by Christopher Mathey
I am fortunate to interpret the world beyond the mundane. This good fortune is a result of being neurologically different. What some people—most people, it seems—learn automatically or intuitively, I had to consciously learn with active guidance from specific tutors and mentors. One specific mentor, a man I consider to be a true global citizen, showed me a picture of the Dalai Lama on the first day we met.
“Do you know who this is?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, and rattled off a slew of facts and historical markers in the life of the Dalai Lama. My mentor was impressed, but at that time I did not interpret his nonverbal communication accordingly. In fact, practically none of his nonverbal cues registered in my mind.
“What is he doing?”
“Smiling,” I replied.
“What does that mean?”
After several moments of puzzlement, I said, “I have no idea,” and I meant it.
It wasn’t that I’d been pondering the existential nature of what it means to smile, or that I contemplated a series of circumstances that most likely led to make the Dalai Lama smile.
I did not understand what a smile meant. My neurologically different mind did not readily understand the four basic emotional states—mad, sad, bad and glad. It may be obvious that I consequently did not pick up on nonverbal subtlety or nuance. Since nonverbal communication makes up about 98% of all communication at any given moment, I was missing most of the underlying and implicit language that others seemingly know and take for granted. I was a literal thinker and my understanding of the world was black-and-white. My tone, cadence, and other speech patterns were akin to a stereotypical computer voice from Star Trek. Not only was I monotone, but I was also matter-of-fact.
I did not know that I was different for the first 18 years of my life. Up to that point, my scholastic and social experiences were often tarnished with more failures than successes, especially throughout elementary school and junior high. My family and I rejected my diagnosis of being on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum for various reasons, mostly related to the fear of social stigma. At first, we treated the diagnosis as if it were a terminal illness; we were sorely misinformed.I learned that, although it was good to possess traits that distinguished myself from others, and although it was fine for other people to have disabilities, it was not okay for me to be different or disabled. I felt ultimately doomed. The fear of social stigma reinforced the belief that death was preferable to life with a disability.
As it turned out, that diagnosis was both a blessing and a curse. Although we—my family and I—now had a name and explanation for my strengths and weaknesses (and consequently, a level of meaning tied to life experiences), the diagnosis itself was a formal marker that I was different, and not in a good way.
Our attitudes changed when we learned about Landmark College in Putney, VT, the premier college for students with dyslexia and other learning challenges. Landmark gave me my life back by reframing my understanding of myself, not as a person fated to walk this Earth with a metaphoric scarlet letter on my forehead, but as an intelligent and creative person whose strengths can accommodate the challenges posed by being neurologically different. Landmark was—and is—a nurturing environment, and to this day remains my second home. The good people at Landmark helped me relearn how to learn, especially to build up and enhance my observation and interpretation skills.
Not everyone in my past, however, was as optimistic about my capacities for observation and interpretation. Outside of Landmark College, I did have some social influences who wanted the best for me. These people supported my interests with praise, encouragement, and other positive reinforcement. I am genuinely appreciative of their time, effort, and belief in me because they valued me for myself, including my quirks, and influenced me to become the person I am today. But there were (and are) other people whose influence also helped mold and shape my personality and attitude by attempting—and temporarily succeeding during earlier times in my life—to deflate, demoralize, or humiliate me. Ultimately, their ignorance and cruelty inspired me to make the effort to conscientiously value the worth and dignity of other humans who are “different.”
Of the negative influences, some people were genuinely ignorant—while others have been willfully ignorant. Genuine ignorance affords the opportunity to question the social assumptions influencing their thinking and consequently overcoming that ignorance—they are forgivable and redeemable. Knowledge is not power, but knowledge once applied becomes powerful. We may be further on the path to wisdom when we recognize how our past attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors contributed to the misfortune of others. We can actively decide to take proactive steps to keep ourselves from making the same decisions again. We can make the stability and/or change we desire when we realize we are, in fact, each other’s keeper.
Willful ignorance, however, indicates a tendency to disregard information that empirically contradicts our understanding of the way the world works, and suggests an absence of critical thinking, a preference for ideology over theory. Ideology is popular because ideology is a mantra people accept. Nothing needs to be learned to have an idea; no evidence is needed to support it. Theory, on the other hand, explains things—or at least tries to. If the theory doesn’t explain reality, than it’s time for a new theory. Ideology does none of this. By design, it cannot explain all that it claims to. Instead, ideology changes things because it is employed to advance the claims of a particular agenda. However contrived they may be, ideologies are successful because they purport to explain everything, and people tend to like easy answers.
In my experience, ideology facilitates discrimination. Racism, classism, sexism, ageism, and ableism—among others—are all the products of systemic misunderstandings and distortions of what actually is. Not all people who believe in (and whose behaviors uphold) one or more ideologies are malicious or intentionally reinforcing a divide between “us and them.” But that is too often still the result. There are some people who believe rights and privileges are a zero-sum circumstance where bestowing rights on one group correlates with a loss of rights for other groups—like people who say “All Lives Matter.” The most successful ideologies, when taken at face value, are the ones implicitly understood and transferred between family members and generations.
My experiences with unintentional ignorance are accidentally painful, while intentional ignorance is essentially intentionally malicious. Either way, the common thread is that they are negative.
