Respect the Intelligences of Kids with Intellectual Disabilities

Today, when I arrived at school to pick Fiona up, I saw that a new paraprofessional was temporarily working with her. I shook the aide’s hand and gave her my name. She gave me hers. Then she looked at Fiona:

“What’s my name?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Fiona said.

“What’s your name?” The woman asked.

Fiona was silent.

“What did we do today?” I don’t remember if Fiona replied, but the woman continued in this vein, asking my kid loads of questions Fiona was already supposed to know the answer to: “Where am I going next? … Where did I tell you I was going?”

Adults do this to Fiona all the time. They do it to her more than they do it to my other, typically developing kid. These kinds of recall questions aren’t genuine requests for information, such as, “Fiona, are you hungry?…. What was your favorite part of today?…. Did anything today make you angry?” Instead, these are questions in which the questioner possesses the right answer and is waiting for Fiona to dole it out.

Later today, I was describing the encounter to my husband when it dawned on me: The banking method! Paulo Freire writes about “the banking method” of education in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” It’s been a while since I’ve read Freire’s work, so forgive me if I don’t get all the nuances, but Freire argues that in education systems, low-income and minority students are given less opportunities to critically engage with content and are instead asked simply to receive and recall information. They are treated, in other words, like banks, where the teacher deposits information and then, at a later date, requests that the information be returned back.

I’m still under a book deadline, but if I had the time to dig up Freire’s work to confirm, I suspect I’d find this point: such teaching methods further disempower kids in oppressed socioeconomic statuses. And the same is true for Fiona and kids like her. By treating a girl with intellectual disabilities like a bank instead of a person, adults rob her of the opportunity to critically engage. Of course, they also rob her of the dignity of being treated like a person.

And the thing is: My girl doesn’t respond well to these lines of questions anyway. She shrugs them off, leaving the questioner to assume that she’s probably too disabled–let’s be real, “too retarded”–to remember. But Fiona has even remembered the middle names of her classmates when they were only mentioned once and never brought up again until weeks later.

Why wouldn’t she shrug off these recall questions? It’s no fun to be tested on a person’s name hours after you began your relationship with them. Imagine meeting a new coworker, and at the end of the workday, they pop by your office cubby and ask, “Okay, what’s my name? And what’s your name? And what did I do today at work?”

That’s not relationship-building. That’s not respecting another person’s intelligence. The problem, of course, is that a person with intellectual disabilities doesn’t often benefit from the assumption that she even has intelligence to be respected.

So yes, I said something to the aide. But I did so gently–or at least I hope it came off as gentle–because I realize aides don’t get enough time for professional development, and they’re just doing the best they can, and sometimes being an impromptu workshop leader in effective communication strategies is a bulleted item on my unwritten resumé as Fiona’s mom.


A selfie of Fiona and me lying on a bright yellow shag carpet. We’re neither smiling nor frowning. Fiona is far left, blue-eyed, wearing a pink floral hoodie, looking pensive, calm. She has curly blondish brown hair. I have dark brown hair (Gah, it used to be red), am wearing tortoise-shell glasses, and my eyebrows are raised a bit so I look slightly surprised.

48 thoughts on “Respect the Intelligences of Kids with Intellectual Disabilities

  1. I’m wondering how the aide responded to the information you shared. I love this post…no one likes to live in an atmosphere where they are always being tested and made to prove over and over again, exactly how “disabled” they are, or that they are making progress. It’s actually quite demoralizing and harmful! I’m so glad you said something.

  2. My sister who I care for has been disabled from birth and she readily plays dumb because its easier then the struggle to be recognised as someone with potential.It amazes me the number of needless hurdles these children/adults face daily .

  3. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH! I realize that every time I read one of your posts it stays with me and I recall it again and again as I struggle to find the words to describe what I’m thinking about my Claire. Thank you!

  4. Lovely to hear from you Heather. I was disheartened by the aide’s communication style. I have raised a son who is considered well above average intellectually but never performed well in these “bank-type” situations. In fact he increasingly flunked most classes as he got older despite hours of private tutoring. The analogy you provided has really given me pause for thought. Much of my son’s tutoring, while provided by warm and interested people who genuinely seemed to find my boy delightful, was also what I felt was a “garbage-in, garbage-out” strategy as the basic goal was passing tests. And he did not pass them.

    Interestingly, he soared in the Sciences. He was fascinated with the universe and how it functioned and its vastness (at age 27 he still is). Unfortunately this was the one area of his education that the tutors passed over as he clearly did not require help. Reading this post made me think back and wonder how things might have been different had his love of science been explored with him just for the sheer joy of discovery and learning. It could have been a wonderful education tool to use in the areas where he struggled including language-arts, history, and math. But we grossly disregarded and/or thoughtlessly dismissed (if it ever even occurred to anyone) utilizing science as a tool of engagement.

    I apologize for wandering off the actual point of your column with my sort of stream-of-consciousness words. It is just that you really gave me something to think about in terms of how proper communication is a vital component of learning whether the goal is to pass a test or to meaningfully converse.

    And, because I have been following your family since you began this blog and feel that I have “known” Fiona since birth, it was delightful to see the photo of her. Those eyes of hers…infinitely deep. She is darling. So are you (though I suspect you will raise your eyebrows at being called darling. Nevertheless I stand by the description!).

    Thanks for the update.

  5. Our daughter knows if she waits long enough, whoever asked the question will answer it. Sometimes it’s tough to wait her out without saying anything.

