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Normal is relative
Q: Can "disabled" be "normal"?
Nestled in the shadows of the nation's capital is a remarkable institution known as Gallaudet University. As signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1864, Gallaudet was originally known as the "Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind." Because today virtually all of its students, faculty, and staff are deaf, most classes are conducted in silence, using sign language. At Gallaudet, it's not normal to speak, and one's voice is essentially useless there. The hearing visitor, unschooled in American Sign Language (ASL), cannot even so much as beg for a sip of water without asking for help from a translator.
The campus is fully adapted for life without sound. Where possible, structures avoid right angles, so people who cannot hear someone approaching can see who is nearby. Halls are built extra-wide to accommodate students who gesture while walking side-by-side. Every room is equipped with a button outside the door to flash the lights inside, which substitutes for a knock.
As at any college, the dining halls are alive with students excitedly chatting and gossiping, but hardly a sound is made. (top)
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Instead, students communicate efficiently using hand gestures that are punctuated by animated movements of the face and body. Students talk on the phone using videophones located throughout the campus. People who are able to hear and are unschooled in ASL, who outside Gallaudet may think of themselves as "normal," are likely to feel very much inferior and out of place in this society where people speak so eloquently with their hands. In effect, those who are "normal" outside become "disabled" inside, turning our definitions of "normality" and "disability" on their heads. Unless people can master ASL, those who are "normal" outside the walls of Gallaudet will be unable to learn, or even use their voice to perform basic important life functions, once inside. On the other hand, those who are deaf, who work and reside within Gallaudet, do not perceive their life in silence as a hindrance or a loss.
In the context of Gallaudet, the person who is "normal" is the person who is handicapped outside Gallaudet. This important fact serves to remind us of something we all know that is all too often forgotten: "Normal" is a relative term, and "normal" or "typical" are not synonyms for "better." As educators, though few of us regularly deal with students who are deaf, all of us are faced on a daily basis with students who exhibit a broad range of differences in ability. Though one student may perform more poorly than others at doing some task in some specific context, it is important to recognize that if this context is changed, or if the task is modified in even a small way, this same student who performs poorly may outperform his or her classmates. Our job as educators is to recognize the degree to which we can influence how well any given student may learn, by simply restructuring the environment or by changing the context for learning so that a difference that was once a disadvantage can be turned into an advantage. Let us look at some of the ways the neuroscience of teaching and learning can help us to do this.