Higher education is inherently ableist; there are both implicit and overt praises and rewards for cognitive and intellectual acuity (and superiority) in mainstream teaching and learning. Whatever does not fit in the mold of mainstream higher education is subject to ridicule. One professor of mine initially refused to acknowledge legal and appropriate accommodations I received. During one class, he called on three students—me, a paraplegic, and a quadriplegic—telling us to come to the front of the classroom. When we got there, he first reprimanded the quadriplegic for taking too long in his automated wheelchair to navigate around book-bags in the aisles between the seats. This professor proceeded to explain to the class why we were “not fully human” because we “could not contribute fully to society” by virtue of our respective challenges.
Ironically, it was during my graduate school experience that I received the most discrimination for being neurologically different. Some professors disclosed to me which other students received accommodations by way of wanting to know why I sometimes under-performed them. They used language that assumed we all had The Disability—a single divergent profile which we all must have shared. Other professors refused to allow legal and appropriate accommodations because of ideological ignorance. They feared such accommodations might unfairly privilege me, and were unfair to students who didn't need accommodations at all.
Another professor accepted the accommodations, but claimed that I used them to sail through the program. “You always have a choice. You can use the accommodations, but I suggest you actually do the work for a change.” He did not know me or how much extra effort I must put in relative to neurotypical students, and thought nothing of routinely airing his judgments in front of other students about my performance. For instance, he knew nothing about the three years I devoted to an intensive program for neurologically divergent people like myself, working to relearn how to learn and unlocking my potential.
I once had a professor drop the accommodations paperwork from his hands after I gave them to him because he was afraid he would get my “disease” after touching the papers that I had touched. This professor eventually came around, consciously challenging his own assumptions about what disabilities are in general, and learning disabilities specifically. I even had a professor slow down and speak louder when talking to me. I know she meant well, but I do not think she fully comprehended the depth of her own ignorance.
The worst experiences came from one professor who claimed he knew “everything about disabilities.” How do you teach something new to a person who already knows everything? I endured routine physical aggression and verbal abuse in front of my peers. Several graduate students and key faculty reinforced the point that graduate school is very competitive, implying that the certainty of our placement in the program was tenuous at best. We were expected to endure these hardships, even if they violate civil law. During office hours meetings, I was belittled routinely.
Thanks to you, we’ll now be known as the program that lets in anyone.
You are a waste of time.
Do us all a favor and leave.
This professor became so upset with me in class that he walked to where I was seated and shook his clenched fists as if he was going to strike me. When I remained seated and did not respond, he returned to where he was sitting and slammed the table in front of him before berating me in front of the entire class.
I informed two members of Disability Services leadership about this incident, and they made me aware of my options, including the protocol for filing a formal grievance against this professor. I declined to pursue formal or legal action as I feared retaliation by this professor. I instead opted to put on presentations for the department, the larger community, and local public school systems about learning disabilities and their legal and appropriate academic accommodations.
I was not the first student to experience mistreatment by this professor, whose fully tenured status comfortably protects him from consequences of mistreating others.
He overstepped the privilege of tenure by creating and maintaining a hostile work and learning environment. I do not want this professor to treat other students the way he treated me. I feared retaliation for the longest time, and even had nightmares where I was trapped in his office where he would actually hit me in class. But I also felt very strongly that others—especially academics—should be aware of his behavior, and how their silence constituted implicit support of his discrimination.
Not even the institutional diversity committees could get it all the way right. They generally focused on the “big three”—race, class, and gender—as indicators of overall heterogeneity within the department among students, faculty and staff. What is missing, though, is cognitive and neurological diversity. I suppose the general lack of acknowledgment of the presence of different cognitive profiles stems from power. Academics may have experienced bullying in their past. Now in positions of power in academia (a social space in which their talents can thrive), the bullied can become the bullies. Graduate programs have the ability to expose our fears and weaknesses, to make us afraid to come off as weak, but faculty should not prey upon those fears.
I suspect some of them may read this piece, although many won’t. My advice to them would be the same advice they told me: Do not take it personally. Instead of hiding behind the veil of anonymity (like those anonymous editors for our journals who sometimes provided scathing critiques of our work in part), I am out in the open, asking you to reflect on your own assumptions. Yes, academics are overworked and under-appreciated. Just because we are miserable or even just unhappy does not mean others must be as well. My civil rights as a neurologically different person do not reduce the rights you experience as a neurotypical person. Civil rights are not like pie—more for me does not mean less for you.
My accomplishments do not undervalue the significance of your accomplishments. You may say that my accommodations are unfair, but I say life is unfair—I did not choose to be neurologically divergent, but I am forever grateful for the positive experiences that have helped me to cope and thrive with my divergent mind. Perhaps the assumptions about mainstream teaching and learning are stuck in the past, whereas my mind and alternative ways of teaching and learning are looking to the future. The neurotypical old guard may be afraid of change. Change may be scary, but necessary, especially if we want to make a more equitable, just, and democratic world.
Over the course of my life, I have had to change my mindset multiple times, which did me a world of good and has benefited my family, friends, colleagues, and students. I encourage others to do the same. Challenge your assumptions with empirical data derived from thoughtful observation and rigorous assessment, no matter the intellectual discomfort it might cause. Let us develop novel ways of looking at what we take for granted.
May we all be fortunate to interpret the world beyond the mundane.