Is there such a thing as a typical child?
© Halfpoint / Adobe Stock
Is there such a thing as a typical child?
Words are Free. It’s how you use them that may cost you – and me.
“Calm down so we can discuss this like adults.” Those words were part of a comic by Robot Hugs I stumbled on earlier in April, which depicts the harmful impact when people try to “tone-police” conversations on oppression. It also was the final piece in a trifecta of events revolving around ableism and the significance of words.
But let me back up a moment and share what triggered this dialogue on subtle instances of ableism. Social justice has always been embedded in my life. If you meet me, it won’t be too long before I push the 1947 movie Gentleman’s Agreement on you and its message about tackling subtle acts of racism. Writing has also been a huge part of my life, and vocabulary is sacred to me. Yet, if you asked me five years ago about ableism, I would have had little to say. It never mattered when people mislabeled my disability or said something ignorant about me. It was their problem, not mine. Then came the Black Lives Matters movement and a wake-up moment about how prevalent ableism is throughout society.
While I spent my life fighting for equity and ensuring we all share the same human rights, it hit me in 2020 that, by staying silent on ableist comments all these years, I was harming others living with a disability too. It doesn’t matter how words impact me specifically: staying silent was feeding into the centuries of systemic ableism. As things developed last summer, I connected with Stop Ableism’s definition of ableism:
“The practices and dominant attitudes in society that devalue and limit the potential of persons with disabilities. A set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.”
It became clear that ableism was not merely incidents of hate or discrimination, but also disability-related vocabulary used against non-disabled people or the way people talk to individuals with disabilities. Yet I was wrong to narrow it to just those settings. Ableism also occurs within the disability community, including using disability-specific vocabulary broadly towards all people with disabilities.
So, what was that trifecta of events? First, CommunicationFirst, a national nonprofit I chair that advocates to protect and advance the civil rights of people with communication-related disabilities, was having internal discussions about what terminology CommunicationFirst should use when referring to those we support. Even writing that sentence just now was difficult. I ended up tweaking language from CommunicationFirst’s website, but not before my mind raced around all the possibilities: communication disabilities? Speech disability? Or is it impairments? Complex communication needs? Non-speaking? Non-verbal? (Those last two…definitely not how I see myself). With so many causes resulting in a myriad of speech impairments and each person viewing their identity differently, it will be impossible to find appropriate terminology to recognize all with a communication-related disability – but the debate continues.
A week later, an irresponsible use of the word “typical” within a post of a local education-related Facebook group not only felt insulting to me, but the attempt to stop the conversation really riled me up. As context, the post was urging advocacy to our county school system to provide a virtual option for its Extended School Year (ESY) program for students on Individual Education Plans (IEPs) who need such support but are not able to return in-person yet due to the pandemic. There was misinformation in the original post, which led to one comment implying that the Facebook group (of parents and educators) should not be encouraging advocacy on the ESY program. In that comment, by a parent of a child with a disability, it was stated “advocating for special education students is very different from advocating for typical [county] students.” Another parent responded, also with a child with a disability, agreeing that advocating for students with disabilities was different, but she did not “believe that deterring typical parents who want to help advocate on behalf of students with disabilities is what we want to do.” Another reference to “typical parents” was made in a third comment.
Although both parents were coming from a sincere place, the broad use of “typical” regarding both students and parents felt like a punch to my gut, and I said so in a comment calling out such language as ableist. I did not dispute that typical/neurotypical are acceptable terms in the autism community, and totally understand referencing “typically developing” when used for kids without intellectual disabilities. But this was not just about autism or kids with intellectual disabilities – ESY is a program for students on an IEP for any kind of disability. More importantly, where does “typical parent” factor in?
As I said in my Facebook comments, how would you define me as a parent? Typical because I have a child not on an IEP? Not typical because I am a parent with a disability? How would you have defined me as a student 40 years ago? I had a severe disability but was typically developing like any of my peers. I will go a bit deeper regarding the use of the term “typical” and ableism in a moment, but I want to close the loop on why that Facebook thread caused this larger discussion on ableism. After a few further exchanges, one of the parents suggested that the conversation started on ableism was taking away from the purpose of the post and should be discussed in a different place.