  6. Thank you for this post and thank you for being gentle with the aide. Aides really do not receive nearly enough professional development. I am a special education teacher and during year one or year two of my career, I’m not sure which, I learned that assessing in authentic situations yielded better results from my kiddos. I had a little guy I would test every six weeks on colors and sometimes he would know a color and sometimes not. One day we were sitting and having snack when a peer sitting next to him spilled his applesauce on his shirt. This little boy looked at me and said, “Mrs. Traci! _______ spilled applesauce on his yellow shirt!” Up until this time, he had never told me “yellow” when I would test him on colors. Anyway, I learned from that experience that “drill and kill” testing was not the way to learn what my kids know.

  7. I’ve heard people ask my daughter, with ID, these types of questions and hadn’t thought of it this way! I actually assume with her memory recall problems, ADHD, Autism, and Cognitive Delays that it was probably all part of that!

    I do feel like you left us hanging though! I’d love to know what you said and how that person responded and what are some best practices on working with a kid in order to give suggestions to teachers and associates that work with these kids every day.

  8. I was considered precocious as a child but damn if people didn’t play this same game with me. I remember my dad interrogating me in front of guests about the names of Disney characters (I had been singing one of the movie songs) and knowing every single answer, I clammed up. Why was he asking this? Was the question a trick? Was there a wrong way to answer? Was he going to tease me for liking the movie enough to know the answer? I simply froze. There’s no reason to treat kids like performing seals, even less if they’re already singled out over disability. Scuse me for just dropping into this but it gave me such a flashback. Kudos mom.

    • Sometimes it isn’t the question that is the problem but the whole environment (strangers or people we don’t know very well) or how the question is asked. My son has Aspergers, so of course he goes quiet when asked questions. All of our brains work in different ways and differences, nuances and patterns are different to every single one of us. When we got a Psyhcologist report recently, she seemed to harp on the point that if she wasn’t talking about things my son liked he would ignore her or talk incessently about his interests (of which he has a vast knowledge). I know it can’t all be about what he likes but why not, he smiles so bright, he gets all excited and the information bubbles out of him (topics are pokemon, dinosaurs, cars, trains etc.,). I definitely don’t think he should be reciting to me every type of dinosaur and what period they are from and any other information he can learn on them. I’m sorry you felt like you couldn’t answer even though you had this wealth of knowledge within. I am of the camp that we should all celebrate how different we are from one another, if we were all the same life would be boring xx

      • Wouldn’t it. And hey, I’d listen to all those dinosaurs (at least for a while), I was a dinosaur person too when I was around 5-6 years old. Years later (in my 50s) I remembered enough to converse with a 13 year old who had the same preoccupations, and just lit up when I knew what period an Allosaurus was from… I hear he’s now about to graduate in Paleontology and is helping on excavations. We darn sure do need everybody just like they are.

  9. Thank you.

    And as for why I often don’t engage in that stuff (I can’t speak for Fiona): if you are being horrible I probably can’t make you stop. But I can refuse to let you set the terms of the interaction.

  10. I’m sorry people don’t treat Fiona with the presumption of competence, which she deserves. Then I imagine what it is like to be a child with all three circumstances – a minority, low-income and intellectually disabled.

  11. I work with children on the spectrum and other mental illnesses. I’ve witness the smarts, brilliance, lesson-learn moments and so much more. It’s unfortunate that most of us perceive and treat them differently.

  12. I had a favorite aunt who raised several children with, what the world terms as “intellectual disabilities” (a term I don’t personally care for). From spending time and playing together as children I found that they have a level of intelligence that so called, “normal people” can’t even approach. I call it a “spiritual intelligence” because they just simply perceive things on the “spectrum” that we are incapable of realizing, discerning or understanding. The problem is I think, they perceive more than we do and are unable to express it in terms that we would even grasp, and THEY realize that OUR intelligence is limited. In many ways, I just find these children, teens and adults, smarter than the rest of us. If more of us, were are open to the way they see the world, we could learn a lot.
    Oh…and from my youth onward, I know that these children don’t like responding to dumb questions, nor do they like repeating themselves. Can you imagine how silly we sound to them, asking them the same things over and over again?
    They are wondering what our mental deficiency is. –Real Talk.

  13. Thanks for helping me to know how to interact better with kids with intellectual disabilities; I would hope that most of us would like to treat people like people instead of demeaning them, but a lot of us likely feel awkward due to ignorance, worried that we’ll say the wrong thing—like the aide did. Of course your daughter doesn’t want to be treated like a bank! Very illuminating term.

  14. Thanks for sharing this motivating article. Let our children be blessed with love and humanity filled environment where they will feel at home and grow gradually.

  15. Wow, this was really good! I’ve never heard of banking theory until now. I wish more people would honor the dignity of ALL people and get rid of subjective hierarchies.

  16. Wow this was really nice.
    This is something that people need to understand
    The focus should on making children realise that they are as competent as others rather than repeating the traditional stuff.

  17. A positive alternative insight. On reflection, yes why not. We need to to treat them as sane as anybody else rather than adopting a rudimentary method. Elementary process can be brought during a normal discussion. Need make someone feel important rather than testing them about their progress all the time. Loved your post.

  18. The bank style teaching technique is annoying and frustratingly demanding. Its what’s used in my country’s school system a lot, and for all students of varying intelligence scale. We’re expected to just memorize and reproduce what makes little or no sense to us.

    Your post is wonderfully helpful.

  19. one of my elder brothers is born with a mental disorder that was found later in his 30s.. Through his life, he scored above 95% and won endless trophies and gold medals. Now during his tough times, people ignore those successes of his not realizing he is a gift. Loved your post! Made me a little emotional too. Wrote somewhat on a similar topic but maybe a little variant.. do read.. Thank you. 🙂

  20. I need Fiona, l am not tech savvy l rely on my daughter & my wife ( they are saints ) , my wife & l listen to your Ted talk on the ride hm from Cleveland, l have since told everyone to listen & l listen to it every day , l don’t know what else to say but THANK YOU 🙂

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