Disability Isn’t Voldemort

“So, the chair… can I ask?”

“So how long have you….?”

“So what exactly is your… you know….?”

“So… never mind.”

Oh my goodness, people, use your words!! This happens all the time. People want to ask me about my disability, but they can’t find the words to do it, so they string together a few generic question words, and then look at me expectantly, like I should fill in the blanks. Really? You want me to ask the question and answer it?

Nope. Not doing it. I’ll answer your question (and if I don’t want to share something, I promise to turn you down very politely), but you need to ask it yourself. I’m not doing all the work.

It’s crazy to me, watching otherwise intelligent, articulate people lose their ability to express themselves when it comes to disability. They’re thinking about it, they’re curious about it, but they don’t have the words to talk about it. They let disability become Voldemort.


(As I typed that, I had this flash of familiarity, like I’ve heard that idea somewhere and it didn’t actually come from my own head… So I googled, and sure enough, I saw it a while ago in this entry on the fabulous Mary Evelyn’s blog.)

Remember how everybody was so scared of Voldemort, that they couldn’t even say his name? I don’t appreciate when you approach my disability with Voldemort-level of fear. It’s not an unmentionable that-which-shall-not-be-named. As I say to my students when it comes up, “Disability isn’t a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just a thing.” Value-neutral.

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disability symbol
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I get that these people are just trying to avoid saying something offensive. But instead, they’re not saying anything at all. Please, say something! Pick a word and use it! If you use a word that rubs me the wrong way, I’ll probably say something, and I’ll say it with a smile. That isn’t me being offended; that’s me offering you a gift of trust. I’m trusting you enough to share a piece of myself, what I think and why I think it, and trusting that you’ll care. A conversation will happen, and we’ll understand each other better. And all of that is so much better than not saying anything!

For the record, I consider silly euphemisms like “differently abled” or “handicapable” to be the equivalent of calling Voldemort “You-Know-Who.” You aren’t saying what you mean; those words don’t really mean anything. My body isn’t able to do all the things, and that’s ok, so please be ok with it. When you twist language around to make sure you’re emphasizing what I can do, it just sounds like you’re uncomfortable with what I can’t.

Harry wasn’t afraid to say Voldemort’s name. And when he did, Voldemort lost a little bit of his power. Harry’s ability to name what scared him, gave him the ability to deal with it. He could move past the cowering fear and seek out the tools and support he’d need to face Voldemort head-on.

A student once asked, loud and proudly, “Can you put some music on while we work? I have ADHD, and music helps me focus.”

He was speaking my language! (Yes, I turned some music on.) I loved that he was able to articulate his needs, the reason for his needs, and a strategy that helps. I wish more of my kids knew how to do that.

Conversely, I’ve listened to other professionals discussing a particular kid, calling him lazy, lethargic, shy, stubborn, etc. When I suggested a particular disability that I thought he may have and that I thought should be looked into, I’d get lectured about the danger of labeling kids. What? Calling a kid lazy and stubborn isn’t labeling them? I felt like the only person at the table suggesting a non-offensive label.

Choose Your Own Label!
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The fact is, we all go through life with tons of labels slapped on us. There’s no avoiding it. Imagine the kid who wanted to listen to music–what if instead of “ADHD,” the labels he’d internalized were “bad kid,” “always in trouble,” “stupid,” “hopeless”? Nobody would have to actually say these words to kids; they’ll internalize them anyway if they aren’t given a better explanation for the unique ways their minds and bodies work. In my experience, the kids who are most successful, are also the most self-aware. They know their own strengths, challenges, and tools/techniques/resources that help them. If that includes disability, they can speak intelligently about it. (For the skeptics, I’m not suggesting that we give kids an excuse. Disability isn’t about making excuses. It’s about having the information to personalize their road map to success, however that might be defined.)

My point is, disability words aren’t bad words. They’re descriptive words. They can be empowering words. I give you permission to use them!

2015: Things I Heard The Kids Saying This Year

I teach ESL, or ELD, or ELL, or whatever we’re calling it these days. (That’s only the beginning of the acronym options, but I won’t bore you.) Call it what you will, my job is to teach English to kids whose first language is something other than English.

But sometimes, I get the process backwards, and I let the kids teach me the latest English. Then I can turn around and teach my own friends “what the kids are saying these days,” and we can all shake our heads and bemoan the fate of the English language like the bitter geriatrics we aspire to one day become.

So that you too can play grandma and roll your eyes at the next generation, I bring you 2015’s edition of the maybe-it-will-become-annual-but-no-promises list of Things I Heard The Kids Saying This Year.

1. twenty-one

Not an Adele reference. While I don’t plan to do the entire list in any order, it feels like the number one spot should be significant, and I seriously debated between this and the next one for which is the most annoying…. But twenty-one wins because I find it both annoying and mean.

It comes from a Vine, which I won’t link to, of somebody (presumably a teenager?) calling a little kid dumb for not being able to do math. They ask him to solve 9+10, and the kid answers “21…?”

Ever since this mean-spirited video went viral, the kids have thought it’s hilarious to say twenty-one in their whiniest, most drawn-out voice. I dread moments when I have to tell them to open a book to page 21, or answer problem 21, or anything with the number 21, because I’m guaranteed a nasally chorus of twenty-one‘s, giggles, chuckles, snickers, and snorts. Worse, there’s always one or two kids that will say it in response to any number they hear, doesn’t even have to be 21. They’ll still decide it’s an opportunity to release their comedic gold on the rest of us…

2. bruh

The etymology of this one is clear–bro turned into bruh, and occasionally breh. But the definition? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t really mean anything. It may or may not be used like bro, to refer to your buddy. But mostly, it seems to be used when you don’t feel like saying anything else. “How did you feel about that math test?” “Bruh.”

Yeah, I don’t know.

3. what are those

Soooooo ready for this one to die already… I believe it also comes from a Vine or video or something that I haven’t seen. I don’t need to see it; I already know how it goes. Person A points to Person B’s shoes, and yells, “WHAT ARE THOSE?!” I’m told the correct response is “BETTER THAN YOURS!” (Remember that, guys. Knowledge is power.) I have no idea why everyone’s running around making fun of everyone else’s shoes. But they seem to do it indiscriminately, whether or not the other person is actually wearing cool shoes, so the meanness factor seems low. It’s just annoying. Especially since I can no longer simply inquire about the identity of objects by asking, “What are those?”

4. goals

I discovered this one last spring, when we were reading a novel in class that the kids were super into. (The Unhappening of Genesis Lee) Any time the main character and her love interest (note: it’s not a love story, but it includes a love story) had any semblance of a cute moment together, the girls in class would squeal and yell, “Goals! Goals! That’s goals right there!” I eventually learned that was actually part of a sub-category known as relationship goals. There are also squad goals if you see a group of friends being cool, the way you wish you and your friends could be. I’m sure there are other classifications of goals too.

I think goals originated as an Instagram hashtag. Maybe? I don’t hate this one, though. I feel like it has its uses. I think it’s slipped out of my mouth “ironically” a time or two, which means it’s only a matter of time until I’m saying it sincerely.

5. on fleek

I feel like this one’s already gotten a lot of attention in the general knowledge bank, but it still seems like the strangest phenomenon. If it were just the newest way to tell somebody they’re on point, looking good, then fine, whatever. But on fleek is limited to complimenting somebody’s eyebrows. What? How did “nice eyebrows” merit its very own adjective??

My prediction: one of two things is going to happen. On fleek is going to die out quickly, buried in the time capsule of 2015 trivia. Or its definition is going to expand to a more general way to compliment somebody’s appearance, so shoes, lipstick, and haircuts will also have a shot at being on fleek.

6. bae

I feel like this one’s been around for a little longer than a year, but whatever, I’m including it on my list. Because I hate it. For those who haven’t been paying attention, bae is the new word for “babe.” Personally, I’ve never even liked the word “babe.” I can’t even really defend my distaste for it, but I’ll never use it. So now that’s been further cutesy-fied into bae? Ugh. No.

7. though

At first, it really bothered me that though had become a slang term. (And the way the kids spell it doe still bothers me! Say no to the female deer!) Basically, it’s become a way to comment on something, without actually formulating a comment. And it seems to be tonally based. Depending on my tone, “that shirt though” could mean that I love or hate your shirt. It seems lazy. Sentences no longer need a verb or adjective to be descriptive. All you need is a noun and though. But I have to admit… I’m getting sucked into this one. I’ve definitely been known to coo over baby photos, “Those cheeks though…” I won’t admit to times I’ve used it in less kind contexts…

8. wrecked

The internet tells me it’s spelled rekt, but… really? I’ve only heard this one from boys so far, and the best I can tell, getting wrecked means something bad happened? I guess I need more data.

9. pause

My new least favorite. Pause has just popped up lately, and seems to be the new “that’s what she said.” I don’t know where it came from, but using context clues and my middle school brain, I’m feeling pretty confident that I understand the usage. When a kid starts using it in my class, I just innocently ask if they’d like to explain the term to myself or any other staff members. They decline, and immediately quit using the word. Problem solved.

Special Snowflake Delusions

First and last sentences (and paragraphs?) are my least favorite part. “They” say they’re the most important–grab the reader’s attention right away, and leave them with something to think about. Me, I’d rather skip them all together. I can write middles for days, but beginnings and endings–ugh, do I have to? (Actually, I’m the same way conversationally. I love talking with people! But I’m terrible at beginning or ending the conversation.)

Now that I’m awkwardly in my second paragraph, welcome to my “new thing” of 2016! In 2015, I had one resolution, and one “new thing.” The resolution was an utter failure, but the new thing stuck around and keeps making me all kinds of happy. Back in 2013, I learned that I actually am capable of keeping a resolution, if there’s public accountability. So in 2016, I’m starting a “new thing” with public accountability, which feels like a formula for success.

I think that says 2016… Try squinting a little.
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I never write anymore, and I miss it immensely. Without writing things down, my thoughts just bounce around haphazardly in my head and grow into unrecognizable globs of mush. Friends have been telling me for ages that I should start a blog. While it’s flattering that they believe my words are worth sharing, and I’m a sucker for flattery, two things have been holding me back…

One, I don’t know if I can keep this going consistently. (Guess we’re going to find out!)

Two, I feel like it takes some degree of narcissism to start a blog… I recognize how ridiculous that feeling is, because I don’t see narcissism in any of my favorite bloggers. I love glimpsing into the lives and thoughts of “just people.” People are fascinating.

Nobody wants to be this guy… Although his beard game is strong, and would be welcomed here in Portland.
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But what makes me think that anyone would care what I have to say? Do I even have anything to say? What makes my voice unique? Those questions kept bringing me back to my three most obvious identifiers…

  • Wheelchair user
  • Middle school teacher (ESL)
  • Mormon (and a mostly liberal Mormon to boot)

None of those things are particularly unique by themselves. But together? How many people do you know that fit all three categories? I don’t think I’ve met any… (I’m not even sure whether I’d want to. Might hurt my special snowflake delusions.) So maybe that’s reason enough to add my voice to the internet.

Full disclosure, this isn’t really my first time at the blogging rodeo. I’m more of a born-again blogging virgin. I did the LiveJournal thing when it was cool. I did Blogger or Blogspot or whatever when everybody else did. (Never had a MySpace or a Xanga. I was a shy little blog-stalker in those days.) Those were all “friends only” ventures, though, visible exclusively to those I’d included on a private friends list, and it’s been a long time since then. This is my first time writing openly for the world to see.

It’s an odd mix of confidence (narcissism?) and vulnerability that we find in this bloggy space, isn’t it?

One thing that I remember from my days of secret blogging, is the oddly uneven ground it created for my friendships. People read my blog, had some idea what was happening in my life, and felt like they were keeping in touch with me. But I never heard from them! To those friends who know me in real life, I welcome you to this space, and I ask you, please, not to let this substitute for our friendship. Readers are awesome, but I need friends more than I need readers. Call me, beep me, if you wanna reach me!

kim possible
Yeah, you remember…
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The only thing I hate more than writing first and last sentences, is writing titles. I spent ages trying to come up with a blog name, and got nowhere. Any words or phrases that I tried to play with, felt like putting myself in a box. Yes, I’m inevitably going to write about disability, and teaching, and religion… But I’m not going to write about any of those personal identifiers all the time. I didn’t want a title that tied me to any one theme or tone. So, I finally broke it down to the only thing that I can count on remaining constant through the ups and downs and evolution of my blog and my person…

My name is Kristine.