Special Education Needs to Be Dismantled and Rebuilt

Fifteen years have passed since my first teaching experience as an assistant teacher at the center-based special education school in Michigan where my mom spent most of her teaching career. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to teach in classrooms spanning from the United States, Belize, and South Africa, and see firsthand how ableist practices and mindsets infiltrate school systems, from elementary school to university, around the world. 

If this is your first time hearing about ableism, you can think of this “ism” as a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities. It’s the assumption that we need to “fix” disabled people, and it keeps non-disabled people in systems of power as they make key decisions, curriculum and pedagogies for disabled people. Ableism is violence.

My mom and I had a deep conversation about the need to rebuild what we know as special education in America, and what’s interesting to us, as two white non-disabled educators with degrees in special education, is that none of our professors were disabled, let alone multiply marginalized (Black, Queer, & Disabled). It’s equally as important to consider that none of the books we read to obtain our degrees were written by disabled authors. Yes, you read that correctly. NONE!

Two years ago I finally discovered organizations like Crip Camp and the Disability Visibility Project. Since then I’ve been seeking & soaking in information about disability activists like: Alice Wong, Lydia X. Z. Brown, Stacey Park Milbern, Judith Heumann, Ki’tay Davidson, Andraéa LaVant, Ashia Ray and Lei Wiley Mydske of Neurodivergent Narwhals.  There are so.so.many disabled folks you NEED to learn from. I haven’t even skimmed the surface. Why has it taken this long for me, an educator of disabled and neurodiverse kids, to learn from #ownvoice folks? It’s a disgrace! It’s unacceptable! It’s outrageous! 

Special education is built on a deficit-based, racist, and ableist foundation (not surprising considering schools are microcosms of communities and society as a whole). Instead of focusing on the social model of disability, special education programs are mostly based on the medical model. The medical model views a disability as a deficiency or abnormality. Alternatively, the social model views a disability as a difference to be celebrated. 

Another problematic part of special education services is the ableist language on a variety of questionnaires and legal documents, including Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). The language used is not only hard to understand, but it’s also deficit-based, stigmatizing and causes parents and children who “qualify” for special education services to, in the words of my friend Ashia Ray “view us [ourselves] as lesser, to dismiss us, to paint us as a burden, and when we respond like HUMAN BEINGS who get upset, they weaponize our fear and anxiety to justify taking away our rights and forcing us into compliance therapy and stuffing us into institutions. which has happened to me, and IT FUCKING SUCKS AND IT IS SCARY.”

Watch this video to learn more about how special education questionnaires reconfirm stigma. 

You’re back! yay! Let’s continue…

If we want to create a system that supports families of neurodiverse and disabled kids (and neurodiverse and disabled family members) – we must shift from this problematic language. The ableist nature of these questions and compliance-based therapies (Ahem – ABA!!!) need to change if we are to create an inclusive space where all students thrive. Where all students understand that they are valued and loved. 

Here’s an article by The Autistic Hoya that explores linguistic ableism. Check it out, reflect, and do better. 

Another problematic component of special education is that there is a disproportionate number of Black children who qualify for special education – which isn’t a surprise because:

  1. The terms “intelligent” and “gifted” are inherently problematic. Abilities tests, IQ tests, and placement tests majority written by white cishet men, are biased and problematic. They fail to take into account culture, race, and gender identity. 
  2. Schools use tracking and ability grouping to separate students into racial groups.
  3. America has separate and unequal educational opportunities based on a history of economic impoverishment where structured inequalities and discriminatory practices isolate Black neighborhoods [read more here]. 
  4. Institutional racism is alive and well – and schools are tools for maintaining this status quo.

I’ve only covered a few points out of so many – there’s so much to say. There’s so much more unpacking and research I need to do.

If the entire educational system was rebuilt with ALL humans in mind, we might see:

  • University classes for aspiring educators being taught by disabled, multiply-marginalized, and Black, Indigenous + People of Color, as well as LGBTQIA+ educators
  • Shifting from “special education” to embracing neurodiversity and teaching all kids and teachers about the neurodiversity paradigm.
  • Celebrating our identities and identity development
  • Universal Design for Learning guidelines embedded into every aspect of learning
  • Small, multi-age classrooms to facilitate learning & growing – wherever it may sprout 
  • Assistive and accessible technologies that can be utilized and understood by all students, educators, and colleagues working with children
  • Educators who are striving to become ABAR (anti-racist/anti-bias) – the school provides continuous professional development, analyzing of racial disparities within the schools leaders, and embedding culturally responsive practices within the curriculum through deep community and family/caregiver engagement
  • Celebrating and normalizing of stimming and stim/fidget toys
  • Holistic and therapeutic offerings for all students including equity-based trauma-informed practices, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, and more therapies that support each child in living their best life
  • Sensory sensitive classrooms that take into consideration the environment and set-up of furniture, lighting, and wall coverings
  • Nature-based classroom activities that are accessible to neurodiverse and disabled students

Follow the #ownvoices disability activists I’ve mentioned in this blog.

It’s more of a rambling – but educators – I hope this lights a fire inside you to drive change within the educational spaces where you teach.

References:

**Accountability – I am a white (Polish/Irish/German) cishet woman raised in Saint Joseph, MI, and currently local to Austin, TX, after living and teaching in Placencia, Belize for five years. I do not have a disability other than diagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).**

Please don’t hesitate to call me out if something I said is problematic – I’m a work in progress.

With heart always,

April