I’ve spent a good bit of my life living and working in places that many of my colleagues would not drive through in the middle of the day with the windows rolled up and the car doors locked, so you’ll have to excuse me if I am a bit cynical about the latest push to teach everyone to code.

I’m not opposed to coding, in fact, I am greatly in favor of it. It is tied with drinking Chardonnay for favorite activity for which you do not have to get naked.  I was an industrial engineer in 1982 – so I was into STEM before STEM was even a thing.

What makes me roll my eyes and sigh is where many well-meaning people have completely missed the mark when they say that you don’t really need to know much math to write software. Clearly, they can’t mean all kinds of software because obviously if you write software to do statistical analysis, predictive analytics or whatever the phrase du jour is, you very much need math.

Often, these people are talking about games –

“Kids play games, let’s have them make them.”

That doesn’t necessarily follow any more than,

“I have a liver. I should create a dialysis machine.”

Ignoring the faulty logic for a minute, let me point out that most games DO require math. The people saying they don’t are usually people who are quite successful, both professionally and academically and have spent their entire lives around people much like them. What they mean when they say that, “Games don’t require much math” is

“I took three semesters of Calculus and a course in multivariate statistics and I rarely use any of that in making games.”

I, on the other hand, meet many people who can’t multiply two-digit numbers without a calculator and have never given a thought to the concepts of randomization, ceiling, floor or rounding. The vast majority of these people are perfectly intelligent enough to learn those things if ever given the motivation, time and instruction.

Here are a few lines from a super-simple game, “Canoe World”,  I wrote in the past two days. It’s a very common application. You can find it in the Game Design book by Rex van der Spuy and hundreds of other places. You randomly decide who is stronger, the player or “enemy”, one wins the exchange and points change  – a pretty standard game component.

function sink(thing) {
// The player’s strength ;
var playerStrength = Math.ceil((food+ health)/2) ;
var rockStrength = Math.ceil(Math.random()* playerStrength*2) ;
// Find out if the player strength is greater than the rock strength ;
if (rockStrength > playerStrength){
// The rock sinks the canoe ;
var lostFish = Math.round(rockStrength/2) ;
food -= lostFish ;
// Player gains experience ;
experience += 1 ;


To compute the player’s strength, I take the average of their food and health points, and round that up. That’s the ceiling function. To understand this, you must have some idea of order of operations – things in parentheses get done first – to understand that first I’m adding the two values and then dividing by 2.

You need to know that having that slash and then a number means to divide by a number.

That is math and not everyone knows it.

A ceiling function rounds up – and to understand that, you need to understand the concept of rounding.

To understand the second statement, you need to know what a random number is, that the * means to multiply. You also need to know that the random function generates a random number between 0 and 1 and realize that is a continuous distribution because there are an infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1.

That is math and not everyone knows that.

You’d have to realize that since the random number function is between 0 and 1, if you just multiply that number by the player strength it is ALWAYS going to be less or equal and the “enemy” will never win. Since, on the average, the random number will be .5, if you multiply by 2, that makes it equally likely the player or enemy will win and gives you a game of chance.

To change the probability of the player winning the exchange, you can make that number larger or smaller.

You need to know that the > means that the thing on the left is greater than the thing on the right.

All of that is math and not everyone knows it.

The people who want to teach kids to code assume that either,

a. Everyone knows this much math – in which case they are OH, SO WRONG!   or …

b. That they will work with the minority of students who do.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with option B. I wish you the best of luck with all my heart and will do whatever I can to help.

Most of what I can do to help is make games to teach math, so that more kids will fit with option B.

There is an option C, which intrigues me, and I have heard very few people discuss, which is to teach the math along with coding. That is certainly not impossible – but it would be hard – you would need students very motivated to put in the time and effort and teachers who were able to step back and start at whatever level of math competency required by an individual student.

This whole thing reminds me yet again of the comment made by Dr. Irv Balow, Dean of the UC Riverside School of Education. Frustrated by reading so much research that said under some conditions class size had an effect, under other conditions, not so much, for some students cooperative learning was a benefit, for others it was detrimental, etc. etc. etc. , a student asked,

“Isn’t there anything in education or psychology we know as absolute, unqualified fact?”

