‘I’ve never thought of being blind and black as a disadvantage.‘
– Stevie Wonder
We all have our disabilities and disadvantages, even if we don’t recognise them as such. The trick is to turn a potential negative into a positive. How do we help children and young people to see that? How do we get anyone to see it?
With some of us the potential negative is a physical issue. With some of us it’s mental, emotional, spiritual, or attitudinal.
Thinking about it now, I never saw my father as ‘disabled’, even though he’d lost a leg and almost lost his life on the battlefields of Normandy. He just got on with life and never spoke about his loss of a limb. I guess being rescued from the carnage of war and taken to a place of safety and recovery was a great gift which far outweighed the amputation of a mere leg. His life had been spared when so many of his comrades’ lives had been lost – so what was there to complain about or feel sorry about?
This pretty much sums up the attitude of an entire generation that willingly gave of its lives and its limbs in order to protect its families and loved ones from the threat of Nazi occupation.
I was reminiscing with my 83 year old aunt this week and she reminded me that back in the 50’s and 60’s limbless ex-servicemen were much more numerous and visible on the streets than they are nowadays. She was also marvelling at modern technology and the sophistication of contemporary prosthetic limbs. We also spoke about the disabled ex-serviceman who slid down the zip wire from the Orbit into the Olympic Stadium carrying the Paralympic flame.
On Radio 4 this morning Nicholas McCarthy, who has only one hand, talked about his life as a concert pianist. Nicholas is yet another gifted individual who didn’t like school and didn’t do well academically – who was left to work out for himself his own strengths. As unlikely as it might sound, it turns out he’s a gifted musician and indeed is now a concert pianist. He was fortunate that his parents agreed to buy him a small electronic keyboard when he expressed an interest in playing a piano, and they also agreed to pay for piano lessons when it was clear that he was highly intuitive as a budding musician. Shouldn’t it be the role of schools to identify the strengths and the potential of those students who show little interest in or aptitude for conventionial academic studies? Shouldn’t it be their role to develop every kind of potential and meet all pupils’ special educational needs?
And in any case, why assume that someone’s who’s academically capable ought to follow an academic pathway instead of pursuing things that truly interest them and for which they feel some sort of passion? The world is full of individuals who were wrongly shepherded into higher education on the strength of their exam-passing capabilities, and who dropped out of university when it transpired they were bored with or uninterested in academia in general and their chosen course in particular.
The British Paraorchestra:
According to the article about him in yesterday’s Guardian, there is a consensus among music lovers that Stevie Wonder’s golden age lasted longer than anyone’s – Bob Dylan and the Beatles included.
Followng a car crash in which he was severely injured it seems Stevie became increasingly affirmative in his life and his music. But how do these times compare? asked his interviewer. Is he more optimistic now?
“I’m always optimistic, but the world isn’t. People need to make a jump to a place of positivity but they put it all on one person to make it happen,” he says. “It takes everybody. And the mindset has to be different. I mean, how do we have, in 2012, racism in the world?”
Did he assume that racism would be obliterated?
“It can’t be obliterated until people confront the demon in the spirit,” he says. No wonder one of his current roles is as a Messenger of Peace for the United Nations.
“You need to put your heart into making a difference,” he says, proposing “an end to poverty, starvation, racism and illiteracy and finding cures for cancer and Aids” as just some of the jobs that need doing.
We can call this a message about attitudes, or heart or soul or spirit, but to us it makes sense to say that Stevie Wonder is a gifted and spiritually intelligent human being, who sees the need for all of us to work on ourselves and become as spiritually intelligent as we possibly can be, in order to make a difference to our own lives, and indeed the whole world.
And is there a role for schools in developing spiritual intelligence? Or does anyone still think that schools need to simply get on with raising academic ‘standards’ – give or take the odd hour or two of personal, social and health education?
Does Wonder, who has just turned 62, have a growing sense of his mortality? “I don’t feel it,” he says of time’s marching. “I know it for a fact.”
He feels a pressing need to achieve in non-musical spheres, and digresses to discuss gun crime, a subject on which he has been outspoken. “I’m concerned about how accessible guns are,” he says. Is he referring to the “Batman shootings” in Colorado?
“No, I’m talking about in the hood,” he replies. “That [Colorado] was also very sad, but this is an occurrence almost every week in various cities. But no politician wants to confront it. The right to bear arms? What about the right to live?”
Wonder mentions “the demon in the spirit”. How has he managed to endure when his revolutionary soul peers – Marvin, Sly Stone, James Brown – succumbed to torment and temptation?
Wonder has never gone off the rails, although when I ask whether a movie version of his life would be a drama, a comedy or a tragedy, he says: “All of the above.” Does he ever consider that it’s his “disadvantages” – being born blind and black – that have made him what he is?
“Do you know, it’s funny,” he starts, “but I never thought of being blind as a disadvantage, and I never thought of being black as a disadvantage. I am what I am. I love me! And I don’t mean that egotistically – I love that God has allowed me to take whatever it was that I had and to make something out of it.”
As we see confirmed in these paralympic games, you don’t even have to believe in God in order to see that every individual needs to take whatever it is they have and make something positive out of it.
WOW! Thanks for sharing this!!!!
So, why exactly are our educational systems so deficit based? Most likely because it is easier to notice shortcomings than strengths, and also because most of these systems are based on competition instead of cooperation. What needs to be done, immediately, everywhere, is to change the wording we use and talk about “areas of growth” instead of disabilities or weaknesses, and make it very clear how everyone has areas in which they can grow. This is one part of adapting the growth mindset which is a necessary chance on the value level of education to overcome the idea of intelligence and abilities being fixed (inherited, static, unchanging). Promoting cooperation and team work over competition would help too (yes, this also means getting rid of the “employee of the month” or “student of the month” awards). Thank you for this thought provoking post!
Thanks for these stimulating thoughts, Nina. It’s interesting to think about the value of cooperation over competition. I really dislike the idea of ‘competing’ for highest marks in tests and exams, for example, but I know people who enjoy the challenge of being academically successful, and more successful than their peers. Personally I never enjoyed competitive athletics, though I enjoyed competing against myself to achieve a personal best. Maybe if I’d been more gifted and talented I’d have enjoyed taking part in competitions – just as the Olympic and Paralympic athletes clearly enjoy their competitive experiences. Regardless of which, we need to educate young people in how to be empathetic, collaborative and creative! And as you so rightly say, we need to focus on and build on the positives, instead of keeping a relentless emphasis on the negatives.