“Special education” seems like a little bit too sentimental a name for something with such a utilitarian purpose. In my years of personal experience with the public education system, I have never found reason to describe the experience as special.
I’ve had a severe visual impairment for my entire life, and have always received some degree of educational accommodations. In my sophomore and junior year of high school, I was enrolled in an academic support class in order to fulfill an accommodation I had for extra time on assignments. The class had about 15 students in it per block, sometimes more. Staff included one teacher and one or two paraeducators. Even as a student, I recognized the mountain that those educators were tackling. Within the group, there were students who had behavioral issues and/or emotional disabilities that took up a majority of class time and teacher attention. Unfortunately, there were too many things going on in that class for all of the students to have their needs met.
This isn’t an anomaly. Teachers all over the country struggle to meet goals and adhere to Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) because there is not enough attention to go around and not enough proper training. As a result, a lot of time is spent on getting the behavior of a few students under control and much less time is spent actually helping students develop skills that are needed.
It also means that quiet students like me are left to fend for ourselves and provide a majority of our own accommodations, adding an extra layer of challenge to the already difficult task of being a student with a disability, and putting a strain on academic excellence. This reality prevents students with disabilities from having an equal opportunity to succeed.
Even so, things have improved since the years when the “education” of people with disabilities usually meant placement in a segregated facility away from the community where residents more often than not faced neglect and abuse. Our country’s wake up call finally came in 1972 when reporter Geraldo Rivera exposed the horrific conditions at Willowbrook State School, which housed residents with mental and physical disabilities. Ideas about people with disabilities began to change, one of the most important being that we deserve an equal education. In 1975, those ideas were put into law when Congress passed what is known today as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A long way from the institutions of the past, the IDEA requires public schools to provide accommodations and individualized plans to promote the success of students with disabilities, and calls for these students to be a part of the traditional classroom whenever possible.
I lived the reality of an education system built for able-bodied students.
Beyond the inadequate number of staff, my inconsistent support, and being surrounded by veritable chaos daily, the worst part of my school experience always happened when I left the Academic Support classroom to be “included” into the general student body. I was constantly misunderstood, ridiculed, and ostracized. I will never forget the many times I was asked if I was stupid or if I was “going to my retard class.” We live in a culture where this kind of ignorance and indifference in regard to disability is too often the norm.
People inherently fear what they do not know, and how could non-disabled people know disability? It’s not a part of any universal curriculum.
As a result, most people have little to no understanding of disability if they are not directly affected by it. Schools don’t use any of their time to educate students about disability, something that affects one fifth of our population.
It is this lack of understanding amongst people that is the largest barrier to equality in education. As a student with a disability, I feel very fortunate to live in a post-IDEA reality where I have the right to an equal education. But education still has a long way to go before it is truly equal.