After some reflection, Dr. Balow replied, that the only thing he could be absolutely sure of was this :

“All of the simple answers are wrong.”



Visual literacy, being the word chooser of this blog, I have decided means the ability to “read” graphic information. A post I saw today on Facebook earnings over time gave a prime example of this.


Chart of Facebook earnings by region

If you are a fluent “visualizer”, then just like a fluent reader can read a paragraph and comprehend it, summarize the main points and rephrase it, you could easily grasp the chart above. You would say:

My point isn’t anything about Facebook or Facebook users. I don’t really care. What I do want to point out is that if you are reading this blog, you probably found all of those points so obvious that you wonder why I am even mentioning. Of course, you are reading this blog, so no one needs to explain what those black letters on the screen mean, either.

My point, and I do have one, is that somehow, somewhere, you learned to read graphs like that and that is an important skill. Most likely, you are fluent . That is, many people could perhaps puzzle out what that graph means, just like many people who are not proficient readers can sound out words and kind of figure out the meaning of a paragraph or two. Those people do not generally read War and Peace, or The Definitive Guide to Javascript.

The need for visual literacy is all around you – and that’s my real point.








If I had a clone, all of my code would be beautiful.

St. Paul's butte

Last week, I was a speaker at the Tribal Disability Conference in Turtle Mountain, where I spoke on starting a business. Then, I went for a site visit at Spirit Lake Vocational Rehabilitation followed by another talk on self-employment at the Tribal Disability Awareness conference. In a nutshell, I talked about how having a disability often teaches people to persevere, to not accept when told they can’t do something, to find different ways of meeting goals and solicit other people to help them – and pointed out that all of these traits can be an advantage in starting a business.

Along the way, I was working on a couple of grants, edited a couple of papers – and just this second remembered I have to finish editing a paper I co-authored for something – crap!

There was also the usual matter of approving payroll and invoices, answering email and reviewing work people did while I was gone – new teaching videos to go into the game, artwork, animation, sound files,documentation, bug fixes. Haven’t nearly finished with that.

I’m super-stoked to be on a panel on Monday at the National Council of La Raza conference, “Economic Empowerment in a Wireless World”. I’m planning on going Sunday as well, to a lot of the sessions on education.

Heidi Heitkamp

I got to hear Heidi Heitkamp speak at Turtle Mountain last week and with any luck I’ll be able to attend Elizabeth Warren’s talk on Sunday. Must be my week for Democratic senators.

Somewhere in all of that, I finished my slides and video for the Serious Play conference, also this week, which I am also excited to attend.

Then, there was the meeting people for lunch, stopping in on my daughter who had surgery and checking on her and all of the other general life things. There is a board meeting I have to get up and go to in about nine hours, which I am definitely NOT excited about, but I’m the chair, so I kind of have to show up.

In the midst of all of this, there are 77 fixes and improvements in the Fish Lake game, from “add a better message when the pretest is completed” to “Revise quiz code for re-routing students. This is replicated in many quizzes. Make external file ref & just call it in all of those”.  Some of those are crucial – like I never wrote the quiz for one spot and so that is a dead end.

There are another 47 improvements for Spirit Lake. All of those are to make the game better. For example, we recorded voices from kids at Spirit Lake, and when a student gets a problem wrong, I want to add a video clip that shows one of the game characters and says something like,

“No, 7 x 8 = 56. Now your village burned down.”

The kids did a great job and I think those clips will really help players remember their multiplication tables.

burning village

But … back to my missing quiz. It has to be on mixed fractions, with questions answered using both improper fractions and mixed fractions. There also should be a question with two answers for the numbers that the mixed fraction falls between. Also, at least two word problems, with answers that are whole numbers.

As each question is answered, the program needs to determine if it is the right answer, and, if so, add to the total score, then show a slightly more difficult problem. At the end of the quiz, the student is shown  a success message and the student data written to our database and routed back to the game. If it is the wrong answer, the student is shown a failure message and routed to the appropriate page to study.

In the process of writing this, by the way, I noticed that one of the links on the study page is wrong, so I need to fix that. Apparently, I meant to write something involving turtle eggs. Also, there is a video Diana did on mixed fractions which I have yet to review because I got back at midnight on Wednesday and dived into everything else.

