Thursday, July 8, 2010

RETRO JESSIE: Shhhhh! Don't Break the Rules [February 2004]

A mea culpa to the Anywhere Library Association for the fear and trembling I inadvertently precipitated. It all started with a very simple email request. At least I thought it was simple. And reasonable, given their goal of promoting literacy. It was certainly not my intention to jeopardize the integrity of one of their programs, perhaps even the association itself! All I really wanted was for my daughter to participate, fully, in the RM Reading Program.

The RM Reading Program, according to the ALA website “brings an excellent selection of recent novels to the attention of Anywhere children and young adults. It rewards them for reading by making them judges in a province-wide literary event.” My first inkling of its existence was when our daughter came home excited that her school library was hosting the RM Club. “Mom! I’m going to join the RM Club! There’s these great books! You, like, read them and talk about them. You can email the authors and they email back. And you get to eat pizza!” Pizza? I wasn’t sure how pizza factored in, but the reading part sounded great.

It didn’t sound so great to the teacher-librarian who thought it would not be “appropriate” for our daughter to join. Our daughter is an avid reader and writer (by avid I don’t necessarily mean quick), but she also happens to have Down syndrome. While this doesn’t seem to have stopped her from learning and participating along side her peers, it does sometimes have the effect of reducing otherwise intelligent educators to a just barely contained simmering miasma of fear and preconceived notions about ability and value.

The teaching assistant (may the goddess of literacy bless her visionary soul) was able to convince the librarian that it would indeed be appropriate for my daughter to participate since she 1) loved to read, 2) loved to talk about books, and 3) loved to belong to clubs.

In November we were presented with a delightful selection of 10 Canadian novels for young adults. Parvana’s Journey by Deborah Ellis was my daughter’s first choice, precipitating all sorts of discussion at home about Iran and landmines and the effects of war on children. Run by Eric Walters was next, because 4 of the other participants were reading it and Terry Fox was, after all, one of her heroes. In January she started In Spite of Killer Bees by Julie Johnston, giving a copy to Grams to start a little Grandmother-Granddaughter email long-distance book club.

It was in January that I realized she had read all the easier books (in terms of length and content) and that she might not be able to complete the required 5 by the end of April. Required that is, to vote in RM Award selection. And if you think voting might not be important you don’t know my daughter, who can be quite insistent on having her opinion count.

So I made what I thought was a reasonable request for a child with a developmental disability. Could we set the goal for 4 books instead of 5? It was what I believe the Ontario Human Rights Code would consider an accommodation. But the librarian didn’t agree. The rules stated that to have voting privileges you had to read at least 5 of the books. The rules. Considering our history of breaking rules to make it possible for our daughter to be an active participant in life, the rule bit didn’t phase me. It made me tired, but it didn’t phase me.

I did what any advocate for inclusion (alias Mother from Hell) would do, I wrote to the rule-makers, the keepers of the flame of literacy, the Anywhere Library Association. If the whole point was to promote literacy and introduce young adults to Canadian authors, would allowing one young woman with Down syndrome to vote if she had reached the goal of reading 4 instead of 5 of the novels break the code? I didn’t think so. But that shows you how little I know about literacy or awards.

The ALA Education director was thoughtful enough to respond personally to my request. She assured me that she understood my situation and “heard” me. However, the ALA was not able to make an exception. “After all, these are rules we set and if we officially suggest that readers can vote even if they read fewer than five, we would jeopardize the integrity of the program as this dispensation would spread like wildfire through our membership.” Like wildfire? Whoa, I’d never thought of that!

I suddenly had a vision, perhaps the exact vision that made the ALA tremble: whole armies of adolescents with Down syndrome descending on public and school libraries across Ontario demanding to read 4 (not FIVE) new novels by Canadian authors. How utterly frightening.

She did have other suggestions— I could go back and talk to the teacher-librarian again or find an alternate club at one of the public libraries. Let’s see – I can pull my daughter out of the weekly school club with her friends (yea right, to quote my daughter), or I can make a further annoyance of myself with the school (done that, have the tattoo to prove it).

We do have other options, but there-in lies the rub. Our lives have become quite rich with complicated and time-consuming options that will allow our daughter pursue her quite modest desires (in this case: to read, to vote, to belong). For some reason the most straight-forward accommodations, the ones that will allow her to participate as a valued and equal member of the group, are seen as a threat to the integrity of our public institutions. I’m not sure I understand it. Perhaps that is why I keep coming up with these subversive ideas, ignorant as to their true impact on the basic fabric of Canadian society. Ah well, call me unrealistic. Call me a Mom.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I call you ADVOCATE. :)

I sense this "Yes, participate, but only by my rules." already and Gabe is a fresh five year old. This post hit me square because my son loves to read and to be surrounded by books. I would never have imagined that anyone would have to be convinced of Jessie's participation. Or that a simple accommodation be made so she could participate in the vote. But you know something? Maybe he'll be late, but I'm sure Gabe will be one armed adolescents with Down syndrome descending on public and school libraries across Ontario demanding to read 4 (not FIVE) new novels by Canadian authors!

You just never know! ;)