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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

A Comics Collection Of The 'Absurdities & Realities of Special Education'

An image of the cartoon Clearing A Path For Everyone by Michael Giangreco
Michael Giangreco and Kevin Ruelle
University of Vermont Center for Digital Initiatives Collection

Comic strips might evoke images of slapstick humor, superheroes, or political satire. When it comes to the topics comics tackle, special education doesn’t immediately leap to mind.

But Michael Giangreco, a UVM education professor in the special education program, wrote more than 300 comics lampooning the bureaucracy, absurdity, and challenges he saw in the implementation of special education.

The strips were collected in three volumes, all subtitled Absurdities and Realities of Special Education. They’re now being archived online as part of the UVM library’s Digital Collections.

VPR’s Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Micahel Giangreco, and their conversation has been edited for clarity.

Michael Giangreco: Back in the early 1990s, when I was making presentations of my research at conferences, at schools for professional development sessions, I was often using the cartoons of people like Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons, because, to make points, people like humor.

It was a stretch, though, because those cartoons weren't specifically on point to the issues that I was raising. And I thought, “Boy, wouldn't it be great if there were ones that were specifically related to the topics?” But I looked, and there weren't, so finally I started writing my own. But there was a big problem: I can't draw to save my life.

So I needed help. And I got help from my friend Kevin Ruelle, who is an amazing local artist. He and I have been working together now for 25 years on cartoons. I create the ideas, and make the initial drawings, and then he re-draws them. And then we edit together until the drawing matches kind of what I had in my mind.

Mitch Wertlieb: You mentioned writing these cartoons, I guess to begin with, for special educators, people in special education. Eventually, they were collected in these three volumes, and I'm wondering how people have responded to them over time?

In general, the response has been very positive. Families have appreciated them, professionals use them to advocate. I really felt honored a number of years ago, when the Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights used them as part of the Disability Awareness Day in the Vermont Legislature. They've been taken to IEP, Individual Education Program meetings by parents to make points, and people are using them at conferences.

Two comics by Michael Giangreco from Absurdities And Realities Of Special Education
Credit Michael Giangreco and Kevin Ruelle / University of Vermont Center for Digital Initiatives Collection
University of Vermont Center for Digital Initiatives Collection
Writer Michael Giangreco says the 300-plus comics in Absurdities And Realities Of Special Education have generated strong reactions from special educators, researchers, and families of students.

Occasionally, they hit a little too close to home for certain people. Sometimes people don't like looking in the mirror to see some of the things that they see about the absurd, and sometimes damaging things, that systems do to students with disabilities.

Why did you feel like this was a good fit, though, to have comics talk about some of the struggles that people in special education have?

It makes some of the messages more palatable. Wagging your finger at people doesn't work. But lots of times, when you can see something in its full absurdity — and of course, we exaggerate things in cartoons, and purposely make them satirical, for the most part — it allows people to look at it and say, "Oh, yeah, OK, I get it." And they remember the cartoons. You could give them 300 words, and they're not going to remember it, necessarily, but they remember that image.

An image of the cartoon Reptilian Responses To Diversity
Credit Michael Giangreco and Kevin Ruelle / University of Vermont Center for Digital Initiatives Collection
University of Vermont Center for Digital Initiatives Collection
Giangreco says he used his comics to show evolved thinking, or lack thereof, and tried to encourage readers to view disability as a form of human diversity, rather than a deficiency.

One of them is titled "Reptilian Responses to Diversity." And it shows a snake, a frog, and some kind of lizard. And the snake is saying, “Let's attack it.” And the lizard is saying, “Let's eat it.” And the frog is saying, “Let's run away from it.” And I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about what you were trying to get at with that cartoon?

One of the things that's happening in the disability community is, people [are] trying to encourage others to view disability as a form of human diversity, rather than a deficiency. It's just part of the human condition. And lots of issues that relate to social justice broadly, you can focus in on related to disability.

And of course, our reptilian response is to attack, to eat, to run away, whether that's from racial difference, whether that's from disability difference. And what we're saying is, "You know, we're more evolved than that." So we want to point those things out.

Let's talk about another cartoon now that I find really striking. And I think this one is — it's become semi-famous. It's the outside of a school, and it's snowy, it's winter, like it is right now. And there is a gentleman with a shovel. This is called “Clearing A Path For Everyone!”

And this cartoon, what I find so striking about, is on the side of it, it says it's inspired by a public school student with disabilities. Can you tell me a little bit about that inspiration?

This is literally, verbatim, the exchange that this student had. The student wished to remain anonymous, but it was inspired by a real situation in Vermont. And I think the reason it's become kind of, you called it, “semi-famous,” and it is the most widely reprinted of the cartoons, is that when we make changes to accommodate diverse learners, we're typically going to be doing things that are going to improve the situation for lots of other students, and lots of other people that don't have that characteristic.

So, in this case, everybody can get in if you shovel the ramp, where if you shovel the stairs, only some people can get in and then the others have to wait. So what do you do first? Make it accessible.

And I want to give a shout out to two people that were also very instrumental in this digital initiative. Jeanne Nauheimer from the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion. And also my colleague, Chris Burns, he's [one of] the Special Collections librarian[s] at the UVM Library’s Center [for] Digital Initiatives.

Making these [cartoons] accessible and available on this digital platform could not have happened without the two of them.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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