So … back to my no-longer-missing quiz. It is done. I even put in a few comments. As I was writing it, I was thinking, “some of this code is duplicated” and “I bet I could re-write some of these functions so they were more general and then not have so many functions” and a whole lot of other ideas for making it just a better program.

I KNOW that the world is full of code that gets written to be fixed “another day” is still sitting there six years later. In my defense, I will say that I do often loop back around and fix that code – although it might be a year or two later.

Here is my compromise – when I am in town, I try, come hell or high water, to make at least one substantive improvement on one of the games every day – a new video clip, a new quiz. At worst, I may not get any more done than fixing a broken link or touching up a graphic or sound file, but I really try to do more than that. Those 124 fixes are down from 266. It is not perfect but it is progress and it is 1 a.m. In addition to writing this post, I did review one more instructional video and sent feedback, finished the first draft of editing the paper and added improving the code in this quiz as a lower priority game fix.

My code is not perfect but it works, and I will come back and try to do better tomorrow because, at the end of the day, there’s another day. That’s how time works.






When we started the Dakota Learning Project to evaluate our educational games, I wondered if we had bitten off more than we could chew. We proposed to develop the games, pilot them in schools, collect data and analyze the data to see if the games had any impact. We were also going to go back and revise the games based on feedback from the students and teachers.

Some people told us this was far too much and we should just do a qualitative study observing the students playing the game and having them “think aloud”. Another competition we applied to for funding turned us down and one of the reasons they gave is that we were proposing too much.

We ended up doing a mixed methods design, collecting both qualitative and quantitative data and I’m very glad I did not listen to any of these people telling me that it was too much.

There is no substitute for statistics.

When I observed the students in the labs, I thought that perhaps the grade level assigned to specific problems was inconsistent with what the students could really do. For example:

Add and subtract within 1000 … is at the second-grade level 

Multiply one-digit numbers  … is at the third-grade level

It seemed to me that students were having a harder time with the supposedly second-grade problem, but I wasn’t sure if that was really true. Maybe I was seeing the same students miss it over and over. After all, we had 591 students play Spirit Lake in this round of beta testing. It was certainly possible I saw the same students more than once. It is definitely the case that students who were frustrated and just could not get a problem stuck in my mind.

So …. I went back to the data. These data do double-duty because  I’m teaching a statistics class this fall and I am a HUGE advocate of graduate students getting their hands on real data, and here was some actual real data to hand them. (I always analyze the data in advance so it is easy to grade the students’ papers, to give examples in class and so l don’t get student complaining that I am trying to get them to do my work for me, although they still do. Ha! As if.)

We had 1,940 problems answered so, obviously, students answered more than one problem each.  Of those problems, 1,053, or 54.3% were answered on the first attempt. This made me quite happy because it is close to an ideal item difficulty level. Too easy and students get bored. Too hard and they get frustrated.

I used SAS Enterprise guide to produce the chart below:

chart showing subtraction in the middle of difficulty range

You can see that the subtraction problem showed up about mid-range in difficulty. Now, it should be noted that the group gets more selective as you move along. That is, you don’t get to the multiplication problems unless you passed the subtraction problem. Still, it is worth noting that only 70% of fourth- and fifth-grade students in our sample answered correctly on the first try a problem that was supposedly a second-grade question.

Because we want students to start the game succeeding, I added a simpler problem at the beginning. That’s the first bar with 100% of the students answering it correctly. I won’t get too excited about that yet, as I added it later in the study and only a few students were presented that problem. Still, it looks promising.

So, what did I learn that I couldn’t learn without statistics? Well, it reinforced my intuition that the subtraction problem was harder than the multiplication ones and told me that  a substantial proportion of students were failing it on the first try. It was not the same students failing over and over.

The second question then, was whether the instructional materials made any difference. I’m pleased to tell you that they did. On the second (or higher) attempt, 85% of the students answered correctly. If you add the .85 of the 30% who failed the first go-round to the 70% who passed on the first attempt, you get 92% of the students continuing on in the game. This made me happy because it shows that we are beginning at an appropriate level of difficulty. I would have liked 100% but you can’t have everything.

