As of now, a week after the original article was published, there are about 793 comments from readers. And while some of the comments are sympathetic, most are furious. The article was on the front page of the New York Times, chronicling the story of a young man with a stutter who was asked by his college professor not to participate in class discussion. The student, 16 years old taking two college classes at County College of Morris while still enrolled in high school, claims that the professor said his talking was "disruptive."
Four days after this first publication, the professor (working for the college as an adjunct faculty member) tells the New York Times "there was never any intent to stop him from speaking." She was just trying to keep the class moving along. The alleged abuse happened during a 75-minute session in which the student had his hand up for most of the class and was never called on.
The college is calling it discrimination. The professor is disputing that.
On one hand, coverage in the media points out that the kid is a little bit eager. As a younger student in a college classroom the pressure is on for him to perform at a level equal to his classmates. So that maybe explains this Horshack-like behavior. The kid just might be trying too hard.
On the other hand, the one we dare not look at too closely, this is a silencing within the classroom the likes of which we haven't seen since the 1950s. During those days, it was girls and black students that were expected to be present but not heard. Now, in 2011, it seems to be people with disabilities. Or so this opinion might conclude.
Whichever way might feel about this particular experience of disability, power, and communication, it is perhaps more important to take a look at the larger phenomenon being invoked here; this is an event, amongst many as of late, in which disability becomes a sounding board. In other words, the stutterer here becomes a useful tool for the public to use in order to share and perform their particular visions of how the world should work.
Like Terri Schiavo, The Pillow Angel, Christopher Reeve and countless other people with disabilities who have become the focus of our attention over the last several years, the student from this history class becomes a symbolic representation for the rest of culture. As such, once again, the person with the disability becomes an object rather than an entire being.
Take a very close look at the comments posted by readers. Listen to the pundits and reporters on your radio, television or computer screen. What you see and hear is the embodiment of an outdated Aristotelian philosophy: "Now the order of things is such that the imperfect are for the perfect...." Taken up by a variety of religious and political traditions throughout the centuries, this philosophy of use-value finds a particular heartbeat in the myriad of comments made on the New York Times website.
Throughout human history, people with disabilities have served the normative cultures in which they found themselves hurled. As evidence of dark magic, as indicators of societal health, as manifestations of God's power, as a reason for a nation to feel pride (veterans), disabled folks have become accustomed to serving a purpose far from their own personal volition. In other words, people with disabilities have played a primarily symbolic role.
Note how this symbolism serves the people making comments on the New York Times website:
I am very surprised that he has not filed a lawsuit! The ignorance of the TA/adjunct is beyond astounding.
The stutterer isn't the problem. The problem is that the culture has devolved to the point where attention spans are now so limited that to many people are no longer able to focus for long enough to give a starter or a chance to finish his thought.
As the daughter, sister and "significant other" of stutterers, I'm just outraged at the way this teacher treated [the student]. The stutterers in my life have all been exceptionally bright, witty, interesting and dear people.
All three comments, and most of the others posted, step on the shoulders of this young man in order to argue for a particular ideological viewpoint: litigious action, anti-media (literacy), and good old American self-centered, individualism are all championed here thanks to the experiences of the stuttering student.
On the whole, I think that comment sections of websites offer glimpses into a new media democracy, one in which we are still finding our way through. This story and others like it should remind us that minority experiences (say, of disability) should not be used as an opportunity to use the pain of others for our own gain. On the contrary, they offer us legitimate avenues into empathy, which will eventually lead us to better community.