Sunday, 16 October 2011

Lessons from Philip Garber

A Facebook interaction last Thursday evening was...not my finest moment, advocacy-wise. It all centred around an article that I found and linked to about Philip Garber, Jr., a college student with a stutter who was asked by one of this professors not to speak in class.

"Your Speaking is Disruptive

Philip Garber's "profound stutter" is not the only thing that makes him unique in his 2 classes per semester at the County College of Morris.  At 16, he's in college when most of his peers are still in high school. Philip Garber's education has been home-schooling and charter schools, and he says that he's not experienced any discrimination because of his stuttering. In light of that, his History teacher's suggestion that he not ask or answer questions in class so that he not "infringe on other students'

time" and the more blunt, "Your speaking is disruptive" surprised him.

Shocked, my original comment on the article was: "If I'd been his support worker, she would have been toast."


Then a dear friend who is a college professor weighed in. She said that she wondered why he was focusing on college so early instead of continuing with the speech therapy that he'd decided to leave a while ago.  I said that I could see her point - why would Philip Garber put himself in such a high-pressure setting, that presumably would make his study worse, when there was plenty of time for college?

Another friend who knew better than both of us came along and pointed out that speech therapy doesn't work for everybody, and that stress or nerves don't always affect stuttering.  And another friend that I totally wouldn't have expected to be on Philip's side posted in emphatic support of disciplining the teacher for how she'd handled the situation.

Philip Garber and Person-Centred Support

I thought about Philip Garber and that article a lot last Friday.  While I could see my professor friend's points, something about the way I'd responded was really bothering me, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. While Philip wouldn't be a person that I'd normally support in my line of work, I've certainly worked with teens with intellectual disabilities that have *wanted* to go to college or university. One young man with a mild disability had his heart set on Bible college. I had my doubts about whether he could handle it, as did the high school that he attended. But we used the brief time that I was available to support him to go through the application process, and I heard later that they'd accepted him. I assume that they did so expecting that they'd be able to meet his needs, as we'd made them clear in the application.

And that's when I figured out what was bothering me. I'd forgotten about being person-centred, as a support worker. If I'd been a support worker for this 16-year-old young man (for anyone, really), being  person-centred  always makes it very simple: "You don't want to do speech therapy anymore? Let's talk to your parents about why you don't want to do it and see if we can come to some sort of compromise. And if you want to take college courses...let's see what it would take for you to get in.  It's up to you."

And I'd forgotten about good advocacy. Philip Garber obviously has the academic credentials to be at County College of Morris, or the school wouldn't be letting him take courses there. Whether he's paying to go himself or there on some sort of scholarship, his tuition is being paid. He's a student at the school, and as a student at the school with a disability, he's entitled to accommodation - not an attitude of "I'd rather not deal with your disability, so don't talk."

She *would* have been toast. As his support worker, I'd have made sure of it.

What Do You Think?

I don't think I'm really forgetting these things...maybe just need to get back into the swing of things. More volunteering, perhaps, now that school's over.

By the way, here's a link to Philip Garber talking on YouTube...decide for yourself how "disruptive" his speaking would be if he answered questions in a school environment.


  1. WOW - that boy could grow up to be President!

    I had already heard of this issue and was interested to get more info on the subject. His stutter is negligible and I can't imagine what would have prompted the teacher to say what she said. As a people focused person I was appalled by the teacher's comments. I kept thinking - this can't be the whole truth - the kid must have been talking the whole lesson or the teacher must be being taken out of context... It seems that it really was just an act of blatant discrimination which makes me very sad.

    It is irrelevant who he was, how old he is, why he was there, if he was or was not doing speech therapy etc - the only thing that is relevant to me is that he was ridiculed and silenced because of his disability.

  2. Exactly. You said it better than I did. :)

    When I realized how far I had strayed from that truth in my response - I was more than a little disappointed with myself. I've heard education's side of the inclusion debate (not so much at the college level, but definitely at the elementary and high school level), and I can appreciate the issues involved with it...but the way that the teacher handled it was totally inappropriate.

    My professor friend said that they don't receive disability sensitivity training at the college at which she teaches. I wonder if that's the case at all colleges...

    - Sarah

  3. I don't think sensitivity training is given at any post secondary institution-I've been to two and it was quite obvious. :)
    I am appalled that a professor would make such a statement, as, another person pointed out, that would be blatant discrimination. Ableism dictates that people with disabilities need to be "fixed." Why is it that we need to fit into this definition of "fixed?" For example, physiotherapists will spend months of painful therapy working with a wheelchair user just to take a few steps. How are these steps supposed to improve the person's quality of life? Why isn't the therapy focused on strengthening the muscles used to push the chair?
    Whether he was in speech therapy or not should not be even considered. He doesn't need to be "fixing" himself to make the professor's comment null and void.

  4. That brings out a whole other dimension to it that I hadn't even considered, Jess...what was it going to take before this History teacher would "let" him speak? Would he have be in speech therapy, and therefore making a "good effort"? Or would he have to be "fully cured" and speaking like everyone else before he could abandon writing down his questions and she'd actually start calling on him? There's a real arrogance to her actions...they were punitive, with no parameters set up around them for returning privileges, for something for which she never had the right to punish him for in the first place. That's abusive. I don't think she saw herself as being abusive...but I also saw a link today to a story about an elementary school teacher and a classroom assistant who punished unwanted behaviour in autistic children by making them suck on cotton balls soaked in vinegar, and they obviously didn't see that as abusive either. My point being that there seems to be this perception out there that abusing people with disabilities is okay, and it does seem to be tied into this idea that they should be "fixed".

    Thank you for your perspective...

    - Sarah