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Normal Sucks: Author Jonathan Mooney on How Schools Fail Kids with Learning Differences

Jonathan Mooney
Jonathan Mooney

CW: This post and podcast includes discussions of suicide.

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Jonathan Mooney was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADD, and he learned to read at age 12. “When I was in third grade, I couldn’t sit still, so I spent a lot of each day chilling out with the janitor in the hallway. I struggled with reading, especially reading out loud, so I often hid in the bathroom,” he recently wrote in The New York Times.

He briefly dropped out of school, and considered suicide. The system was failing him, just like so many other kids with learning differences.

Mooney eventually returned to school. With support from his family and a few teacher mentors, he went on to college and pursued an English literature degree, attending Loyola Marymount and then Brown University, authoring three books, and becoming a speaker and advocate for changing a system that leaves so many children behind.

Mooney’s new book, Normal Sucks, is part memoir, part letter to his children, part call to action against ableism and the cult of normal. On this week’s Longreads Podcast, I spoke to him about how society can better serve and celebrate its many differences.

“I had all sorts of labels growing up, you know, the bad kid, the stupid kid, the lazy kid. And then eventually I became the special ed, not-normal kid. I had a set of learning and attentional differences that weren’t treated as differences. They were treated as deficiencies, as abnormalities. And so I went on a journey to understand my own journey; my own struggles with feeling less than as a human being, and then ultimately on a journey to understand how we’ve created a culture that values the myth of the normal, as opposed to the reality of the different.”


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Still, Mooney says he had a support system and a fierce advocate: His mother. She advocated for him within the school system and fought teachers and administrators when she felt they were not serving his needs:

“You know, my mom got a ton of shit, man. I mean, there’s just no other way to say it. The message to parents of the neurodiverse kid is that their child is deficient, and that their job is to fix their child. We are in a sort of remediation industrial complex, where there’s all sorts of services and treatments and interventions to make the square peg fit the round hole. Parents are relentlessly told that that’s their job. And my mom rejected that.”

We are living in an era of increased awareness of neurodiversity, but the question remains whether this awareness is leading to real changes in how we educate children. Mooney says the idea that there’s even such thing as a “normal” person is insidious. He questions whether we’re making enough progress to recognize ableism and reject it.

“On one hand, I hear my story in other people’s stories everywhere I go, to this very day. People come up to me and talk about chilling out with See Spot Run in the slow reading group, or hanging out with a janitor in the hallway. Those are very deeply entrenched practices that are still with us today.”

Mooney notes that “No Child Left Behind was perhaps the most damaging form of public policy as it pertained to public education and learning diversity that has happened in our history of education policy, and that was a bill that was sponsored by Senator Edward Kennedy. It was a set of practices that was doubled down upon by the Obama administration.”

“Now, the other side of the coin is, I am tremendously optimistic about two things. First and foremost, I’m tremendously optimistic about the broad cultural movement around equity, diversity, and inclusion. And I think we need to hold on to that as a culture. And we need to demand that that core philosophical and ethical commitment to having a world that doesn’t just work for some, but works for all, starts to come into our systems and we to some real difference in our systems. I think we have to fight for that. It ain’t going to happen on its own.”

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