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Opinion & Essays - Aug, 1997 Issue #47

by: M. Jerome Ennis, M.ed., Director
The R.I.T.E. School
Armuchee, Georgia

For some time now, I have wondered about the term “disability” and the connotation that it carries with it. For most of us, we suppose or imagine that disabled means that a person is mentally or physically handicapped and is therefore incapable of managing on their own, and requires special assistance or consideration. In fact, the term disability has been applied in too many instances, and to too many people, especially to the very young. This has become a big problem in education. 

The specific problem that I want to address here is those students, especially boys, who are identified as “handicapped” or “disabled” simply because they are very busy being boys. Now if that seems or sounds sexist, that’s not my intent. It’s just that boys generally do not mature as early as girls and for that reason, the problem of “disability” impacts boys more often than girls. 

Boys, at the ages of 5, 6, 7, 8, and perhaps even 9 are frequently not really mature enough to be ready to enter the structured schooling. Girls at this age are generally two to three years more mature in these areas than boys and therefore more ready for the structured school setting. For this reason, far fewer girls are identified with “handicapped” labels. 

In every class of “BD,” “EBD,” “EC,” etc. students I have taught or otherwise worked with, boys made up 80 to 90 percent of the class. This is true throughout the country, and there is a reason for this. Boys frequently have to start school before they are ready! They are not developmentally ready for the normal structured school setting. 

Traditional schooling demands that a student sit in a desk, raise their hands before speaking or asking a question, keep up with pencils, paper, books, etc. Further, they have a curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic which require intellectual and motor skills which little boys generally do not yet possess. They, the teachers and school systems, demand that students follow certain rules, procedures, and protocol that are trying for anyone, but especially trying, if not impossible, for some young people, and especially for young boys. This approach produces “handicapped” or “disabled children at an alarming rate. 

Point: Males are not emotionally nor intellectually, as a rule, ready for a structured school setting at the age that our nation demands that they enter school. 

So, what happens? Boys enter school at a mandated age. They continue to be little boys doing what little boys naturally do and do not or cannot follow protocol that is contrary to their nature and ability at that age. They are having lessons and tasks presented to them that they are not yet intellectually capable of adequately understanding, or have the motor coordination to comply with. Many boys do adjust and adapt, but not without costs that show up later. When a person is made to do things they are not emotionally or intellectually mature enough for, it causes emotional distress. A student who managed to not get a “label” still will have emotional development hindered one way or another due to the “forced” or “mandated” environment. 

Those labeled “disabled” are often the ones who kept on being little boys. The teachers become frustrated because Billy will not follow the “rules” which, of course are against the natural laws of little boys. However, the teacher and the experts usually do not see it this way. The parents are notified and told that Billy is defiant, hyper, unruly, and does not do his work. 

What are we to do? Punish him? Take privileges from him? What to do? “We are concerned about Billy.” The next thing you see is a behavior specialist come into the classroom and “observe” Billy being a normal and natural 6 year old. Billy is busy being 6 years old. He is fidgeting in his seat, speaking out of turn, misplacing pencils, paper, etc., speaking and asking questions without raising his hand, not doing his work, looking around the room, and otherwise distracted and not paying attention to the teacher’s lecture, lesson, or instructions. Since Billy is not conforming, and being forced to do what to him is “unnatural” activities, he is now likely to be labeled “handicapped.” The label will vary from LD, to ADD or ADD/H or if he is unusually defiant against doing things he is not ready for, he is labeled BD (Behavior Disordered) or maybe EC (Emotionally Conflicted). Billy, who is a normal and natural little 6 year old boy is now “disabled.” NOTE: There are of course some students who truly are LD, ADD, etc., but my point is too many children are misdiagnosed and labeled, and it falls most heavily on little boys. 

He will be tested, perhaps medicated, “labeled” and placed, with parental permission of course, in a “special” class for the “disabled” or “special” student, where he will attend classes with other, mostly, “disabled” little boys. 

He will likely remain in this type class for the remainder of his school years. If he is fortunate, he will have a teacher or teachers along the way who understand that Billy got into trouble for being a little boy, and help him beginning at the level where his learning and behavior problems began and work forward to bring Billy up to the levels that he needs and deserves to be at. 

All too often though, these students remain “disabled” and this carries into adulthood. Children being “disabled” long before they even had a chance to prove themselves. These labels carry a stigma for the student. These students are many times made fun of, laughed at, picked on, or worse by other insensitive students. Many times teachers call them troublemakers, smart alecks, etc. The “disabled” students become what they are told they are. 

This article is not intended to place blame. I am simply stating what happens. Schools are generally too big. Teachers generally have too many students to give proper and appropriate attention to all of them, and children, especially boys, are frequently being placed in schools before they should be. These are things that are correctable, but it will take public awareness so the public can demand a better system for their children. Smaller schools, smaller teacher-student ratios might help. But most important, we must officially recognize that some students are ready for the structure of traditional school before others are, and act to meet the needs of all, not just a statistical average. 

Copyright © 1997, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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