Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Special, gifted

By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 21:41:00 01/14/2010

Filed Under: Children, Health, Air Transport

LAST Wednesday I began to write about the wide spectrum of conditions we are dealing with when we talk about special children. I discussed global development delay (GDD), mental retardation (MR) and autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), and how there might be overlaps with these conditions.

To make things even more complicated, there are many other medical conditions that are not just associated with, but might actually be the causes, of GDD and MR. For example, a child’s speech delay might be due to a hearing disability. Lead poisoning, which can come from house paint and vehicular emissions, can likewise affect mental development.

The term “special child” is a good one, but carries over the strong stigma associated with older terms, for example, “retarded” or even “mentally ill,” which is the way society stereotypes and judges people. I have heard conversations where someone used the term, and got a response like, “Ah, abnormal child” or “Ah, retarded.”

Hidden labels

The hidden labels of “abnormal” and “retarded” are dangerous, often blocking parents from going to seek professional help and diagnosis, or marginalizing the stigmatized child in school and in the community.

Who knows how many children were forced to drop out of schools because they seemed “retarded” when the slower mental development might have been caused by easily reversible iron deficiency anemia, or malnutrition?

Some years back in my work in an urban poor community in Quezon City, I encountered someone who had dropped out of school at the age of 14, ashamed because he had only reached fourth grade. I suspected he had a learning disability called dyslexia, where the letters in words keep getting interchanged, which makes reading difficult. My suspicions came from the way he would text messages, as well as read signs. We never got to confirm if he had dyslexia because his family could not afford the diagnostic tests. He is now 20 and has a family, but can only find occasional work.

The term “special child” does include those with learning disabilities, and there’s another wide range of conditions here, many of which many families still don’t recognize. Even near-sightedness can create learning difficulties, yet in developing countries like the Philippines, many families do not have their children’s vision checked, partly because of economics and partly because there is still the idea that children don’t generally need glasses.

It might help then if we shift our mind-sets away from “special child” (and its continuing negative connotations) to “children with special needs.” This is especially important for teachers, who tend to only recognize the more extreme and visible “outliers” from the norm: the very “bright” ones, who are then labeled “gifted” and the ones who seem “slow.”

I am sorry about all those quotation marks but as I pointed out on Wednesday, intelligence is a controversial concept. You may have children labeled mentally retarded who have awesome skills in some fields, for example, math or music.

The old term used for them was “idiot savant” but objections have been raised with the term “idiot” so today there are alternative terms like “autistic savant” and even “mega savant,” emphasizing the aspect of genius.

My point is that we may have many savants out there whose potentials will never be developed because our biases about what is normal block us from seeing less apparent forms of genius.

Interchanged terms

Let’s get back now to the Cebu Pacific controversy. Some media reports said that the airline had a rule against boarding more than one passenger with “mental illnesses” on each flight. Other reports said it was more than one “special child.” The way the two terms are interchanged shows that our fears of the “special child” stem from a notion that they are mentally ill.

In the Internet exchanges about the Cebu Pacific incidents, people have argued that special children should not be allowed to fly because they become unruly or violent and could endanger other passengers. Others paint a scenario where there is a flight emergency and that flight attendants would have a hard time evacuating the “retarded.”

But if we use such criteria we would then have to set passenger quotas on people who tend to binge on alcohol. We would also need quotas for infants and toddlers, on the elderly, and on people who are physically handicapped, even someone having a cast for a fractured arm or foot.

The Cebu Pacific controversy reminded me of a case in the United States. In October last year, a woman from New Mexico filed a lawsuit against three airlines that were operating a flight from which she had been asked to disembark. The incident dated back to 2006 and what had happened was that she was breastfeeding her one-year-old daughter while waiting for the plane to take off. The flight attendant asked her to cover herself with a blanket and when she refused, she was made to get off the plane.

The passenger’s complaint led to women launching protest actions in 19 airports where they breastfed in public.

My point is that airline policies often only reflect public notions of morality and what is “normal” or “abnormal.” Cebu Pacific’s policy only reflected public discomfort with and fears of “special children,” and unfortunately, the ones who are most visible with their conditions – children with Down syndrome and global developmental delays, for example – end up the most stigmatized.


Rather than training our sights on Cebu Pacific alone, we need to look at how we respond to special children in general in our own homes and schools.

Let me give a concrete example here. Right now, special children usually end up in special schools, which can be very much more expensive than regular schools. Now, what would happen if regular schools began to accept special children? It is actually happening, with a handful of schools, but with quotas and with a screening process that assesses whether the special children can handle life in the regular school.

It’s a good policy, expanding the options for the special children, while allowing “regular” children to become part of the worlds of special children. I visited one such school the other day and realized this is possible only when the schools’ parents and teachers value diversity.

Unfortunately, many of our schools and social institutions, fear anyone who’s different. They will not even allow adopted children, for example, or children of single mothers and separated couples simply because they don’t fit into definitions of a “normal” family. The underlying message of such discriminatory policies is that the “abnormal” children – adopted, “special,” whatever – might “contaminate” the “normal” ones.

Ultimately, we have to recognize that while special children need more time and attention, we also need to be sensitive to how children can be so different from each other, so that siblings in a family or children in one class, will need individualized attention. With that kind of thinking, we would value all children as special, and as gifted.

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