What Is Meant by "Differently Abled?"

Perseverance: a "symptom" of a developmental disorder
My son with autism, at 15, is clearly "different," and his challenges are real.  Yet Tom feels comfortable using poetic language that's typically "forbidden" to his same-age peers: words like glorious, heartbreaking, and love.  He has no compunctions about creating complex and gorgeous lego sculptures when other children his age have long ago dumped legos as "babyish."  He's not afraid to tell his sister that he loves her.  He has no fears about playing solos in the band when other teens find it embarrassing to stick out.

My Tom is not unique.  He is "differently abled."
While the term "differently abled" may be used by some as a euphemism for "incompetent," the concept of a person with disabilities also having unique and significant abilities is very real.  In some cases, those abilities are pretty obvious (as in the case of a person with autism who is also a genius-level savant).  In other cases the abilities are less obvious - though none the less real.

 Don't get me wrong.  Developmental disorders and challenges are not insignificant. But those qualities that create huge barriers for a person making his way through a school system focused on verbal learning, standardized testing and complex social expectations may be the source of very real advantages outside of the school (or office).
A few cases in point.

  • The person with ADHD who, because sitting still and conforming is tough, is more willing than his peers to take on physical challenges, try a new activity, or be the first to raise his hand. 
  • The person with autism who, because he is unconcerned with (or even unaware of) the judgements of others, is able to get up and perform as a musician or singer without a touch of stage fright.
  • The individual with learning disabilities, who, because writing is difficult, finds creative and dramatic ways of expressing what she knows.
  • The person with Asperger syndrome for whom 100 hours spent programming a new video game isn't work: it's a joy.
The world is not made up entirely of classrooms and office cubicles.  There are forests and beaches, sports arenas and stages, studios and labs, museums and swimming pools.  In all of these settings (and many others), people with "disabilities" may be more "differently abled" than the average individual.

As we consider authentic opportunities for inclusion, it's critical to think about building on different abilities - and not solely on remediating or dodging around perceived disabilities.

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Lisa Jo Rudy

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