I should note that the questions are NOT multiple choice, and in fact, the answer to that particular problem is 599, so it is not likely the student would have just guessed it on the second attempt.





Here is a little note for people on customer service:

Every company I have ever worked with that has terrible customer service apologizes a lot and makes soothing noises in lieu of actually doing anything.

When your company fucks up it does NO good to say how sorry you are and you empathize.  I really don’t care if you are going back in your office and doing the evil scientist laugh moo-ha-ha while you dance around and spit on my bank statement. I just want you to fix it.

I went to the bank yesterday to deposit a check and it seemed my balance was lower than I expected. When I got home, I found a letter saying my last deposit had been reversed because it didn’t match the name on the account. This was very weird since the check was written to me. I called the 800 number and was told that yes, NINE YEARS AGO I had come into the bank and shown them proof I had changed my name and that was noted on my account but it was not noted in the right spot on my account so I would need to go the branch that had reversed the deposit in person and show them my ID and proof of name change.

I pointed out that I had done exactly that and had been depositing checks at that exact branch for the past nine years with the same name and never had a problem before. The person on the humorously named customer service number told me that I would have to go back to the branch in person, show them my ID again and have them write in some other place on the record that I had changed my name.

I asked if that was the case could he at least note somewhere in their files that this was a HUGE inconvenience and, in fact, impossible for several days as I’m writing this from an airplane from which it is not feasible to leap out and parachute into my local branch. He said it wouldn’t make any difference because no one would read it. He said if I wanted to have anyone read it I should have the bank manager write a letter.

This morning, on the way to the airport, I called my local branch where I was told that it was NOT up to them and that it was reversed by some other central office that handles ATM transactions and I could go into any branch. Also, the branch manager told me that if I was unhappy with the way it was handled, I should call customer service (read preceding paragraph) and that she couldn’t change it over the phone because she had no ID and had no idea who I was because she had never seen me. I pointed out that a) I was going to be in the airport and going to any branch was not feasible and b) they had been cashing my checks for the last 9 years with the same name  and they had a record in my file I had changed my name so why couldn’t they just un-reverse their reversal of my deposit, c) what the branch was telling me was the exact OPPOSITE of what customer service had told me, d) I had ID nine YEARS ago when I did this exact same thing, e) every single person I talked to agreed that, “Oh, yes, we see that you came into the bank and told us you changed your name and it is written into the record here, but IT’S NOT WRITTEN IN THE RIGHT SPOT and e) I had been coming into the Santa Monica branch for SEVENTEEN YEARS.

Here is the story of my account with US Bank – I started with a small bank in North Dakota, which then got bought by another bank, which then got bought by another bank. All along, I have had my same account but would get a cheery letter saying, “We’ve merged with so-and-so bank. “

Eventually it was US Bank and then they bought another bank and moved the closest local branch. I don’t recall how long I have been going to this particular branch but I know it is over nine years because I remember going in there and having my married name added to my account.

How hard is to to make a company wiki or something so people in your company give out accurate information? This isn’t the first time this has happened to me at all (read post here on Microsoft’s laughably misnamed customer service).

More than that, though, why, when every person told me that they could SEE in the record that I had come in years ago and notified them of my name change did no one have the authority to say,

“Yes, I see this is a mistake on our part. You have been banking here for years. I even see the date when you informed us of the name change. We’ll take care of this.”

Here is what I have decided and I urge you to join me in it. When I get terrible customer service from an organization, I take my business elsewhere. I will never use Budget Rent-A-Car in Las Vegas ever again (see post here).

Although it will be a huge pain in the ass, over the next several weeks, I will close all of the accounts I have with U.S. Bank and go elsewhere.

With companies that I am forced to use their products, like Microsoft, because some of what we use only runs on Windows, I buy the minimum amount possible and put it off for as long as possible. The fact that they have a large captive market of people like me may explain why Microsoft’s customer service blows.

If enough people do this, perhaps companies will have an incentive to improve customer service. If not, at least I will have better experiences.

