I was a big fan of Charlie's Angels as a kid. It was my first real look at women doing things that men got to do. Never mind that they were kept on a tight leash by a narcissistic man who gave orders without looking them in the eyes. Never mind that a bumbling idiot was assigned to supervise. These women had guns. They knew jujitsu. They showed some skin in every episode. Charlie's Angels could be the most misogynistic popular TV series in the 70s that featured women as main characters.
I wasn't particularly bothered by any of this at the age of eight.
I was, however, bothered by the three perfect stereotypes that were cast into the show. A sun-kissed blonde beauty who was a bit of a ding-bat. A smoldering hot brunette who was assuredly an expensive date. Of course, there had to be a less sexy female who took on the role of the "smart" one. Every episode, I spent a lot of time thinking about which one I wanted to be. I finally decided I wanted to be the smart one and accept the consequences of being the less attractive police-academy trained detective.
How limiting. How unabashedly shameful.
Welcome to the next century, where children who are physically and mentally disabled, gifted and twice-exceptional, are labeled, stigmatized, disregarded and someone else's problem.
We haven't come far from the pop culture that slapped around women who didn't conform. These kids are targets of demeaning shush-shushing when they walk (or wheel) into the room. All made to work harder, fail more often and sit on the sidelines more than normal kids.
Like every disenfranchised population ever to fight for equality, our different kids are often denied opportunity, proper education and access to services that could vastly improve their quality of life.
But that's not all. It's the residual effect of repeated failure, distress and exclusion that grinds down their self-esteem and results in depression, drug abuse, self-hatred, even suicide. They're tossed into the category of kids who are broken. No matter what their disability or intelligence, they're a population with incredible gifts that aren't being realized.
Kids with exceptional needs and abilities - and their caregivers - are targets of discrimination the way that women, people of color, mentally ill, homeless and LGBTQ people are judged. Special education services in many schools are already on life support awaiting a decision on the education budget. Parents are panicking because this is a battle of the have and have-nots. As though education was a privilege, not a civil right. As though these parents and kids made a choice to be different.
There is a movement afoot. It's a long journey with small steps forward. Many battles are currently being waged and won due to the commitment of parents, educators and mental health professionals. Signs of change are showing in new schools created expressly to educate differently wired kids. States are making progress in funding more robust special ed programs.
Every social movement takes decades, centuries even, to enact real change that gives people the ability to live in the open without stigma. Change requires similarly-minded people and countless hours of advocacy to dissolve assumptions and budge the mental health system stubbornly rooted in the dark ages.
Blondes are ditsy. Brunettes are sexy. Smart women can't also be beautiful, plus they are dangerous. Let's keep them where they belong and never let them grow into who they really are.
Is this sounding familiar?
For every physically disabled child denied a fair and equal education, we lose an innovator.
For every gifted child forced to stay put when their brains are racing ahead, we lose the power of an unbridled brain.
For every mentally ill and learning disabled child driven into failure, we lose a life.
Stay the course. Work together. Raise an army. Be fearless and shameless in the fight for equal treatment and education of every single child.
Let the children speak for themselves. They're our path to a kinder world.
BE AN ADVOCATE
Susan Krause is author of BACKGROUND NOISE: A Novel About Twice-Exceptionality and mom to 3 extraordinary children with mental illnesses. She works to build awareness of the needs of gifted and disabled children through books that capture their true experience. Contact her at email@example.com or @2Ebooks.