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The Gift: Learning Disabilities Reframed

We have created a system that has you submit yourself, or your child, to patient hood to access the right to learn differently.

The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.

Jonathan Mooney

The Need

Space without Behaviorism, Segregation, or Ableism

The Answer

Reframing and Respectful Connection

The Feeling

Electric Belonging and Soaring Inclusion

The Learning

Passion-Based, Human-Centered Learning Compatible With Neurodiversity and the Social Model of Disability

Young girl in headphones plugged into a paper book, evoking ear reading and multi-modality learning.

The Gift

We have created a system that has you submit yourself, or your child, to patient hood to access the right to learn differently. The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.

The Gift: Learning Disabilities Reframed

When you are identified as neurodivergent as a young person, almost all of the professional advice you and your caregivers get from education and healthcare is steeped in deficit ideology and the pathology paradigm. Faulty measurements of intelligence (IQ) effectively “designed to flunk an autistic person” set your narrative as a peg to be bashed through a mold.

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.

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

The unhealthiness, unhelpfulness, and disconnectedness of this worldview leads some to consult neurodivergent adults. Then, you discover neurodiversity, the social model of disability, and the biopsychosocial model. And then, maybe, intersectionality, design for real life, and equity literate education. And then you find yourself in the healthier framing of structural ideology that is better for you and better for the systems and institutions that you now have the language to confront and improve.

Fix Injustice, Not Kids

A square red peg hammered into a round hole surrounded by small pieces of the peg.
A square red peg hammered into a round hole surrounded by small pieces of the peg.

Stimpunks Foundation exists because of a bipartisan embrace of “Empty Pedagogy, Behaviorism, and the Rejection of Equity”. Reframing away from behaviorism and the pathology paradigm is urgently needed and essential.

Trainers are rejecting behaviorism because it harms animals emotionally and psychologically. What does that say about classrooms that embrace it?

This “science-driven” mantra has been seen before through eugenics.

Therefore, eugenics is an erasure of identity through force, whereas radical behaviorism is an erasure of identity through “correction.” This all assumes a dominant culture that one strives to unquestionably maintain.

Empty Pedagogy, Behaviorism, and the Rejection of Equity

The long-term well-being and empowerment of Autistics and members of other neurocognitive minority groups hinges upon our ability to create a paradigm shift – a shift from the pathology paradigm to the neurodiversity paradigm.


The talk “The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed” by Jonathan Mooney is social model music. It is an important part of our journey of reframing at Stimpunks. Mooney provides necessary insight into neurodivergent learners. Every minute is worth your time.


We Reframe

We reframe out of the confines of the medical model and pathology paradigm and into the respectfully connected expanse of the biopsychosocial model and the Neurodiversity paradigm. We reframe from deficit ideology to structural ideology.


Mooney’s perspective offers many takeaways. Two critical ones for us are these rules of thumb.

  • agent > patient
  • identity > diagnosis

We have created a system that has you submit yourself, or your child, to patient hood to access the right to learn differently. The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.

Jonathan Mooney

Below, we’ve pulled quotes from the talk “The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed” as well as quotes from Mooney’s books “Learning Outside The Lines: Two Ivy League Students With Learning Disabilities And ADHD Give You The Tools For Academic Success and Educational Revolution” and “Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive, Outside the Lines“.

Challenge our definition of where disability lies.

Challenge our definition of where disability lies.

Jonathan Mooney

We’ve built an entire edifice of intervention that’s about fixing people.

It’s not their minds or bodies that truly disable them. It’s how environment reacts to those differences. That’s where disability lies. Folks don’t have disability, they experience disability in environments that aren’t accessible and inclusive.

We should spend more time talking about how we change the environment that surrounds people and not the people themselves.

I did not overcome dyslexia. I overcame dysteachia. I overcame environments that weren’t built for my brain.

It’s that narrow definition of intelligence, behavior, and motivation that is really my disability. Not dyslexia, not ADHD.

Young folks like me are given the identity of being bad.

In many learning environments we think good kids sit still. The good kid is the compliant kid.

“What is your problem?” If I had a nickel for every time I heard that word in my life.

I was given this identity that I was a problem because of a norm in the environment that good kids sit still.

Difficult children make interesting adults.

We’ve left so many brains out.