Over 14 years ago, The Spoiled One was barely old enough to walk and the flight attendant was unbelievably rude to us on a cross-country flight on Southwest Airlines. I have flown that airline once in the last 14 years and only then because there was no other flight I could take. It hasn’t hurt their bottom line as far as I can tell, but I’ve been pretty happy flying on other airlines. The highlight of my customer service experience flying with children was when Northwest Airlines ran out of lunches on a flight once and The Spoiled One was crying, the flight attendant went back and got her own lunch and gave it to my toddler! How happy do you think I was to being flying on Northwest that day?

So, that’s my advice to you. Don’t support rotten customer service. Even if it makes no difference to the organization you leave, at least your life will be easier.

The positive side of every experience I have like this is I realize that it is not a very high bar for our company to give people better service than they are used to. Every time something like this happens, I take it as a lesson of how we can try to do better than the average.


That is one of the competitive advantages of small businesses. They really do care whether you are there or not. It makes me hopeful for 7 Generation Games, because unlike a lot of the monolithic educational companies, if something is a problem for a school district, it will get fixed if I have to fly to North Dakota in the middle of a blizzard or drive to downtown LA and work with your IT staff to get our game through your impenetrable firewall.

Having said all of that, I think I’m going to pop into a small bank I know and see how we can do business.



Our story so far … I suggested that people with disabilities who are successful in education, jobs or self-employment don’t define themselves as disabled, and neither do the people around them.

It can’t be that simple, right? Have a positive attitude, look on the sunny side of life and next thing you know, people are driving by and throwing bags of cash in through the open door of your mansion.

sun moneyhouse

What about those people who say they want to get a job or start a business but never make an effort.

There are two major reasons for this lack of connection between attitudes and actions. One is, and I know this may come as a shock to those of you of more tender years, but …

People Lie.

Yes, they do. They tell you they want to get a job when they really have no such desire whatsoever. What they really want to do is to continue to live in your house, eat your food, watch your TV and have you quit nagging at them to go get a job.

Pick up any social psychology textbook (e.g., Myers, 2013) to read it in technical terms. People have a social appropriateness bias – they say what they think you want to hear, what makes them look like a good person, or, as one of my lovely children once explained herself

I said whatever I thought would get you to stop yelling at me at the time.

People may tell you that they want to graduate from school or get a job, but they really don’t care whether they do or not.

The second reason is that not all attitudes are created equal.

Two people who made careers out of proving this point are Icek Azjen and Martin Fishbein. It is an urban legend that you are guaranteed at least a C- in social psychology if you can pronounce their names.

General attitudes – I’d like to have more money – are really bad predictors of people’s behavior.

Specific attitudes – I’d like to get a job at the casino so I could earn money this summer and buy a car to drive to school – are far better predictors of behavior.

This is one reason why, whenever I review files for a vocational rehabilitation program, and see vague vocational goals, like, “Get a job” or “Go to school” it bothers me.

Attitudes we hold more strongly predict behavior more than attitudes we have just sort of adopted. If you asked me if I was in favor of research on endangered plants, I would say, “Yes”. Plants are good, right? I mean, what weirdo doesn’t like plants?


Would I really go to any major effort to insure that plant research was funded? Nope.

On the other hand, I care quite a bit about funding vocational rehabilitation, small business and Native American programs. I have written on my blog and to federal agencies on those issues. I’ve been a grant reviewer for competitions in those areas of research.

One way to strengthen attitudes is to have people actually think about them. This is where vocational counseling can be useful, if the counseling session is actually a discussion of what the person wants to do. This is also why I said at the beginning  that while my giving a lecture one day won’t make much difference, teachers, parents and counselors repeatedly talking to people with disabilities about their goals DOES matter.

One last point, it is easier to predict behavior from attitudes in the aggregate than a specific behavior.

What exactly does that mean? Let’s say I honestly, truly and very much want to succeed at self-employment – which I do, by the way. Let’s take the first behavior you might consider, did I get up early in the morning today to start work. I hate mornings, so no matter what day you asked that question,probably not.Let’s take a whole list of behaviors,though:

This does loop back to self-employment (I promise), but let’s recap :

Having an attitude that you can succeed does predict success when:

  1. It’s honest
  2. It’s specific
  3. It’s strongly held
  4. It’s well thought out

As a person with a disability, that should maybe give you some clues about what types of people you want in your life – friends, teachers, counselors – who challenge you to set goals that are honest and specific. Who remind you of those goals regularly. Parents, teachers, etc. that gives you some direction in what you want to be encouraging on a daily basis.