My very first thought (which I held back from actually saying until now) was “Would you dare say that if this was calling out a racist comment? Would you dare question a person of color feeling insulted by a comment related to their race? We can’t be silent on ableist rhetoric any more than on racist comments”. I then thought “But hey, this mindset stopping discussion on the misuse of disability terminology is why ableism is so deeply embedded within society norms.”
The next day I saw the comic on tone policing (referenced earlier), which reinforced my belief that it was wrong to try to divert (shut down) the discussion on the use of “typical”. As the graphic comic says, tone policing protects privilege and silences the people who are hurting. By telling people not to express their emotions, their anger, at oppression, those who “tone police” are not only prioritizing their own personal comfort over that of someone who is hurting, but asking the marginalized person to suffer in silence, which can have serious psychological consequences. No one in the Facebook thread suggested I was being emotional in my comments, and in no way am I suggesting the parents on the post were intentionally tone policing or protecting their privilege (whatever privilege that may be), but that is exactly how it came across by trying to silence the discussion, and thus silence my feeling of being mislabeled and segregated as both a parent and person with a disability.
Words have power: ableism, microaggressions, and vocabulary
Words have power, especially when targeting a certain demographic, and even more so when that demographic is from a marginalized group. Although it’s still frequently used (all I need to do is listen to my son’s friends on FaceTime as they play Roblox), society has started to understand why it is wrong to use words like retarded. Yet like many other -isms, ableism can be indirect and unintentional through microaggressive language. We may think we are being careful, being vigilant, with our use of words, but we all have fallen into the systemic lexicon of ableist terminology.
I am binge-watching old episodes of the spy-comedy Chuck and I lost count at how many times the word moron was used by one of the main characters. How many times have we said, “that’s so dumb”, “don’t be a psycho” or “I’m so OCD!” Do we ever think of the word’s origins (e.g., for centuries deaf people were called deaf and dumb) or the people who diagnosed with the disability the word is associated with? Yet, think how easy it is to avoid such words. Use straightforward language: instead of saying “my message is falling on deaf ears” we can simply say what we mean, such as the person is “ignoring” or “choosing not to engage”.
As I touched upon earlier, ableism isn’t just using disability-related words towards nondisabled people. Saying “we don’t want to deter typical parents who want to help advocate on behalf of students with disabilities” is just as much a microaggression as saying “you don’t look disabled” or “you can choose to be happy”. For those not familiar with “microaggression”, it’s an indirect, subtle, possibly unintentional, verbal or behavioral indignity, against members of a marginalized group. Ableist microaggressions occur when such indignities communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults in relation to developmental, emotional, physical, or psychological disabilities. As one commentator said, ableist microaggressions invoke oppressive systems of a “normal ability” hierarchy.
Uh oh, I just used the word “normal” – which is what those who embrace typical/atypical strive to avoid so that a person isn’t labelled the blatant insult of “abnormal”. But guess what? We can use typical/atypical all we want to soften the labels of those with (certain) disabilities, but it doesn’t change the meaning behind each word – it is still separating people with disabilities from people without disabilities.
*Before I move on, I am sure some readers are questioning why I am calling the comments on Facebook microaggressions since they weren’t directed towards people in a marginalized group. In my view, by labeling kids without disabilities – and their parents – typical, it’s an indirect, yet negative, slight against all who do have disabilities.
Why is the word typical ableist?
This is the United States of America and freedom of speech is embedded in our country’s framework. Yet just because we can say anything doesn’t mean we should. Think about the impact of the language being used. Don’t stop using a word merely because someone tells you to. Think about why you are no longer using that word or phrase. And that is why after the exchange on Facebook, the analyst in me wanted to find out as much as I could on the use of “typical” in the disability community before sharing my thoughts and reactions to how it was used.