We’ve built learning environments based on the myth that appropriate and valuable human behavior is about compliance.

We have conflated reading with intelligence.

We shouldn’t be asking ourselves, “how smart am I?” We should be asking, “how am I smart?”

I had overcome not ADHD, but I had overcome the feeling of being the defective person morally because I didn’t comply to the myth that good kids are compliant.

We’ve built most of our learning environments with sticks and carrots.

Intrinsic motivators are drivers like autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

We’ve negated the power of choice and the power of letting folks craft an education that is grounded in their aspirations, their vision for themselves.

How do we build learning environments that embrace intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

An essential component of my journey was an identity transformation from being a patient to being an agent.

You don’t need somebody to fix you. You need somebody to fight for you, and with you, because what’s happening to you is an injustice.

It ain’t right for somebody to be marginalized for a difference.

I need to cultivate a rights based paradigm, a diversity framework, and I need to become an advocate against what is a form of discrimination and marginalization. That’s an important transformation in agency.

You gotta fight against this, you gotta be an advocate, you gotta have a voice in your education.

Consistently cultivate the language of high expectations.

Y’all know the file, right? This has been the thing that had been following me since I started special education. Those things are thick and deep. KGB got nothing on special ed.

That’s agency. That’s somebody who refuses to negate somebody’s humanity because of a label.

We spend so much time talking about the problem, we lose the person.

We spend so much time captured in this language of deficit that we lower expectations.

We’ve built this whole infrastructure about fixing folks, about turning people into passive recipients of treatment and service, of turning people into patients. But being a patient is the most disempowered place a human being can be.

We need to cultivate a sense of agency in people which is the opposite of patient hood.

The most meaningful interventions, the most meaningful people in my life were people who cultivated a sense of agency.

Real intellectuals, they don’t care how you get there, they just want you to get there.

He was gonna hold me to the highest expectations, but he was gonna give me multiple ways to meet those expectations. And that is what an agency education is all about.

How well I know something is more important than how fast I know something. We are not trying to educate a generation of Jeopardy contestants.

Accommodate, and change the environment.

Multiple ways to reach those expectations with a flexibility in the classroom that was inclusive of learning diversity.

Switch from a deficit paradigm to an asset-based strength paradigm.

When all we do is fix people, the message we give to them is that they are broken. Nobody lives a meaningful life feeling broken.

It’s essential that we cultivate that capability framework, that asset based framework.

The moment that I could switch from what’s wrong with me to what’s right with me was a significant part of my journey.

Most of my education was all about what I couldn’t do.

We spent thousands dollars, thousands of hours on trying to fix one trait, frankly, perhaps the most irrelevant trait in the world in the 21st century, and that is spelling. God bless spellchecker.

The energy gone into fixing spelling, to worrying about spelling, it’s staggering.

All week we invested time, money, and relationship capital on fixing that irrelevant trait.

We’re not doing the spelling test today. We’re ditching school and going to the zoo.

The reporter asked me, “Jonathan, give my an inspiring message about how you got to Brown University for young people.” And I said, “ditch school.” Because what we and my mom did every Friday was we spent time getting good at something. We spent time developing strength. She literally called it the “get good at something day.” We spent time being interested in the world. We spent time figuring out where my capacities were, talking about how to make my way in the world with my capacities, not my deficits, but my assets. That was a radical shift in my life.

There is research is piling up every day that shows that school, including higher education, is trying to create generalists for a world of specialists.

More than ever the world rewards specialist knowledge.

School is the only place where we ask human beings to be good at all things.

We need to challenge how we’re forcing everyone to be the same in our educational models with this ideal notion of a generalist approach to being successful. The most successful human beings aren’t good at everything, they’re good at one or two things and they scale those strengths. How do they mitigate those weaknesses? They mitigate those weaknesses the way we all do, with teams, technology, and support.

I married my spellchecker. It’s called strategic mating.

We build supportive networks, we use technology, and we build a life not about what’s wrong with us, we build a life around what’s right with us.

We have built learning environments, our culture, our communities, around the myth of normal and average. That myth of normal and average has bombarded all people with a pervasive imperative that to be okay as a human being, to be acceptable as a human, you have to strive for this mythical norm, this mythical average, which by definition does not exist.