You might think my talk for the conference is done at this point but you would be wrong. I have to talk for another 20 minutes and besides that, we haven’t got back to the main point of self-employment. Remember self-employment? that’s what this talk was supposed to be about.




I’m looking forward to speaking at the Turtle Mountain Disabilities Conference and not just because they have one of the best conference logos I have ever seen.

Turtle with world inside it



This topic reminds me of a joke my friend told me. His specialty is geriatrics and one day one of his patients came to him and asked for Viagra, which if you have watched late night TV in the past 10 years you might know is a, um performance-enhancing drug, for men .  Jake said, to him,

“Sir, you don’t need medication. I’ve met your ex-wife, and believe me, she didn’t turn me on, either.”

What does this have to do with self-employment? Someone asked me why I am always talking about employment for people with disabilities. Don’t I know how high the unemployment rate is? Don’t I know that it’s far higher on reservations? Don’t I know that many people, maybe most, aren’t interested in working? And that reminds me of this clip from a podcast I heard recently.

Imagine this offer:

You will spend 8 hours a day doing some task that could be done equally well by a machine – handing a cup of coffee to strangers, mopping a floor. It will present few opportunities for you to grow, physically, emotionally, mentally. You won’t make enough money to buy a home or many of the other things you might like to own. You’ll probably take public transportation to get there and back because you won’t be able to afford a reliable car. After working all day, you won’t have much time or energy on the weekends to do the things you like, whether it is hunting or going to the movies and you won’t have much money to do those things either, so you’ll probably just watch TV. 

That will be your life – hand out cups of coffee , ride the bus, watch TV – and you’ll continue doing that until you die or they find a machine that can do your job cheaper and fire you.

How can anyone turn down an offer like that?


It’s common to hear that people with disabilities don’t want to work, or that youth don’t want to work, or whatever group we are putting down today, and to blame that on lack of work ethic. I don’t think so. Because, you know what, that offer doesn’t turn me on, either.

I want to talk about self-employment from a personal perspective. I’m not funded by any grant that promotes starting a business so I’m not going to pretend that it’s any easier than it is. On the other hand, I started my first business in 1985, as R & R Consulting, and recently incorporated my fourth company, 7 Generation Games, so it is possible.

What I hope to achieve  is to convince more people that self-employment is a very realistic goal for many people with disabilities, although it’s not for every person with a disability, just like it isn’t for every person without a disability. Just me getting up and saying something once is probably not going to make a difference for many people, if anyone. What IS going to make a difference is the people they see every day, their parents, friends, relatives, counselors or teachers. Those are the people I hope to convince as much as the people with disabilities themselves.

            The first thing you need to start a business is …. Stop and think to yourself, what do you really need? Go ahead. I can wait. Email or text a friend and ask. You’re already reading this on some sort of electronic thing-a-ma-jig anyway. I’m going to tell you a few stories, during which time you will probably conclude I have forgotten my point entirely.


When I was young, my whole life was partying and sports, occasionally interrupted by school. Back then, I wondered what old people did when they had too much common sense, responsibilities and aches and pains to be running around. Now I know. They sit around with their friends and talk about life, the problems in the world and how all of them could be solved if people just listened to us. At least, that’s what Willie Davis and I do.

Lately, we’ve been discussing why is it that some people with disabilities become so successful while others are far from meeting their goals? We don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m scheduled for 45 minutes, so I’m going to talk about it anyway.

Willie Davis

Who has a disability? Is it one of those things like art, where you know it when you see it? Not so much. This was brought home to me in a couple of examples. Willie and I were discussing the lack of disability advocates on reservations and how that may be due to not many people with disabilities having the education and experience to be involved in activities like running a conference like this. We were trying to think of someone at Spirit Lake, and after a few minutes we realized, oh yeah, Erich Longie is a vocational rehabilitation “success story”. Now, maybe if you just walked by Erich in the airport when he was walking with two canes because he had a really long way to go through the terminal, you’d think, “There goes a person with a disability.”


