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Activist advocates for change in perceptions of disabilities at Milton Lecture

Kiran Ramsey | Digital Design Editor

Activist Jonathan Mooney spoke about perceptions of disabilities during a lecture Wednesday at Syracuse University.

What’s most important at college, Jonathan Mooney said, is for students to find who they truly are, not what their parents or society want them to be.

“Leave this place different than how you came,” Mooney said Wednesday night.

Mooney, an education activist, spoke to about 1,000 people in Goldstein Auditorium inside Schine Student Center at the 20th Annual First-Year Milton Lecture on Wednesday evening, focusing his lecture on learning disabilities and the perceptions about them.

As a child, Mooney experienced attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, both of which affected his experience in school. He did not learn to read until he was 12 and was often labeled as a “bad kid,” but he went on to graduate from Brown University with an English degree.

Mooney said he is often asked how he achieved such a remarkable turnaround in his life in a way that implies that he somehow “fixed” himself before being admitted into an Ivy League university. But Mooney said his success comes not from “curing” his differences, but from three fundamental ideas that function as a transformative set of tools.

The first of these ideas is that differences are not inherently disabilities. They only become disabilities through experiences, he said.

“People like myself, we don’t have disabilities, as it’s common to say,” he said. “We have differences that become disabled by the way those differences are treated.”

Mooney said there is a perception that differences are the same as deficiencies, but that in reality differences come with both weaknesses and strengths. For example, Mooney said, EMTs with ADD are often better at their jobs than so-called “normal” EMTs because people with ADD are better able to respond to high-stress environments.

The second idea that Mooney presented is that people must strive not to conform to the world around them, but to transform their environment to embrace a broad spectrum of differences. Everyone has differences that become disabilities in contexts that “can’t embrace that,” he said.

Mooney said people must strive to create environments that embrace the wide variety of human experience. Mooney gave an example of an increase of ADD diagnoses following the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, when students were expected to sit still the majority of the day and were given very little recess time.

“My limitations are real,” Mooney said. “They’re problematic in my life at times, they’re not at other times. I experience it in environments that don’t embrace a broad continuum of human experiences.”

The third fundamental idea that Mooney presented is that “normal” is a construct that people create, but that normal does not actually exist. Mooney said the only people who are normal are people who you don’t know well.

“The moment you get to know another human being, it’s their eccentricities, it’s their passion, their interests, their strengths, their weaknesses that define their humanity and their value,” he said.

In the context of education, Mooney said young children are often categorized as “smart” or “not smart” on the basis of their reading levels. Mooney said this marginalizes other strengths that children may have, such as artistic abilities or problem-solving skills.

Said Mooney: “We must ask a different question about ourselves and the people around us: not how smart you are, but how are you smart?”

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