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Ask yourself...What am I assuming?

19 December 2019

Written by former speech pathologist Yvette Theodorsen in February 2014:

With the beginning of a new school year upon us, it is a perfect time to consider our belief systems and challenge our society’s paradigms about disability. Ask yourself these questions. What do you think when you hear ‘intellectual disability’, ‘low functioning’, ‘severe sensory impairments’, ‘non-verbal’…? What assumptions do you make based on a person’s diagnosis? How do these assumptions impact on the communication supports and interventions you provide?

The prevailing paradigm in our society – the “shared world view” (Jorgensen, 2005) – about individuals with disabilities is one of deficit and low expectations. We believe that “if the student knows it, she will be able to show it” (Cafiero, 2007). When, over time, we do not see ‘evidence’ that an individual can do something, we assume this means they can’t. These judgements affect how we interact with and educate individuals with disabilities, such that

  • students are not provided with access to the general education curriculum
  • people talk with students (or even about students) in their presence as if they don’t understand
  • students aren’t supported to engage with and develop friendships with their same-age peers
  • planning for students’ futures does not consider the prospect of tertiary education or careers that consider their own interests.

Many experts in the area of special education and intervention for individuals with disabilities have written about the notion of the ‘least dangerous assumption’, first coined by Anne Donnellan in 1984. It states that “in the absence of absolute evidence, it is essential to make the assumption that, if proven to be false, would be the least harmful to the individual” (Donnellan, 1984, cited in Cafiero, 2007). Rosetti and Tashie (2002) illustrate it this way:

If I were to go fishing for a week and not catch any fish, there would be two assumptions that could be made. First, I could say “there are no fish in the lake since I did not catch any, and I know what I am doing.” Or, second, I could say simply that “I did not catch any fish that week, and I will keep on trying.” The first assumption seems rather arrogant, while the second one is more realistic and respectful.

The same holds true for students with disabilities. Imagine a child who does not talk with the spoken word and moves around using a wheelchair. Her teachers have worked with her for a month and have not yet seen any evidence of what she understands. In fact, they wonder if she knows or is aware of anything at all. These teachers can make one of two assumptions. They can assume that “what you see is what you get” and that this child does not know anything, that her brain is as empty as that lake. As such, they can educate her in a way that reflects those assumptions (perhaps segregated classes or regular classes with low or no expectations). Now imagine her as she graduates and uses a communication device to say, “Why did you treat me so poorly?!! I am smart and you wasted twelve years of my life!” A very dangerous assumption was made, with results that none of us would desire.

A belief system based on making the ‘least dangerous assumption’ will lead to open expectations of our students with disabilities and an underlying presumption of competence when no evidence exists to indicate otherwise. It will lead us to strive for better practice in our teaching and intervention and to assume “that poor performance is due to instructional inadequacy rather than to student deficits” (Donnellan, 1984, cited in Jorgensen, 2005). These experts challenge us to create a new paradigm, to “believe that all people are valued individuals with limitless potential” (Rossetti & Tashie, 2002).

To find out more:

Rossetti, Z. & Tashie, C. (2002). “Outing the prejudice: Making the least dangerous assumption.” The Communicator: Newsletter of the Autism National Committee. https://ollibean.com/2012/04/22/outing-the-prejudice-making-the-least-dangerous-assumption/

Cafiero, J. (2007). Challenging our belief systems regarding people with autism and AAC: Making the least harmful assumptions. Closing The Gap, 26 (1). http://www.cafierocommunications.com/articles/ChallengingBeliefs.pdf

Jorgensen, C. (2005). The Least Dangerous Assumption: A Challenge to Create a New Paradigm. Disability Solutions, 6 (3). http://www.cherylmjorgensen.com/upload/LDA%20Disability%20SOlutions%20PDF.pdf

Video by Dr Cheryl Jorgensen: http://vimeo.com/18545415

Teaching Learners with Multiple Special Needs. Jan 26, 2014. Why “Prove it with Low Tech First” Doesn’t Work.