However, I can guarantee you would never think of that if you knew him. Willie and I have both known Erich well over 20 years, he’s one of my best friends, I was at his graduation when he was the first enrolled member to receive a doctorate, he was my boss when he was tribal college president, we founded a company together and when asked to name someone on the Spirit Lake Nation who had the education and experience to be a disability advocate – I didn’t think of him.  Neither did Willie, so it’s not just me.


If you know Erich, when you think of him, probably one of the first things is he’s very family-oriented. He was a single father for many years, and now he’s raising his grandchildren. He was a major force in the fight against the Sioux nickname. He’s been quite politically involved over the years, particularly in education, as school board president, member of the tribal college board. He’s been immensely involved in American Indian education – adult basic education instructor, Even Start Director, elementary school teacher, college academic vice-president, written a masters thesis and dissertation on issues in Indian education, published articles in academic journals. He’s an avid pool player, drives like a stunt double for the Dukes of Hazzard (or Grand Theft Auto, if you’re too young to remember that), he’s survived the Marine corps, cancer, alcoholism, the death of his son and an exceptional number of ex-wives. All of this maybe explains why it took Willie and I about twenty minutes of trying to think of someone with a disability to say, “Oh, yeah, Erich was in a car accident and walks with a cane, sometimes two.”

Erich and teachers

Erich is unusual, but he’s not unique.


A few months ago, an old friend came to one of my daughter’s fights. Tina took the 4 a.m. bus from Los Angeles instead of flying out the night before because her mom had the flu and she wanted to make sure she was all right before she left town. Let me tell you a few things about Tina. She is a vocational rehabilitation counselor, has a black belt in judo, she is going back to school to get her PhD. – and she is always late. I’m always late, too, so if I KNOW that you are always late, it means you are getting there after me, so you must always be REALLY late, and she is.


Not long ago, someone asked me who I was waiting for, and I said,

“My friend, Tina. You know her right? You know what it is about her?”

The other person just went off,

“Oh, yes, she’s blind, right? I just think she is so inspirational. It’s so amazing how she lives in her own home, travels the world, graduated from college. She’s just so inspiring. Is that what you were going to say?”

And I said,

“No, I was going to say that she can be kind of a pain in the ass how she complains about everything and she’s always late, but you’ve kind of ruined it now.”

I told Tina this later and she agreed,

“Yeah, I do complain a lot, don’t I? I should work on that.”


I didn’t find it particularly inspirational that Tina got on a plane and went wherever she wanted to go any more than I found it inspirational that Willie Davis is part of a group that organized a conference that is now a model for events on other reservations or that Erich Longie earned a doctorate. They are all smart, hard-working people. Why wouldn’t they do these things? I need to take a plane to get to the conference that’s held in Belcourt, North Dakota and no one was inspired by me and said, “Ooh, look at her, she managed to get to the airport.”

There is a point here, other than that possibly I’m not the best friend.

So, here is my other question … What is a major factor in successful employment of people with disabilities?

One of the reasons that all of these people who I mentioned are successful is that they are surrounded by people who don’t just expect them to be successful but take it for granted.

Whether it is South Dakota, Washington, D.C. or Alaska, if Erich and I are doing a presentation together, I just assume he will show up and do his part. When I came to Belcourt, I had no doubt that I would be on the program, the conference would be well-organized, I would have my hotel room reserved. I got mad at Tina for being late all of the time because I knew she could do better.

These examples show two parts to being a success. One is not letting your disability define you and the other is being around people who don’t either.

You might say education is a major factor in success. Yes, everyone I mentioned has a degree, but they didn’t start out with an education. They DID start out with the assumption that they could go and get a college degree.

So, am I saying that all people – with or without disabilities – need to be successful is a positive attitude?

That’s certainly not all they need, but it’s a good place to start.

If you majored in psychology and were in argumentative mood, you might argue that there is a lot of research that shows that attitudes do not predict behavior very well. You could point to people who say they want to lose weight, get a job or any of a number of other goals and yet who take no steps toward  meeting those goals. What about THAT, Dr. Smartypants?

I’m glad you asked that question. Tune in tomorrow for the answer.


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