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Presuming Competence: It Only Takes One Person...

an old, dark, state institution that is brown and gray

Imagine if we believed that all children, regardless of disability or learning difference, were capable of great things? Of learning? Of being a part of a community? Having friends?

That's a pretty simple definition of "presuming competence".

As a child in the 1970s, our communities and educational systems didn't necessarily presume competence or assume great things, especially for kids and young adults that had more significant or undiagnosed disabilities. Sadly, they were often placed in state institutions.

I grew up a couple of towns over from one of the local state institutions.

In this institution were "housed" (yes, I chose that word on purpose), people that didn't fit the mold of traditional society as it was back then: Adults and children considered at the time to have behavioral concerns, adults and children with various disability types, and any other adult or child that was determined to be "unfit" or "unteachable" or "dysfunctional" in any way.

This state institution was actually called a state school. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a school as "an organization that provides instruction" or "an establishment offering specialized instruction. But... the name is an absolute misnomer as this "school" had nothing to do with education. Nothing.

The conditions at this "school" were deplorable: inhumane treatment including multiple forms of abuse, filthy bedding, sub-par nutrition and food quality. Limited opportunity for learning. These horrific conditions are illustrated in photos, videos, and documentaries as "hellish".

But amongst the gross lack of humanity and filth, believe it or not, there were some inspiring moments.

Ruth's story is one of them.

There was a nurse at this institution that noticed something special in one of the children who lived there.

Ruth was brought there by her parents when she was a child and spent the early years of her life “trapped” in a body with severe cerebral palsy. She could not walk, talk, feed herself or comb her own hair. Physical, speech and occupational therapies were very limited so she never received the support she needed.

Ruth was in a shell of isolation until…

A nurse at the institution noticed her eye movements. The movements meant something. She would simply raise her eyes to say yes. Ruth began to communicate with the world using her eyes. She began to express her basic wants and needs, and eventually, share conversations.

For the first time in her life, Ruth was able to express herself.

Through the careful watching of a special nurse, her years of feeling trapped and isolated in her own body were over. Unfortunately, she continued to live for years at the institution, but her desire to communicate with the world was just beginning. She transitioned from eye movements to pictures to more advanced forms of assistive technology to share her wants, ideas, and emotions.

She eventually left the institution at age 38.

I know quite a bit about her story from reading her autobiography and articles about her as she continued to reside near the area in which I lived. What is shared here is just a small piece of her life's journey.

Her memoir is captured in her 1989 autobiography, I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes. It is a wonderful and inspiring read.

Ruth lived a successful life as a wife, an author, and a passionate advocate for people with disabilities. She passed in 1998 at age 47. Learn more about Ruth and her story here:

The bottom line is… it only took one person to really see her true potential. Really see HER.

ONE person...

Imagine if we all presumed competence?


If you have a child with autism, ADHD, or a cognitive disability and would like guidance on how to support them with learning tools, inclusion, and other strategies for attention, focus, and independence, Inclusiveology is here to help. CLICK HERE to schedule a free consultation.

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1 Comment

Apr 15

Amazing story!! Thank you for sharing. How can parents advocate for presumed competence in public schools where students with disabilities are still segregated?

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