Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A modest proposal for solving the crisis in 'special education' by next Tuesday

The story of Ava Crager isn’t at the top end of discrimination and neglect against children with disabilities in New Zealand. After all, it resulted in her missing a single week of school, when there are children who miss months or even years – to say nothing of those who attend regularly but are marginalised, secluded or excluded from the curriculum and the social life of their schools. The ministry of education doesn’t keep data on any of these outcomes, so the stories we hear must always be treated as the tip of a very large iceberg.

This iceberg has been floating at the edge of the public consciousness for over twenty years, since the introduction in 1995 of the current regime for delivering what used to be called ‘special education’. The phrase is in bad need of updating, but I’m going to use it anyway – albeit in scare-quotes – for it is essential for understanding the institutional logic at work.

And that is the virtue of Ava’s story: not that it is more appalling than others or has resulted in greater discrimination and hardship than others, but precisely that it is so common, so quietly absurd, as to fully illuminate the workings of the current system – and why it needs to be dismantled not just as a matter of justice, but also of basic decency and sanity.

Here’s the story, then, briefly, as told this week by Radio New Zealand reporter Laura Dooney.

Ava is a 12 year wheelchair user who relied on the ministry of education’s taxi service to go to school. Back in March, she moved with her family 5 minutes down the road. The parents knew ahead of time that they needed to fill out a whole new application for the taxi service in order for the car to come to the new address, and allowed 20 days for processing. The ministry took 7 weeks to approve the ‘new’ taxi service. When the family asked what was taking so long, they explained that Ava wasn’t the only child on the waiting list. The school provided transportation at its own cost, so Ava ended up missing one week of attendance. The Cragers were left feeling lucky that their situation was resolved, knowing very well that other families are routinely put in even more stressful situations.

This story has a bit of everything. The institution normalising its failures, and passing the blame on to disabled children for existing (‘there are many others in your daughter’s situation’). The odd mix of relief and gratitude felt by the family when the entitlement was eventually restored – a feeling that everyone who has spent any time in the system knows so very well. And, above all, the Kafkaesque contortions of the rationing mechanisms, which generate costs both human and financial at every turn under the guise of fairness and accountability. Specifically, and most obviously: the ministry’s complaint that its own waiting lists are so crowded fails to address the fact that this is due in part to families like the Cragers having to reapply for the taxi service every time they move to a new place. (I heard this week from a family who had to do it after moving within the same street). Asked by Dooney to explain this fact, the ministry answered by repeating the question (‘every time a family moves, a new application must be lodged to verify their eligibility’), a clear indication that they have lost any sense not just of their purpose, but also of reality.

As things stand, the current system consistently fails to address the needs of the children under the ministry’s care. As not just countless human-interest stories but several government reviews have documented, it is discriminatory, tortuous, wasteful, and has damaged the educational prospects of entire generations of disabled students. We have known these things for years. And while the new ministers in charge of education and disability seem aware of the magnitude of the problem, and well-intentioned in their call for a comprehensive overhaul, I want to sound a couple of notes of caution.

Firstly, the Clark government also came in with good intentions and did nothing beyond conducting a review and then ordering a second review which was completed under National. Further to that, they had nine years – there is no guarantee that this government will last as long. (The other lot doesn’t think there even is a problem.)

Secondly, I worry that the overdue and sacrosanct realisation that the problems are wide-ranging and systemic could become a recipe for inaction. Case in point: besides a raft of budget measures that pumped more money into a bad system, the government hasn’t announced any actual plan outside of Chris Hipkins’ vision for long-term reform of the entire education system. But again, we don’t know that the government will last long enough to see any of it implemented. And in the meantime, obvious, elementary steps such as finally funding the management position of learning support coordinator in every school are being tied to the current round of industrial negotiations between the ministry of education and the primary teachers’ union, NZEI. Meaning that teachers will have to give something up so that disabled students are better included in their schools. This shouldn’t be the union’s job.

So, here’s my proposal. We’re all sick of waiting. So fucking sick of waiting. And our children can’t afford to wait any longer – we are wasting so much potential, so many lives. Time’s up. From now on, every need is to be automatically provided for with fully funded supports unless the ministry of education can prove that the need doesn’t exist. I say my child has autism, or is in a wheelchair, or has a learning impairment. Her teachers and – if applicable – the local DHB concur. You disagree? Fine. Prove that she doesn't. In the meantime, cough up the money for the supports that are needed in order to remove the barriers to her full inclusion at her local school. Let’s see you fill out some forms for a change, spend some of your own money on private psychologists and consultants. Let’s see if you are still eligible to call yourself a Ministry of Education, and not the Ministry for Educating Some of the Children.

Are you worried that opening the floodgates – that is to say, eliminating all your neurotic requirements for compliance – will make you spend too much money? I’m not sure that it will. Besides, whose money are we talking about? Pretend the money Ava’s school spent on getting her to class for six weeks came out of your budget. Pretend it was you who filled out the forms her parents had to fill out. Pretend it was you who spent the 35 hours it takes on average to fill out an ORS application. It is you who has to assess it. It is you who has to defend the families’ appeals. But all of this is money and time spent by New Zealanders. It is all of us. You’re costing us too much, in order to achieve far too little.

