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Who Owns This Disability?

March 23, 2011

When I started this blog, I promised you some stuff about Disability issues.  Today, I deliver something that applies equally well to the Real World and Virtual Worlds, especially if you are an Educator.

I need a good example for this post, so I am going to pick on a tiny, helpless minority, people most of us are not familiar with: people with Brown Hair.  (Full Disclosure: I have dark brown hair in both RL and as part of my avatar.) OK, yes, I am being silly!  Let’s just pretend that Brunettes are a tiny minority, rare enough that heads will turn and people will stare.  Let’s pretend that “normal” people have Blonde, Red, or Jet-Black hair, unless it has turned White or Gray.

The semester has started, and you learn that one of your new students has Brown Hair! You have never taught a Brunette before, and you aren’t certain how this is going to work.  You do recognize that it is your responsibility to give Brunette students the same opportunities for learning as those with any other hair color, but you just don’t know where to start.  Who do you go to?

Well, in a University, your first stop might be the Office of Brunette Services. There, a small, overworked staff does their best to meet the needs of all the Faculty and all the Brunette students on campus.  This student has Dark Brown Hair, whereas all previous Brunettes to attend your school have had Light Brown Hair.  They’ll do their best. Have a pamphlet.

Seeking more information, you might go down to the College of Barbers, Hairstylists, and Salon Technicians and speak to a member of the Faculty there.  Dr. Follicle has been teaching students how to work with every type of hair for twenty years, but they are primarily concerned with what happens in the Salon and Barbershop, not with how Brunettes live their lives outside of those structured institutions.  Once they walk out of the Salon, they are on their own.

Really confused now, you go over to the Medical School and talk to one of the Doctors there. Yes, I have several Brown-Haired patients.  They have different medical needs from the rest of us: unlike RedHeads, they tan rather than burn, for instance.  You come away knowing what genetic factors cause brown hair, how it affects medical practice, and the percentage of the population who have it, but very little about how you are supposed to relate to this Brunette who walked into your class.

Somebody points you to an organization run by and for people with Brown Hair: the National Brunette Federation, “The Voice of the Nation’s Brunettes!”  They are very politically active, and they have a lot of stories about Brunettes who have lived successful and productive lives, but not everything they say about People With Brown Hair seems to fit what you are seeing. For instance, they insist that Brunettes go about with their hair uncovered and unashamed, but your student favors a Baseball Cap when he is outside.  Who is right?

Who owns the Brown Hair, and who has the power to make decisions about it? Who speaks with authority?

Who owns YOUR hair?  It is part of your body, is it not? Of course it is!  You own your own body, and if part of it is different from what people have come to expect, that does not diminish your rights and responsibilities over it.

All of these other people: they have excellent resources, they have informed opinions (that may not agree with one another!), but they do not own the Brown Hair.  That student owns his own hair, whatever the color.  You should start by sitting down and talking with him.  Listen, and while you may not become an expert in all matters Brunette, you will likely learn about this student’s needs and your part in meeting them.  The rest are there when you both need them.

This is utterly ridiculous.  The real world doesn’t work this way!

But it does.  Go through what I wrote and replace everything that has to do with hair with a specific disability: Deafness. Blindness. Asperger’s.  Multiple Sclerosis.  Amputated Limb(s).  Dyslexia.  Anything.

Replace it with that, and you have a fairly common experience for Students with Disabilities in our education system, and for the Educators who may feel ill-prepared to work with them.  It can be confusing and frustrating, but the best and easiest way to get through it is to remember who owns the Disability: the person who has it as part of their body.  Nobody else owns it, they can only advise and offer resources.  The right to decide and the obligation to deal with the consequences of that decision rests with the competent adult who signed up for your class.

Respect the student, respect their power over their own body, and you’re off to a good start.

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