Reading, Disability & Blackness

I have been an educator for the past 20 years, I am currently a School Based Literacy Facilitator, where I go to schools and lead and coach administrators and teachers to do the type of work needed to help students learn to read.  My own big ‘why’ for doing what I do is because I feel a sense of urgency when it comes to helping all students become proficient readers. It impacts absolutely everything in life. 

After listening to Thomas Reid and his must-listen-to podcast “Reid My Mind Radio” I find myself thinking deeper about blackness and reading, disability and reading, and of course, the intersectionality of blackness and disability. Thomas Reid creates profound podcasts where he shares “stories and profiles of compelling people impacted by all degrees of blindness and disability. Plus Reid explores his own experiences in his unique way pairing his words with music and sound design.” His work has given me the opportunity to think deeper about blackness and reading, disability and reading, and of course, the intersectionality of blackness and disability. How does blackness and disability intersect to impact reading? 

I need to start out by sharing that I did not grow up with black students in my classes, I didn’t have black teachers. I don’t work with black teachers, I don’t have black administrators. Therefore, I acknowledge that in many aspects, I am the one who feels metaphorically blind to blackness, and blackness and disability. How can I reach students and help them all to read if I cannot see what I need to see? 

Why do so many schools in marginalized communities have students who struggle with learning how to read? I want to ask myself what I need to do to understand this enough to make a real difference. What are the connections between poverty, race and disability, and learning to read? What are the inherent injustices?

Reid shares in his podcast: Let me hear you say Black Lives Matter: “White America doesn’t want to do the work to fix injustice” 

I think that it is fair to say that white schools also don’t want to do the work to fix the injustices. White teachers don’t want to do the work – many without even realizing this. White curriculum also doesn’t do the work of fixing injustices, and instead causes many. In my experience, educators want to be very prepared, to be knowledgeable ‘experts’ about what everyone needs to do to be successful. I feel the need to do my best in these ways as well. Therefore, in my opinion it has become a culture of feeling the need to have all of the answers, of being able to compartmentalize everything into neat boxes, which in turn will help us fill out our report cards, our IEP’s, our TPA’s, or ALP’s, our SIP’s, our BIP’s. Which are important, but sometimes become the boxes we need to check off, and not about the students that we need to teach. 

If something is not right, or doesn’t seem normal with our students, we put it on an IEP, or refer it to an expert. We ‘other’ it. WE don’t SEE it. The disability is sent to someone else, before we will do anything else with it. The blackness is sent to someone else if it cannot be contained, ‘normalized’, or accommodated. Do we blame blackness and disability if a student cannot read? 

White culture deems what ‘good literature’ is to teach with. The actions we do to support are surface level – ensuring some black authors, ensuring some books with characters who are black or disabled – but it is surface level, and it is ‘tokenism’. And still compared to standards of whiteness of reading and literacy. 

As Reid also said in his podcast: “The real power in our actions”. What kinds of actions do we really need to see? 

I know that I need to spend time truly understanding blackness and disability, and what the injustices are and how they feel- especially as it pertains to helping students to learn how to read. I need to understand the policies and procedures, and behaviours that prop these injustices up. Are there creative ways to take action? Inspirational ways?

It will take time.

Published by Deborah McCallum

Author of The Feedback Friendly Classroom Literacy Instruction and Assessment Facilitator | Author | AQ Instructor & Developer | MEd @OISEUofT Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development

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