We didn’t have the word normal in the English language until the 1860s. Normal is a product linguistically of the industrial revolution , of standardizing production, of moving in a place that’s forcing people to fit that standardized mold. Normal is a statistical concept, not a fact in the world.

Challenging that myth of normal is a philosophical imperative because we are doubling down normal.

We have a medical community that’s found a sickness for every single human difference. DSM keeps growing every single year with new ways to be defective, with new ways to be lessened.

The myth of normal is what’s broken, and the identity that, if you don’t fit it, that you are less than, that’s what’s broken. We need to reframe what we problematize, not bodies, not difference, but this pervasive imperative to be normal.

All progress, all evolution, is driven by deviations from the norms.

All evolution and progress is driven by mutations and deviations. If we lose that, if we eradicate that, we have lost our strength as a community, as a society.

Disability industrial complex is all about what people can’t do. We spend most of our time trying to fix what they can’t do. When all we do is fix people the message we give to them is that they are broken.

We have created a system that has you submit yourself, or your child, to patient hood to access the right to learn differently. The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.

Source: Jonathan Mooney: “The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed” – YouTube

Mooney’s “Redrawing the Lines, Neurodiversity: A Compass for the Changing World” is another great talk.

If you learn differently, school sucks, and school sucks big time.

Redrawing the Lines
Neurodiversity: A Compass for the Changing World

Learning Outside the Lines

For centuries, the word stupid, combined with various intensifiers like bad, lazy, willful, or weak has been used to create a moral “diagnosis.” That moral diagnosis has ruined millions of lives.

Learning Outside The Lines: Two Ivy League Students With Learning Disabilities And Adhd Give You The Tools Academic Success and Educational Revolution

Our life struggles had more to do with freeing ourselves from the institution of education than transcending our own personal weakness.

It is a loss and a crime when creativity, alternative learning skills, and an individualized education take a back seat to rote memorization, standardized testing, and the misconception that all people learn the same way.

Education is one of the most beautiful and liberating things we can pursue in our lives, but too often it is approached as a restrictive, punitive, linear, and moralistic act.

Throughout our lives, we had looked to the idea of succeeding in school to define our worth and our intelligence. In childhood, we were told we were defective goods, and to be better we had to be other than what we were.

Ultimately our diagnoses and the subsequent attempts at intervention allowed people to blame us, two powerless kids, for our failure instead of turning a critical eye toward the environment. It took us fifteen years of personal and academic struggle to stop blaming ourselves, to stop believing that we are inherently defective like “they” thought, and to come to realize how profound an effect the environment had on our inability to succeed. Only as time went on did simple interventions like the ability to get up out of our seats, the use of a spell checker, and progressive ideas like project-based learning and other modifications to the learning environment allow the pathology to slip into irrelevance and enable us to be successful. Our hard wiring is a simple cognitive difference. We all have them. But an oppressive educational environment that blames children for their failures caused us to grow up with the stigma of pathology.

Behavior becomes a social indicator of morality, marking which kids are good kids and which kids are bad, and the highest value is one of conformity, passivity, and obedience.

The underlying notion is that all kids develop at the same time in a linear, sequential manner, and if some kids cannot read early, they are not intelligent. This environment gave us an identity at a time when our personality was malleable, an identity that revolved around the teacher, the authority figure in the room. We did not question the rules and the identity handed to us. We were taught that sitting still and getting gold stars on our math homework were more important than art and ideas, and much more important than what kind of people we were and how we treated other kids.

Mooney, Jonathan; Cole, David (2014-07-01). Learning Outside The Lines: Two Ivy League Students With Learning Disabilities And Adhd Give You The Tools F. Touchstone. Kindle Edition.

Normal Sucks

Normal was created, not discovered, by flawed, eccentric, self-interested, racist, ableist, homophobic, sexist humans. Normal is a statistical fiction, nothing less. Knowing this is the first step toward reclaiming your power to define yourself, know yourself, and love yourself for who you are, not who you should be.

Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive, Outside the Lines
Normal Sucks Full Film

Normal was used to create dehumanizing categories of social disqualification, based on a narrow continuum of acceptable human variation—the grand total of which was none. This biologically based, scientifically justified discrimination disqualified a wide range of humans and had a huge impact on atypical bodies and minds. Variability becomes disability, abnormality, and pathology. From here on, this medical model will become the foundation for how society makes sense of, addresses, and treats cognitive and physical differences. The medical model makes variability synonymous with sickness and puts the social “problem” to be solved in the person, not the environment around the person.

The great sorting and pathologizing of difference are still with us today. This is dangerous, because if there is one thing I know, really know to my core, it’s that to define deviations from the norm as a deficit or disorder or abnormality is the first step in making a person into a problem to be fixed and a sickness to be cured.

Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive, Outside the Lines

The sorting of typical humans into hierarchical medical categories of difference was not inevitable. Human differences had been, before this sorting, interrupted in other ways. Charles Darwin proved that all evolution was fueled by variation. Before the category of the abnormal, people with cognitive and physical differences were often considered wonderful, eccentric, remarkable, singular, extraordinary, queer, odd, strange, whimsical, absurd, and curious. According to Henri-Jacques Stiker, a disability historian, people with cognitive and physical differences during the Middle Ages “were spontaneously part of a world and of a society that was accepted as being multifaceted.”

What changed?

Difference became abnormality when the probability theorists, skull counters, and shrinks who brought us normal become coconspirators with the great sorters of the early twentieth century. Normal emerged, side by side and arm in arm, with the rise of science as a tool to describe and make sense out of the world. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, biologists created systems to categorize the natural world, astronomers mapped the sky, geographers the world, and anatomists the human body. Normal lurked in the background, drawing a line in these charts and systems between what was acceptable and what was not—and we all know that the not is abnormal.

Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive, Outside the Lines

Ian Hacking summed it up when he wrote that the word normal, with its attendant meanings, “whispers in your ear that what is normal is also all right.”

Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive, Outside the Lines

Normal has always been propped up by and constructed on the bodies and lives of the not normal. And to be on the bottom of that pile, to be the negation of normal that is its foundation, is to not just differ from normal; it is to be normal’s opposite—abnormal—which is false and wrong.

Just because normal isn’t a fact doesn’t mean it hasn’t been used to dehumanize people with differences. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Like normal, abnormal has a history, not of discovery but of invention. As you make your life, you need to know this history and the process and systems of normalization that have turned natural differences among humans into abnormalities to be diagnosed, categorized, and then of course, corrected. You are round pegs, as we all are, and no matter how much I try, I can’t protect you from the relentless message that you must fit the square hole.

Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive, Outside the Lines

You are normal if your behavior, appearance, and background are the dominant culture. You are normal if you fit into this culture and are therefore deemed normal by the school, the church, the town, the doctor, the professor. Normal is what works in society’s norms. This is a whole new tautology—normal is what is called normal by people who are considered normal.

What a mess the twentieth century made out of normal.

Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive, Outside the Lines

Taken as a whole, the research on neurodiversity is a profound rebuke to our collective illusion of sameness—and the systems of normalization that make this dream a nightmare for many of us. This body of research shows that a constellation of brain differences are not only correlated with, but directly lead to, a range of thinking patterns and cognitive skills like creativity, problem solving, intelligence, and innovation that have made humanity’s progress possible. As Harvey Blume wrote in an article in The Atlantic, “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.”

Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive, Outside the Lines

The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.

The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.

Jonathan Mooney

Now that we’ve reframed learning and learners, let’s explore our next pillar: Research.

⛑📚 Our Pillars 🗂🧰

Learning Space

The place where we belong does not exist. We will build it. Anti-ableist space for passion-based, human-centered learning compatible with neurodiversity and the social model of disability.

Open Research

Digital sociology, neurodiversity studies, disability studies, and syncretism, in the open. Improving science by restoring the humanities. We bring voice into empirical constructs and translate voice into academic comprehension.

Mutual Aid

Staying alive is a lot of work for a disabled person in an ableist society. We provide real help against the onslaught through mutual aid. We believe that direct support to individuals is the most effective approach to alleviating the barriers and challenges that prevent neurodivergent and disabled people from thriving.

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Creator Grants

We pay creators to create. We fund art, advocacy, research, and more. We buy space to breathe and create.

⏭ Next Pillar: Research

The story continues with, “🗂 Facts, Fire, and Feels: Research-Storytelling from the Edges