I’m an English teacher. Our class motto during my last year teaching high school language arts was “Reading and writing are opportunities to decide how we live our lives.”
It’s hard to imagine a more sobering reminder of this truth than the use of the caricatured Lennie from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to decide whether people live or die. But that’s exactly what happened in 2015 when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals relied on this 80-year-old work of fiction to uphold a policy about when to execute people with intellectual disabilities.
Steinbeck’s novella is part of the high school canon, a star of innumerable “books to read before you graduate” lists alongside cousins like Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. These texts share the claim to a realistic presentation of the lives of people with cognitive disabilities—say, Down Syndrome or autism—that falls far short of the richness and dynamism that this overlooked form of diversity has to offer.
As the sibling of a brother with disabilities, I know firsthand that engaging diverse brains has the capacity to enrich, challenge and strengthen us all. My life with my brother has been an education—in creativity, risk-taking, humor and compromise—on par with any classroom I’ve set foot in. It shouldn't take the happenstance of birth for more of us to experience these genuine gifts.
And while literature can help us share these gifts with our students, too often the classics fail us. Consider this excerpt from Steinbeck:
"Lennie dabbled his big paw in the water and wiggled his fingers so the water arose in little splashes; rings widened across the pool to the other side and came back again. Lennie watched them go. 'Look, George. Look what I done.'"
Compare that to the actual words of Brad Kellar, an author with disabilities similar to Lennie’s:
"Hunger for being who you are. Hunger would be sound, different kinds of sounds. Hunger would be the stars, the moon, the sun. Hunger would be creation."
What spare, sweeping poetry! From a man who still can be paid subminimum wage, live with housemates he didn’t choose and spend most of his education in segregated classrooms.
How would our world look if, alongside the classics, we taught more self-representative texts like Kellar’s poem “Survival,” Tito Mukhopadhyay’s autobiography Plankton Dreams, or Michael Levitz and Jason Kingsley’s co-written memoir Count Us In? No doubt students would give second thought to some of these inequities, and our peers with cognitive disabilities would be granted the simple dignity of telling their own stories.
Literature is a particularly fruitful meeting ground for reimagining how people with and without disabilities relate to one another. In showing how traits like divergent thinking or repurposed language can be an asset for neurodiverse writers, these texts encourage our students to consider the ways that a neurodiverse world is a richer world for all of us.
What might a college dorm look like when neurotypical students aren’t just charitably volunteering for Special Olympics but living and learning alongside their classmates with cognitive disabilities? How can we leverage the unique value this form of diversity brings to the table in a 21st-century economy? Who doesn’t stand to gain from the empathy and innovation fostered by radically integrated K–12 schools?
These are the kinds of questions we need the next generation of lawmakers, teachers, journalists and leaders—in Texas and otherwise—to be asking.
It can start in your classroom.
Boyce is founder and director of Cow Tipping Press and lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.