One article stood out as I tried to justify the other parents’ use of the word typical. It opened with similar sentiments in the Facebook post, suggesting that typical or typically developing is the most appropriate word to describe students not receiving special education services. That broad use of typical bothers me. When I see statements such as “it is preferred to refer to children without disabilities as “typical” because they have the behavior, intellectual ability and functional skills we would “typically” see in children of their age.”, I feel a direct insult to individuals such as myself who was born with a severe speech disability, was on an IEP all through school, but totally fit in the typical “behavior, intellectual ability and functional skills” of any other kid.
The article referenced earlier went on to say: “We also can benchmark the social behavior of “typical” children as well. The ability to talk in complete sentences, the ability to initiate and maintain conversational exchange are behaviors, behaviors for which speech-language pathologists have created norms.” Another sucker punch at individuals with disabilities. People might not be able to understand my verbal speech, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t communicate (e.g., write) in complete sentences and maintain any conversational exchange, often at more advanced developmental levels than my peers. It also doesn’t fit those “typical” kids who are on 504 plans, or even those who have no diagnosed disability at all but haven’t learned to tie their shoes yet or have massive social anxiety keeping them back from what others perceive as typical behavior for kids their age.
And when I see statements like “typical children encouraged the children with disabilities while at the same time modeling age appropriate behavior” my first thought is what about the kids with disabilities who model politeness and sharing and inclusion to their nondisabled peers? What about kids with disabilities encouraging the “typical” children?
Labels and privilege
The Oxford dictionary informally defines typical as “showing the characteristics expected of or popularly associated with a particular person or thing” while the definition of atypical is “not representative of a type, group, or class.” So, I ask again, what exactly do we expect a typical student to be? What exactly is a typical parent? And if we classify those with disabilities as atypical, per the Oxford dictionary that means they don’t represent any type or group of individuals, again feeding into the separation and segregation of people with disabilities from society.
No matter how many times we change vocabulary, it doesn’t put any dent in the privileges those without a disability benefit from. Systemic racism isn’t the only thing to dismantle to eliminate privileges certain people automatically have in society. (Side note: Try not to get defensive if you are marginalized due to one trait while having certain privileges because of another trait. They do not cancel out each other.) The privileges of people without disabilities are rooted in societal beliefs that 1) a “normal” person is someone who can see, walk, hear, talk, etc. and has no significant physical, cognitive, emotional, developmental, or intellectual impairments, and 2) disability is “abnormal” and therefore a disadvantage.
Society is thus set up with social expectations and structures/institutions to accommodate nondisabled people by default and that dismiss and/or marginalize the needs and experiences of people with disabilities. Examples of such privilege include getting inside all buildings by the main entrance, using a drive-thru, and going shopping alone. If we want to truly – fully – be inclusive of people with disabilities within society, we need to dismantle those societal norms just as much as the structures that support systemic racism. Is it ok to use “typically developing” in a medical context so that we can target areas that need support? Of course. But should we be labelling any of our kids as typical, atypical, special, normal, gifted, unconventional, capable, inept…?
We are all human beings, we all have ability to do some things more prevalent than other things, we all have talent or a gift in something, we all are capable of learning, of dreaming, of living. We all have the potential to struggle or strive in school, and we all have different learning styles, different needs and wants. So again, why put labels like typical or atypical on anyone. We all have typical and atypical traits, families, and backgrounds to integrate into society.
In closing, I hope we remember that 1) Language is powerful: with our words, we can elevate, equalize, support, alienate, humiliate, and oppress; 2) We will all slip up as we shift vocabulary, so just publicly acknowledge it at the moment – our friends will learn from our actions; and 3) There is no typical human being.
India Ochs is a mother, attorney, author, sports fanatic, and hardcore fan of Star Wars, musicals, and Robert Kennedy, from Annapolis, MD. An experienced public speaker and unsuccessful political candidate, she has been involved in human rights, social policy, and educational advocacy for more than 30 years.