Well, the hiatus didn’t last as long as I thought.
One of the topics that we addressed during the philosophic counseling class was that of special needs children, a subject near and dear to my heart. (I know you’re not reading, but, “Hi, Secular Jew, Jr.”!) Since I spend a lot of time thinking about those issues, it was good to have someone else talk about them–being inside a conversation makes you forget what it looks like from the outside.On that note, I follow a blog called “Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block.” Today’s post on that blog, titled “Are You Sure?,” is a response to someone who didn’t see kids with special needs represented in a back-to-school ad, and so made her own ad. Lisa Friedman, who writes the Jewish Special Needs Education blog, points out that not all disabilities are visible, and that assuming that there are no special needs kids in an advertisement featuring otherwise “normal looking” children is essentially a projection of one’s own biases and predispositions onto the original ad.
I don’t disagree with Friedman’s basic point: it’s not always possible to tell, just by appearance, whether a child has special educational or other needs. Behavioral, cognitive, and other differences don’t manifest physically in many (most?) cases. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the individual to whom Friedman is responding is necessarily making assumptions about what an ad featuring individuals with special needs should look like.
This is a question of signalling, both to in- and out-groups. From an in-group perspective, we’re concerned with representation of our experience and with support for our concerns. That’s why advocacy and support groups exist.
But to out-groups–those unaffected by, uninvolved with, or in denial about those with special needs–a back-to-school ad with “normal-looking” kids is an ad with normal kids. It doesn’t include a child with special needs at all.
This is a kind of push-me/pull-you problem. Those of us in an in-group that can see our loved ones in an advertisement with typical-looking kids don’t necessarily feel the need for a visible representation of difference, because we see it already. To gain the accommodations our loved ones need, we may need to have obvious representations of difference in media–but we run the risk that only physical differences will be recognized as requiring accommodation. That, of course, is why advocacy exists.
The answer to the dilemma, then? Diverse representations of differences.
Friedman recognizes this, of course. But it’s a point that needs repetition, because it’s too easy to get “silo-ed” off into our own concerns. And so I’m not critical of the thought behind the back-to-school ad needing a physical representation of difference. Because in the words of Governor Menelaus “Pass the Biscuits” Pappy O’Daniel in the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “We’re MASS communicatin’!”
(I miss Charles Durning.)