In 2015, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld a policy about when to execute people with intellectual disabilities that was crafted on an 80-year-old work of fiction.
I’m an English teacher. Our class motto my last year teaching K-12 was “reading and writing are opportunities to decide how we live our lives.”
It’s hard to imagine a more sobering reminder of this truth than the idea of using the bumbling, caricatured Lennie from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to literally choose whether people live or die.
Steinbeck’s novella is part of the high school canon, stuff of so many “books to read before you graduate” lists alongside cousins like Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon and Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. What these texts share is a claim to realistically presenting the lives of characters with cognitive disabilities—say Down syndrome or autism—that falls far short of the of the richness and dynamism this overlooked form of diversity has to offer.
Consider a ventriloquizing excerpt from Steinbeck:
Lennie dabbled his big paw in the water and wiggled his fingers so the water arose in little splashes; rings widened across the pool to the other side and came back again. Lennie watched them go. “Look, George. Look what I done.”
Now contrast it with the actual words of Brad Kellar—an author with disabilities similar to Lennie’s:
Hunger for being who you are. Hunger would be sound, different kinds of sounds. Hunger would be the stars, the moon, the sun. Hunger would be creation.
What spare, sweeping poetry! From a man who today still can be paid subminimum wage, live with roommates he didn’t choose, or spend most of his education in segregated classrooms.
How would our world look if, alongside the above classics, we taught more self-representative texts like Kellar’s “Survival,” Tito Mukhopadhyay’s Plankton Dreams, or Michael Levitz and Jason Kingsley’s Count Us In?
No doubt students would give second thought to some of these inequities, and our 1 in 50 peers with cognitive disabilities would be granted the simple dignity of telling their own stories. But I also think there’s a benefit beyond altruism: that like any multicultural education approached thoughtfully, engaging across our diversity of brains has the capacity to enrich, challenge, and strengthen us all.
As the sibling of a brother with disabilities, I know this firsthand. Mutual, continued exchange with him has been an education—in creativity, risk-taking, humor, and compromise—on par with any classroom I’ve set foot in. It shouldn’t take the happenstance of birth for more of us to experience these genuine gifts.
The literary is a particularly fruitful meeting ground for reimagining how people with and without disabilities relate to one another, as it shows how traits like divergent thinking or repurposed language can actually be more advanced among neurodiverse writers—disability as asset. Yet this only scratches the surface.
What might a college dorm look like when nondisabled students aren’t just charitably volunteering for Special Olympics, but living and learning alongside their agemates with cognitive disabilities? How can we leverage the unique value this form of diversity brings to the table in a 21st century economy? Who doesn’t stand to gain from the empathy and innovation fostered by radically integrated K-12 schools?
These are the kinds of questions we need the next generation of lawmakers, teachers, journalists, and leaders—in Texas and otherwise—to be asking.
It can start in your classroom.
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