Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Is Equality Really What We Want?

Last week I ran across an article in which one of the experts made the following observation:  "Studies have shown that high school students with disabilities of any kind are are less likely participate in high-school sports than able-bodied students."

Well, yes.  And students of middling intelligence are less likely to go on and become nuclear physicists. And boys who stutter badly are less likely to have careers as stage actors. This struck me as one of those studies that cost somebody a whole lot of money to tell us what anybody with a tiny amount of common sense already knows.

The quote came in the context of a a recent court ruling that requires schools to provide reasonable accommodations to student athletes who would like to compete but are hindered by a school's refusal to make adjustments to their special needs. So this was referring to things like a deaf track runner having a bright strobe light  in addition to the starters gun to help him or her get off the blocks; or a blind wrestler having modest refereeing accommodations to allow him to compete.

I have no problem with these kinds of common sense solutions. But it did make me think a bit about some of the inadvertent problems wrought by the well-intentioned Americans with Disabilities Act and other such pieces of legislations and public policy. As I compare American approaches to these issues with European, for example, I wonder if we're doing ourselves some disservice by this far-reaching effort to level the playing field for virtually everyone.

I've been in federally funded wildnerness parks, for example, where miles upon miles of nature trails have been paved over with asphalt so as to make it possible for wheel-chair bound visitors to enjoy. That's well and good, but usually what you see on these trails are not wheelchairs, but motorized scooters piloted by people who, frankly, aren't so much disabled as just too corpulent to walk comfortably. Is it really logical to ruin the experience for the many so that the few can enjoy the experience of nature?  The presence of this paving over a wilderness trail I'd once enjoyed certainly compromised the enjoyment for myself and likely for every other able-bodied hiker who appreciates natural wildness. Why are our rights less important?

In historic locations along the eastern seaboard, you seem many classic tourist sites with their architectures ruined because handicap accessible elevators or ramps have been added in accordance with laws. Is this really better than the European model, where historic sites remain historic, and disabled visitors must compromise a little on their access? But, America is the land of equality, where everyone must be the same. You can rest assured that if Mr. Everest was in the US, we'd be looking for ways to make it accessible to all.

In public schools, the policy is to mainstream students of all abilities in the same classrooms, with the result that bright, overachieving youngsters have their progress slowed down as teachers and aids accommodate behaviorally challenged or physically limited students. In the typical classroom today, a misbehaving student with emotional problems gets far more attention than the best and brightest. Is this really better than the situation back in the early days for us geezers, when schools had special education classes where kids with unusual needs were addressed by teachers who had been specially trained in meeting those needs? But, we're told, that policy makes those children feel DIFFERENT, whereas we want them to feel they are exactly the same.  And we're quite willing to bring the best and the brightest down, and disable them educationally, in order to achieve this egalitarian idea.

In public transit, virtually all buses and trains are now equipped with hydraulic lifts and special seats to allow disabled people to use them.  This inevitably costs lots and lots of money, reduces the space for able-bodied passengers, and of course compromises the speed of the commute for almost everyone. Is it really better to do it this way, rather than the method once used—which was to designate vehicles for the service of disabled riders; if you were wheelchair bound and needed a ride, an equipped van would come and pick you up and deliver you to your destination.  I'm told that the hydraulic lifts installed on all Minneapolis public buses cos a bout $17,000 each. On a typical month of commuter riding, I might see the lift used once, and on some months not at all. That money would  buy a lot of individualize shuttle rides. But the point, of course, is that in America, we believe that everybody MUST be equal, and a disabled commuter who had to take a taxi, well, he would fee DIFFERENT, and we can't have that.

I have the advantage of course, of being relatively able-bodied, and neither of my kids dealt with serious limitations of any kind while they were in school. And while I was recovering from a bad knee injury a couple of years ago, it was nice that the bus I rode could extend a metal tongue and hoist me into the bus, allowing me to bypass the steps. But  think I would have been equally fine on specially designated vehicle that did the same thing and did not put the other commuters at such an inconvenience. Taking a taxi would have been fine, too, especially if the cost was subsidized for my situation.

