August 15, 2010

It’s No One’s Business

Lily came out of her interview at a small, elite New England liberal arts college sure that she’d had a good conversation but frustrated by the content. She knew she was supposed to “take charge” of the interview, so she asked a question about how well the college accommodated students with learning differences. She wanted to know, specifically, how she would go about fulfilling a language requirement given she’s dyslexic. The interviewer reassured her that the academic dean was always willing to go to bat for students with documented disabilities. Some professors wouldn’t “get it,” the interviewer said, but college policy would always back up LD students. With accommodations, Lily would be able to fulfill her requirements, just like everyone else. “Besides,” the interviewer told Lily, “it’s no one’s business.”

I shook my head as Lily gave me the report. The phrase “no one’s business” evoked the kinds of things people who considered themselves enlightened would say about “different lifestyles” when I was growing up. Upon learning that so-and-so was lesbian or gay, a free-thinker in the ’70s might say, “I don’t have a problem with that. It’s no one’s business, whatever two people choose to do behind closed doors.”

How far we’ve come as a country in terms of sexuality. Our goal isn’t to tolerate but to embrace. Full equality means that workers put same-sex partners on health insurance policies, high school students take whomever they wish to the prom, and little kids grow up celebrating family as two moms, two dads, one mom, one dad, a mom and a dad, or any combination thereof. Ads, TV shows, films, music — all forms of popular culture normalize the range of sexuality at long last.

In the best of all possible worlds, every college admissions interviewer would openly ask students about their learning styles. Kids wouldn’t just submit standardized tests. They’d submit learning profiles. The goal wouldn’t be to see if institutions of higher learning adhered to the law.  It would be to make sure that every professor, lecturer, and teaching assistant had undergone rigorous training in multi-modal learning.  Every syllabus would offer a variety of assessment techniques.  All students would be choosing courses based on what would maximize their chances to master material and produce good work.

Hip schools have come to promote LGBTQ safe spaces, pasting rainbow-colored stickers on classrooms, offices, and meeting areas, making it everybody’s business to protect against discrimination and danger. I’d like to see LD communities developing a similar icon, something that would immediately signify that kids with learning differences are welcome and safe.  The ADA may have reached its 20th anniversary, but we still have a long way to go when college admissions officers think they’re being sensitive when they tell students “it’s no one’s business” if they’re LD.

I felt terrible telling Lily to steer future interview conversations away from dyslexia and accommodations.  What did she want the admissions folks to know about her?  That she is a tremendous student? That she is a budding documentary filmmaker?  That she has tons of experience working with young children and is interested in human development?  That she loves to spend time outdoors?  Only after an institution has admitted her should she bring up dyslexia, because, as the admissions officer explained all too clearly, we’re living in an academic world of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”