Facilitating people by “providing access”

The more I think about the kinds of notions I discussed in this old post from Out in Left Field, the more I think about how all this is part of a broader phenomenon that includes facilitated communication.

The broad assumption is that children have already picked up various academic skills on their own and that all the adults need to do is to “provide access.”  “Provide access”, in turn, seems to mean whatever support is necessary for students to “demonstrate understanding.”

In some case this “support” is no-fear Shakespeare and movies; in other cases it’s a calculator or speech-to-text or assistive technologies that correct grammar and misspellings; in other cases it’s math problems where you get partial credit for explaining your answer in words or pictures, even if your numbers are wrong.

…and in some cases it’s someone putting pressure on your wrist, forearm, or shoulder, or holding up a keyboard, while you stick out your index finger and point to the letter you’re being cued to select next.

In other words, the same wishful thinking that got us today’s crummy education system also gets us the Rapid Prompting Method, Spelling to Communicate, and Supported Typing.

“Universal access” to The Answer

Many teachers, as I discussed earlier, are obligated by their superiors to assign literary works that are many grade levels ahead of that of their students. But how, short of massive grade inflation, do you keep your students from failing the class? The answer is to relegate the actual works to window dressing, replacing them with simplified texts like No Fear Shakespeare, or movie versions, or graphical representations of the story and its characters.

While these moves may be purely pragmatic in some cases, I’ve heard some education professionals discuss them as reasonable ways to provide special needs students with “equal access” to the great works of literature. Withholding Shakespeare from students with language delays, after all, would be an ableist bigotry of low expectations.

The problem is that what makes Shakespeare et al great literature isn’t translatable into simplified texts and visual representations. Great literature is a function of great writing: evocative word choices, turns of phrase, rhythms of prose. Simplifying that writing not only reduces its quality, but also much of its more intricate content. Replacing poetry or prose with visuals or cinematography removes all that isn’t visually or cinematographically depictable: the characters’ introspections or interior monologues, the narrator’s nonvisual descriptions (e.g., of personalities), and other nonvisual reflections, commentaries, and foreshadowings. This kind of access isn’t real access.

Instead, it creates a mockery of real literature, reducing it to basic plot, simplified characters, and a simplified notion of authorial intent.

Somehow this reminds me of Reform Math. In endorsing multiple ways to get the answer, or “multiple pathways” to “demonstrate understanding,” Reform Math ignores the importance of specific mathematical strategies. No matter if you counted on your fingers or guessed and checked in lieu of following general rules to find patterns and manipulate expressions and equations: as long as you write some sort of verbose explanation for how you solved the problem, that’s all that matters.

Similarly, Universal Design-inspired literature classes ignore the importance of the specific means the author has used to convey the literary “answer” (the work’s content and theme). As long as you “demonstrate understanding” of what the “answer” is, it doesn’t matter how you got there. In this version of education–of “access” to “learning”– it’s the final destination, not the journey, that matters.

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