I'm quite sure if I, or a close family member or friend, had a serious disability that I'd furiously want every and all accommodations to my situation. But at a macro level it seems to me that we've now reached a point where the needs of the very few often overrides the needs of the many. The goal of democracy is to protect the rights of the minority, I know, but I don't remember that this meant that minority rights trumped those of the majority.

An unpopular  stance for a liberal geezer to take, I know. I can hear my more strident liberal friends take me to task already. And I'm certainly not arguing that simple, practical, cost effective accommodations shouldn't be made for our citizens with disabilities. When a new public building is constructed, it makes sense to put in ramps and elevators. A school district who can't arrange for a bright strobe light so that a deaf sprinter can complete should be ashamed of itself.  But the practical mind says that there's a limit to what I can expect my society to do for me. I am short and would like to play basketball. Should I expect legislation mandating that the basket be set  to a height of 7 ft?

I remember a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, in which the social effort to make everybody equal reached such an absurd degree that pretty people were forced to wear ugly masks in order not to make homely people feel bad about themselves; and strong, athletic people had to carry heavy lead weights so as to make them more like the physically weak. I can't help but think about this when I see a pristine wilderness trail paved over with asphalt.

—this viewpoint comes to you courtesy of Mercurious—


  1. Ah, but the beauty of rules for everything, and equality for all is we no longer have to think...thinking is so stressful.

    Blind runners have an advantage, they are conditioned by sight and see the smoke from the gun before others hear the gun...It is sooo unfair to able hearing runners!

  2. Excellent points. As a society we haved dumbed down to the lowest common denominator for every situation. Common sense has vanished. The net result is that we are NOT better for it, but worse. We all need to be encouraged to find and exploit our strengths, and we all have strengths. We can't expect to compete in areas where we're weak and win. That's just not gonna happen, and we shouldn't expect it.


  3. Frankly this post sounds like the whining of many an old white man who hates the fact that he no longer gets preferential treatment in our society. Tough luck, gramps. Others in our society have languished for years, and we can't really begrudge having the playing field leveled a little bit. When you wind up in a wheelchair in a few years (sounds like it won't be far off), my guess is that you'll want that paved trail through Yellowstone National Park.

  4. Thanks to Joeh, Lowandslow, and Susan for their comments. Susan, I'm not sure what it is about my post that screams old white man to you (although yes, I happen to be white and not very young anymore). But I surely have heard women comment on some of these same issues—the problems of mainstreaming disabled students in public schools, for example, is often expressed by female teachers in schools.

    As regards whether I'd want those paved trails in Yellowstone....not so sure about that. The promise of genuine wilderness will be a genuine comfort to me in old age, I think. Knowing that there are areas of our landscape that are difficult to access—and the memories of seeing them when I was younger and abled—is a romantic notion that would be important to me no matter what my physical competence. I think we'd be much the worse off if we turned all of society and all of nature into an egalitarian experience.

  5. As one of those "female school teachers" you mention, I feel the need to pipe up here.

    The VAST majority of studies out there (and yes, I mean about 95%) supports the idea that differentiating classrooms is a bad idea--i.e. don't put all the smart kids together, don't put all the "problem" kids together. It does not, in fact, give them any particular benefit.

    Actually, I see the multitude of benefits that children get from having to interact with all different kinds of children, including those with disabilities that happen to be mainstreamed in their classrooms. It does not mean they fall behind, it means they gain the social skills that are so vital to their survival later in life. I am in no way advocating that children with severe disabilities should be mainstreamed--particularly those with behavioral issues that could present a danger to their classmates, but rather the benefits that a child, even a genius, could gain from such interaction.

    I would not say that we are "sacrificing the many" to accommodate the few. I would say this system is to the benefit of the majority. If some students are at a disadvantage, it is certainly not the majority of them. And frankly, why is ok for the lower-achieving students to be at a disadvantage, rather than the high-achieving ones? I would say the percentage of both is about the same. Do the high achieving students deserve better than others?

