Teaching the (Ab)Normal

Image: A tweet from the @ProBirdRights Twitter feed. The text reads “I am feel uncomfortable when we are not about me?”


Our first-year writing program requires me to teach four basic genres of writing commonly encountered in college classrooms.  But it has almost no requirements in addition to these, which gives me a lot of flexibility in how I teach the four projects and how I approach the materials.

In past semesters, I’ve usually structured lessons loosely around a central question of rhetoric, like audience or code-switching in language.  This semester, I’m asking a broader question: “What is ‘normal’?”

How do we know what “normal” is?  How do we decide what falls outside the “normal”?  And when we encounter something that is not “normal” for us, what tools can we use to reach out and understand it?

I’m hoping to spend large parts of the semester focusing on one or two longer texts, plus a few shorter texts and activities thrown in.  One of the two will be fiction – Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.”  The other will probably be a non-fiction essay of some kind; I’m considering Duffy & Dorner’s “The Pathos of Mindblindness,” although I’m open to suggestions.

Other materials I’m considering:

(If these seem to have a pretty hefty disability studies focus, well, welcome to my blog.)  😉


My favorite comment about Theory of Mind, ever. OH THE IRONY! Image: A photo of several lines of text from Duffy and Dorner’s article “The Pathos of Mindblindness.” A quote from Simon Baron-Cohen is highlighted. The highlighted text reads “It is probably impossible to imagine what it is like to be mindblind.”


I’d also like to have them try a few activities that challenge “normal” perceptions or behaviors, although I want to avoid activities that ask them to pretend to be disabled or that try to mimic a disability.  My goal is to help them understand that “normal for them” is their personal position of power, and at the same time is not an expectation they can or should project onto others.  My problem with “pretend to be disabled” activities is that they can easily give the pretender a false sense that they know what it is for this impairment/disability to be “normal,” when they don’t.

Instead, I’m considering having them try, and then write about, things like:

  • For one week, note all the flashing/strobing lights you see and the situation.  Write about what you wouldn’t be able to do if you couldn’t be in the presence of that light – say if you were epileptic or had photosensitive migraines.  Find out who is in charge of changing/fixing/stopping the light and get them to change/fix/stop it.  (This one I borrowed from Kassianne of Radical Neurodivergence Speaking.)
  • For one week, ride all elevators facing the back instead of the front.  You must take at least one round-trip elevator ride per day during this week.  You must get on the elevator when it arrives – you may not wait for an empty elevator.  (This one I found in the 1986 Girl Scout Cadette and Senior Interest Projects handbook.)
  • For 24 hours, do not use stairs, steps, curbs, or anything that requires you to lift either foot more than three inches from the ground.  You may use ramps, elevators, escalators, and curb cuts.  You may not be late to any class, job, or other scheduled activity.
  • For 24 hours, do not talk.  You may type, write, draw, text, sign, or use any text to speech adaptive app or device.  You may not make mouthnoises of any kind.

I’m always open to ideas.  My goal is to make it clear to them that (a) their personal “normal” has value and interest, and also (b) so does everyone else’s personal “normal.”  That we, as humans, are not balkanized groups of “normal” and “other,” but a multiplicity of “normals,” each of whom can draw power from within our “normal” to share beneficial things with other people and to stand up against being mowed over by other people’s demands for us to conform to their “normal.”


About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is a freelance writer with a decade of experience and a passion for creating new things. As Verity Reynolds, Dani is the author of the Non-Compliant Space series Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/verityreynolds
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One Response to Teaching the (Ab)Normal

  1. Nate says:

    I’m a behavior therapist who works almost exclusively with autistic children, so the thought of how to share their experience is one that arises fairly often for me. The obvious benefits to me as a therapist are, well, obvious, but I think it’s also very useful for siblings to understand their brother or sister’s experience. But it’s a difficult thing to do, which I suppose is inescapable when it’s something that deals so thoroughly with the internal experience. As a result, I absolutely love your first two activity ideas!

    Thinking about strobing lights and what that would impact helps to promote the idea of what an “invisible” disability would be like . It’s wonderful in that it deals with a domain few people likely ever really think about unless they or a loved one are susceptible. How many of us really think about the lights in movies, or video games, or just driving through a tunnel at night? Having students try to address the problem should prove an eye-opening experience as well, particularly if they come across a case where the strobing light’s existence promotes the safety of others: a factory floor, for instance. I guess that opens the door to some discussions of the higher good, too, but that might be out of the scope of your class.

    Standing in the elevator “backward” is also absolutely lovely. It’s a harmless behavior that will nevertheless draw some attention. Particularly with high-functioning autistic individuals, so much effort goes into teaching them appropriate social behaviors, and (for that matter) how to code switch between friends/non-friends/superiors. Unfortunately, while these behaviors sometimes have an obvious and logical reason (using inside voices so we don’t interrupt others, say), many are pure convention and are taught just because they help the client integrate. If only you could get your students to stand backward, and yet have no sense that what they’re doing is unusual!

    Reading over your blog makes me realize I could never be a teacher. These are not the kinds of ideas that come naturally to me. As much as I love learning, even love the act of teaching, coming up with ideas such as these escapes me. So kudos to you for your cleverness, and the clarity with which you express it. (I say that, of course, in partial payment for when I steal these ideas to help teach said siblings. 🙂 )

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