Cute, part 1: Disability Consolation Prize

My students are cute. I suppose I carry a bias, since I have taught them for two or three years now, and I am accustomed to their particular brand of cuteness. Their cute characteristics have evolved from first to third grade, but the freckles and dimples and asymmetrically raised eyebrows get me every time.

Visitors file other qualities under that category. Little hands using sign language. Deaf voices learning to produce speech sounds or misarticulating certain words and phrases. I suppose there is a cuteness to children learning language, but I find it cute in the same way I found it charming when my cousin recited nursery rhymes or my nephew talked about the zombies in the cemetery. I am uncomfortable agreeing with someone who says “sign language is so beautiful” or “signing kids are so cute” when they ask about my job; it turns my students into the Other, and it limits the depth of the conversation we are able to have.

In the process of other-izing my students, the adjective cute can do damage. Cute is a shallow adjective; it would be on my Word Jail for writing class along with goodsaid, and like. It offers a compliment without effort, without actually getting to know my students.

An example: I have a student with CP. She uses a wheelchair or walker, leg braces, eyeglasses, and hearing aids. One morning in the cafeteria, a paraprofessional walked up behind my student, patted her on the head and said to me, “Oh, this one’s a cute one isn’t she?!” My student, a very savvy child indeed, gave me a look that said, “What the heck just transpired here?!” My student showed some restraint and tact in waiting until the adult walked away before she said, “What did she say about me??” (Kids get it) My problems with this:

  • My student could not see this staff member approaching. It’s rude to walk up behind a student in a wheel chair (especially one with a head support) and not announce your presence.
  • My student is not a dog. It is rude to pat her on the head.
  • My student was right there. It is rude to refer to her in the third person as though she is not.
  • My student uses sign language to communicate. It is rude to communicate out of “eyeshot” and without making some attempt to augment your speech with some signs.
  • This paraprofessional is not a new employee, and therefore has no excuse for breaking such fundamental expectations of interaction.

My final problem gets more than just a bullet point: this student is, in fact, cute as heck. But in public school, she was relegated to the role of the cute one in the wheelchair. There was no real inclusion. She had no real friends. No one knew that she was observant, empathetic, creative, skilled at drawing, and absolutely side-splittingly hilarious. She has me in stitches almost daily. She is fiercely independent, but if someone doesn’t take the time to understand her, she’ll give in and let them do whatever they are set on doing; it’s exhausting asserting oneself to an unreceptive, able-bodied adult.

Cute ignores her complex and beautiful humanness. 
Cute sees her disability, pities her, expects nothing from her, and offers a shallow adjective as a consolation prize.

To be fair, my other students are called cute pretty often, too. But I have noticed two things: the girls are called cute more often than the boys, and the students with the most severe limitations are labeled cute the most often of all.

If we are going to play the long game in raising awareness and demanding accessibility for persons with disabilities, no matter the disability, we need to stop with the cute. Just stop. If we are going to play the long game and raise competent children, we need to stop with the cute. Cuteness doesn’t last. Just ask Philip (in a rare pointed line in an otherwise abelist SNL sketch): “My cousin was a cute kid and then he hit puberty and his face exploded. Now he looks around and he’s wondering where all the people who said he was cute went to.” Surely we can come up with better adjectives.

One final point on the overuse of cute, especially as it is overoverused with girls. There is one staff member in particular who sees my student every morning, and every morning greets her with “You look so cute today!” Girls are bombarded with language praising their looks every day. From infancy, the marketing aimed at girls utilizes passive, appearance-oriented adjectives: cute, pretty, sweet, etc. The marketing aimed at boys employs active, performance-oriented adjectives: sporty, tough, rowdy, etc. Telling my students they are cute every day of their elementary lives sends a clear message that they are first and foremost objects to be admired.

For more on playing the long game, here is an article by one of my favorite intersectional bloggers.

For more on the marketing towards girls and boys, that really does start when they aren’t even old enough to talk yet, here is a post by one of my favorite bloggers who focuses on issues of gender stereotypes in childhood.

This sign hangs outside my classroom door:

Get a vocabulary, please.

Description: a multicolored sign. The top half reads “Of course we’re CUTE but we’re also…”  The bottom half lists adjectives, scattered on a yellow background: active, clever, strong, funny, intelligent, brave, motivated, determined, creative, bright, cheerful, complex, curious, helpful, unique, generous, animated, independent.

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