Subliminal Advocacy

Sometimes I prefer a subtle approach.

I’d rather scheme ways to raise “awareness” outside of public campaigns and school-sponsored lessons.

I find ways to do it on the down-low; to plant covert messages and watch as misconceptions crumble.

Of course, there is always a need to engage in overt actions. When my son was in lower elementary school, he was integrated into the regular education classroom, with the support of a 1:1 aide. And, like any parent of a special needs student, I spent an exorbitant amount of time strategizing with his teachers and support staff how best to teach and support him, and set up “sensitivity training” and “friendship” programs to ensure that his peers learned how to be sensitive and friendly.

To be sure, my highly-vocal advocacy of my son’s educational and social needs helped to cultivate an inclusive mindset in his classmates and teachers.

But, I often delighted in staging more subtle acts of education to alter perceptions and transform stereotypes. When his teachers allowed for modified assignments, I exploited my son’s class projects in order to spread insidious disability awareness propaganda.


My first deliberate act of subliminal advocacy was aimed at a teacher who was having difficulty understanding the difference between the mere “presence of” and the meaningful “inclusion of” special needs students in her classroom.

The assignment: A President’s Day request to bring in one item about a past American president to share.

I helped my son pick out this photo:


Franklin Delano Roosevelt – our 32nd president (1933-1945) – in a family photo in Hyde Park, NY, February 1941.
Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York.

I hoped this bit of subtle propaganda, displaying a rare view of one of our most popular leaders, would serve as a gentle reminder to his teacher that she needn’t be afraid of my child’s disability. After all, the only thing we have to fear is…well, you know…


The next year, I took advantage of this assignment: Give a class presentation about “an animal of your choosing.”

I got permission from my son’s teacher to help him create a report on this very special animal:

What better animal is there than a Service Dog?

What better animal is there than a Service Dog?

My son presented a picture book with simple captions that he read to the class, describing the work of the therapy dog that assisted during my son’s OT sessions every week after school. As an added feature, his OT brought G. to the school for a hugely popular live demonstration of some of his many skills.

Through this sneak attack – disguised as an “animal” lesson – we gave the class a hint of how hard many of their “special” friends continue to work after school. And, my son gained some new admiration from his peers for the unique relationship he shared with a very cool dog.


In another year, the requirement to present an extensive oral book report on “a famous artist, inventor, or scientist” provided the perfect opportunity for more subversive action.

Due at a time when we were exploring the options of an augmentative communication device for our son, I helped my accomplice develop a report on this scientist:

Professor Stephen Hawking; Brilliant minds come in all packages. Courtesy of

Professor Stephen Hawking; Brilliant minds come in all packages.

This assignment was a perfect fit for my nefarious campaign. Each student’s report had to include an appropriate “prop” or costume piece. It just so happens that theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, since losing his ability to speak due to ALS, communicates with the aid of a computer. So naturally, my son presented his book report using a borrowed 8-button “talker” that doubled as his required prop.

The students may have learned something about Hawking’s contributions to understanding the mysteries of the universe, but the true value of the lesson was that it was spoken in an alternative way.


It has been awhile since I’ve perpetrated this kind of indirect advocacy. Now that I’ve rediscovered these undercover operations, I will be on the look out for other ways to spread awareness on the sly. I think the cumulative effect of simple acts like these can engender inclusive attitudes and sabotage misconceptions about ability better than any marathon IEP could ever hope to. Plus, they are a lot more fun.



This piece was inspired by a recent news item shown on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Recently, a researcher at the National Archives stumbled across some rare moving footage of President FDR in his wheelchair – rare because the president’s paralysis, resulting from the polio he contracted at the age of 39, was kept from public view during his presidency at the request of the White House. Perhaps it was deemed respectful (and politically advantageous) to hide the president’s disability in the 1930s and 1940s. But that type of censorship – then and now – has a damaging impact on children, particularly those who are growing up with physical or other challenges, since it denies them the knowledge that they have something in common with one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century.

Kids need role models of all persuasions and abilities. They need to see themselves (and their classmates) in the personalities, bodies, ideals and achievements of others who came before them; and those of us charged with raising and educating them have an obligation to make sure that those role models are accessible and fully visible.


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