And then so what if costs should balloon? It will force you to finally sit down with the disability community and the teachers and the researches to design a better system. A system that pools knowledge and human resources and invests more rationally while still ensuring that all children receive a quality education. Besides, you saved money that didn’t belong to you for over twenty years. It belonged to some of our most vulnerable students. It’s time to give it back.

Thanks for reading this. Early feedback has included some people despairing that we could ever implement something of this sort, that it's too far from what we have now. Nonsense. It's up to us to create practical utopias in local schools - show how things could and should be done - and demand the changes that are needed for those utopias to become the norm. My model for what can be achieved is the mental health reforms in Italy, which went much further in a much shorter span of time. I wrote about them recently for Overland and if you feel overcome with pessimism (as we all do from time to time) I suggest you take a look that bit of history. It's something that happened, and it was a struggle from below. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Inferno XVIII: A place there is in Hell called Malebolge

The full text of the canto in Italian/English

Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge
A place there is in Hell called Malebolge

We could spend this week’s post talking about this one line. Not c’è un luogo but luogo è, not ‘there is a place’, but ‘a place there is’. A declarative statement bearing a timeless, universal truth, which is also a sentence (in the judicial rather than grammatical sense). Like those words carved into the architrave of Hell at the beginning of the third canto, when Dante and Virgil first ventured into the cavern, which culminated in the famous exhortation to abandon all hope, ye etcetera.

That was just a few hours ago. In the meantime, the two poets have met scores of damned souls, a throng comprising perhaps the majority of the people who had ever lived up to the turn of the fourteenth century. Their numbers included not just the lustful or the avaricious and so forth, but also heavier sinners such as usurers, thieves, heretics and murderers. Yet we’re only halfway down. From here on in, things will get progressively worse, just as the upside-down cone that is Hell becomes smaller, and progressively less populated.

As Dante-the-narrator utters those words – luogo è, – Dante-the-pilgrim is actually there, at the entrance of Malebolge. We, as readers, occupy the space between the writer and the character. Modernity has stretched this space beyond measure – we can speculate, reinvent, historicise – whereas for a medieval, Christian reader, that space would have been far narrower. For one thing, few (if any) of Dante’s early readers would have doubted the existence of the larger place that contains the smaller place, Hell itself. Secondly, they – like Dante – would have placed Hell somewhere in the actual world. Although their geography mixed the symbolic with the concrete, this was a location someone could travel to, if they only knew where it was.

What of the second part of the line? What is ‘Malebolge’?

Hell is never mentioned in the scriptures. It was a medieval addition, sanctioned by the Church and filled over the centuries in the popular imaginary by demons drawn in part from classical literature and folklore, and in part invented anew. However, this ‘invention’ is not an invention in the modern sense, a flight of fancy. Remember: Dante knew the things he imagined to be true. Both literally true, to an extent, but to a larger one – and far more importantly – also figuratively, spiritually, metaphysically true.

As far as scholars can tell, ‘Malebolge’ is a word made up by Dante. Male of course means bad or evil (think of the word malevolent), whereas a bolgia is a large ditch. This place called Malebolge is a series of ten concentric moats, descending gradually towards a central well. It houses the fraudulent, divided into many groups: here, in the first ring-like circle, it’s pimps, seducers and flatterers. This last group is literally swimming in shit, as if all of the worlds’ latrines were fed directly into their ditch (vidi gente attuffata in uno sterco / che da li uman privadi parea mosso.)

All this is invention, but invention of a kind. If Hell is a real place on Earth, as Dante most surely believed, and if the hierarchy of sins is dictated by the prevailing theologians as of necessity, following God’s logic, then Malebolge, too, could be real, is real. It takes two words – luogo è – for Dante to declare the truth-value of his vision, and to make his vision true. It’s an incantation.

Let’s round off the tercet:
Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge,
tutto di pietra di color ferrigno,
come la cerchia che dintorno il volge.

A place there is in Hell called Malebolge,
all made of stone and iron-like in colour,
⁠as is the circular wall that surrounds it.

Illustration (possibly by Giovanni Britto) from the 1544 edition curated by Alessandro Vellutello

There follows a 15-line description through similitude of the ditches or moats connected by bridges, as if part of a series of inter-linked fortifications. In later cantos, Dante gives some dimensions: the tenth circle is 11 miles long, while the ninth is 22. Each ditch is half a mile wide. This would make the first circle over one hundred miles long, and the diameter of the crater of Hell at the depth reached by Dante and Virgil some 35 miles.

We are used nowadays to imaginary worlds being described with minute precision. However, in Dante’s case this apparent concreteness or realism leads right back into metaphysics, for each measurement suggests a hidden symbolism or relationship with other numbers. Invention, again, is both constrained and sanctioned by the logic it is seen to obey.

For now, all we need to know is that a place there is in Hell called Malebolge. We’ll spend the next twelve cantos here.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII.