In my opinion, one of the most difficult concepts in our society is “normal.” We talk about it all the time. We compare ourselves and others to it constantly. Many of us bend over backwards to try to be it. But, what exactly is it?
Every time I work with my students on social-pragmatic skills, we talk about “reading the room” and trying to figure out what everyone else is doing. While this is a great strategy that helps them fit in better with their peers, it’s also a difficult task for me to teach. I know that so many of my kids with social challenges desperately want to blend in with their peers. The way we teach that is to have them stop, read the room (find out what’s “normal” right now), and do what everyone else is doing. Yes, this helps them to blend in with their peers. But, I feel like it harps on “normalcy.”
I always grew up with inspirational quotes. The walls of my childhood bedroom were full on magnets and signs with sayings like “Reach for the moon, and if you miss, you’ll land among the stars” and “Anything is possible if you believe.” As I grew older, I realized that I was pretty different from the kids around me… I was a theater kid who also played sports, a teen who actually enjoyed going to church, and I was looking at colleges with a major (CSD) that most people didn’t know existed. But, as I continued in the college application process, it really started to click that these schools weren’t looking for what made me just like everyone else… they wanted to know how I stood out from the crowd. My differences were acknowledged, valued, and cultivated.
When working with assistive technology, I’m constantly hearing about appearing “normal.” Many of the devices and tools we want to use can ruin that feeling of being normal: wearing a receiver for a personal FM system, using a slant board for reading/writing, using pictures and/or technology to communicate… they’re just not normal. Even some of the accommodations we utilize within the school-based setting are difficult: paper-based testing, specific graphic organizers, extra processing time, etc. So, how do we help?
1) Embrace diversity
We’ve done so much to promote acceptance and encouragement of diversity with children, but there’s so much work left to do. The sooner we can realize and accept that others have different preferences, backgrounds, skin colors, cultures, languages, and needs, the better we’ll be.
I see this as a crucial step in the early years of school. When children grow up believing that differences are not only okay, but encouraged, we have a strong society ahead of us.
2) Be there to listen
When we’re working with students using assistive technology and/or other specialized accommodations, it’s important for us to listen. I’ve worked with students across a variety of ages with AT. As they get older, it becomes harder for them to want to keep using the tools they have because they’re terrified of being “different.” Welcome to middle school.
The best thing we can do is listen to their fears and challenges, and whenever possible, brainstorm creative solutions. Sometimes, there might not be one. Other times, kids can come up with great ideas! Regardless, we have to acknowledge that feeling different is rough.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the principle that everyone has access to tools that may benefit their quality of life. At the elementary school level, all students could have the option to take movement breaks on the trampoline, not just the ones with accommodations on an IEP. In middle school, this approach could be as simple as everyone having access to use a Chromebook to write his/her report, that may be typed by hand or by using speech-to-text software that’s already built in. In the community, UDL approach can be seen at crosswalks that use both light and sound to notify members – necessary for some, helpful for most, available to all.
By embracing a UDL model, we encourage people to use the tools that are helpful to them, while also increasing awareness and acceptance of assistive technology within our community.
4) Encourage being comfortable in your own skin
My computer is full of “success stories”: those adults and kids that faced adversity head on and came out the other side better for it. Often times, I find that my students (and even adults) can so easily fall into this feeling of being alone. Especially when they’re the only ones in their community with their particular challenge, it can be difficult!! They NEED someone to relate to, whether that’s you or someone else. With the rise of technology, this has become infinitely easier! Find a Facebook group, Instagram community, blog following, penpal… whatever works for them to find a community! When you’re not alone, life seems a heck of a lot more bearable.
As I mentioned before, I’m a huge theater geek, and part of that comes with an insane knowledge of obscure lyrics and lines. One of my best friends introduced me to a monologue from The Fantasticks (1960). The character, Luisa, has a monologue that ends in the most beautiful quote: “I am special. I am special! Please, God, please, don’t let me be normal!”
I hope and pray that my clients reach the point where they realize that their differences can be strengths if they let them. I want them to understand and believe that their incredibly awesome just the way they are, and to wear that attitude proudly. Until then, I’ll be there to listen, advocate, and encourage.
Normal is overrated.
Until next time,