social genius and ‘disability’

I just caught up with Anderson Williams’s post about his “profound week with a group of students, both with and without intellectual disabilities, who are part of Project UNIFY through the Special Olympics.” Anderson, a youth development activist with an M.F.A., likened what these kids did to Picasso’s particular genius: deconstructing tired norms “to paint like a child.”

Williams saw a “social genius” in the social and educational world these youth built during their time together. Defying social and cultural norms, he says, they set out to develop more genuine friendships and achieve shared learning. He writes:

In this space, “otherness” of all types was set aside for the one-ness of youth. . . . The whole premise of their engagement defied our adult-driven society’s limiting expectations of youth and of disability and created a space for each person to be more fully himself/herself.

His examples reminded me of the advice “Dance like nobody’s watching.” These kids pulled off something that takes “courageous humanity,” he says. But getting good at it also takes practice, by adults as well as youth. Anderson reminds us that we need constantly to work toward

more inclusive systems and structures and broader awareness and understanding of all kinds of “differences” . . . rather than the separate educational and social worlds so many of [these youth] beautifully and painfully described. We must commit to revolutionizing the systems, formal and informal, that categorize, segregate, and separate our young people.

What are your experiences with helping young people “practice outside the lines” of what the larger society considers “excellence”? I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if yours is among the best comments we receive.


One thought on “Social genius and ‘disability’

  1. Initially, I was struck by how isolated and confused one of my students
    seemed. John was a student with an autism spectrum disorder. He was very capable of doing the grade level work, but his aide had had many problems in the past with a rather high level of behavioral upsets at school. In the past, he had been known to throw himself on the floor and thrash around, which, thankfully, as a rather large high school student, he was no longer doing. There was an effort on the part of the special education team to help him be more self sufficient, and need less handholding when doing his classwork. Their efforts were working, and he was attentive more often.
    I realized that his mastery of subjects of his personal interest (such
    as fossils) could be translated to the other biology coursework, as he
    learned and remembered the material well. His stopping point for
    demonstrating his skills in class was his slight stutter, low voice and
    shyness. I found that by asking him questions when he was working in a small group, he could showcase his mastery of the subject and he has become more interested in finishing his classwork. His interest in the group work and lectures seems to be enhanced, as he feels more a part of the group, rather than isolated with his aide at the sideline. My next goal is to have him answer a question in front of the class (after working with him on it), to get him to the point where his shyness won’t inhibit his interest.
    His small public successes have created in him a spark of interest in
    science, which is allowing him to grow in self-confidence and mastery. The ability to have an audience that mattered to him very greatly (his peers at school), starting with a few people at a time, has helped him in his work. He has gone from coming to class with a shuffling gait, frustrated and saying he’s exhausted, to often getting ready without prompting and finishing all of his work. He finds pleasure in his mastery, now that his interest is piqued and he can showcase the fire in his mind.

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