    1. Anonymous, you do pick out some logical flaws in my discussion. Clearly the school example is not one where I believe the rights of the few outweigh the rights of the many. Much the opposite in fact—here's one where the needs of the many outrank the needs of an important few.

      And I'm sure you're right about the studies that say the current system is the best. But I suspect what they show is that it is the best because it produces modest improvement for students at the lower and intermediate end of the achievement scale. But in volunteer activities in our local schools, I'm appalled by the number of very bright students who become bored and lackluster because teachers are doing remedial training (or worse, baby-sitting duties) for kids who have little interest in learning. If these kids get engaged at all, it is because of volunteers or afterschool programs, not the main cirriculum.

      I would maintain that in this instance we are neglecting a rather crucial group of young students—the best and the brightest , who with the proper attention can go on to do great things. Because we're neglecting them, public schools in general see an exodus to private schools or home schooling.

      Mind you, I'm not completely lacking in experience here, though not with your depth obviously. I'm the son of a teacher, and have both a wife and daughter working in the public school system. Many of our social friends are teachers, and I've been part of the education community for decades.

      I simply feel that the effort to raise the median (a noble effort, to be sure) is causing us to sacrifice the top. It was not until my own kids moved to a high school with a international baccalaureate program that they started to excel. Elementary and middle school frankly did not qualify as education for them, as the whole focus there was on making sure that as many kids as possible pass the testing standards. There was very little effort there to provide opportunities for genuinely enthusiastic students.

      I most certainly respect your opinion, and am sure it is actually the approach that best helps the most students. I just worry about the larger cost to our future scientists and leaders.

    2. Anonymous, I know your view is that it is wrong for high achievers to be treated better than other students. But I frankly think that it perhaps makes sense. Aren't we premised as a society on the idea that strong effort returns benefits? Why should a kid who is a behavior problem or a student who puts forth only modest effort get the same benefit as the student who works really hard to achieve?

    3. David, you're making the assumption that working hard automatically leads to achieving. Frankly, sometimes it doesn't. My job is to realize that the child that simply can't keep his hands off things is a future engineer. Does it benefit him, or the world, to view that as a behavior problem rather than a difference in how minds work? The child who seemingly "never pays attention" might be sent to the principals office--or I can find out what he's looking at in those moments and learn he really likes space--there's your theoretical scientist.

      I see countless times that a child can work EXTREMELY hard, and it fails to yield results. I have to pay more attention to that child, so he does not become discouraged and drop out down the line. Kids brains are notoriously tricky and complex things to navigate.

      If you're worried about the future scientists and leaders, you should be worried if we focus ONLY on the children that will work hard no matter what, that are naturally smart, and have the attitude that they should behave. Correct me if I'm wrong Mercurious, but based on your posts it seems your children are doing pretty well, and you're extremely proud of them. It is precisely my effort with these so-called "problem children" that will give you your leaders.

      Can't figure out how to post my name! Its Julie from Minneapolis!


    4. Julie, thanks for the comment. You must be a teacher, and you sound like a good one, at that. You're clearly doing great things for many kids.

      My own kids, admittedly somewhat high achieving, didn't get much benefit from the public school system until they finally wound up in an IB highschool. Throughout elementary and middle school, the education they received in school was pretty paltry compared the education we provided them outside the system—museum trips, language camps, etc. etc.

      And the high school IB program was one in which they were grouped with other students of the same aspirations and skill levels. Here, finally, there was no insistence that all students of all abilities and enthusiasm had to be in the same classrooms. And my kids benefited greatly from it

      I fail to see why a similar approach isn't used in elementary and middle schools. Perhaps its because the kids at the middle of the skills spectrum get some benefit from rubbing elbows with the high achievers?

      If so, then we should say so. But we really can't pretend that it is an ideal system for all kids, as some defenders seem to say. If it a great system, then the US education standard wouldn't be falling when compared to the skill levels of other developed nations.

      Surely we can agree that we need improvement?

      An interesting discussion. Please do continue the conversation if you feel like it.


  6. :-) I agree with the bulk of your post,sir.


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