I love elephants. I collect elephants of all sizes and materials. I love reading about elephants. These elephants are different. There are many elephants in the room. Poverty. Hunger. Class warfare. Racism. And an odd bit of segregation we still practice in the United States. It’s called Special Education.
I was curious about how Special Ed came to be, and, as always, I asked Ira Socol, who I ask about anything related to the history of education and Special Ed in particular. As I suspected, Special Ed began in earnest in the 60s. Ira explained to me that as we were working on racial desegregation that also included removing segregated populations of mentally and physically disabled from institutions and moving them to schools. Along with that, we closed down many schools for the deaf and blind, although some still exist and are quite good.
Essentially, then, Special Ed was started with the best of intentions. However, like many benevolent actions, it was not thought out all the way through. Once mentally and physically disabled students were moved to schools; it stopped there. People didn’t consider integrating the classrooms. Disabled children were still primarily kept segregated from the rest of the school population. In Chicago in the 1970s schools were built solely for physically disabled students. Ironically, the local communities complained that their able-bodied kids were being kept out of these special schools. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) caved into this pressure, and residents were given access to these schools. These able-bodied kids were never placed in classrooms with their physically disabled peers. Thus, even in schools built with the intention of educating the physically disabled, separate and unequal continues. The conventional wisdom is that if a kid is in a wheelchair or even just using a walker or orthopedic devices they are somehow not smart enough to be in gifted programs with able-bodied peers. Physically disabled does not equal mentally disabled, yet it seems that is how bureaucrats think.
People who think that Corey H was a boon to Special Ed are sorely mistaken. Laws calling for Least Restrictive Environment are open to subjective interpretation. Doing what is appropriate is also open to interpretation. These laws protect the school districts much more so than help any children, as I mentioned in my post, Kid O Talks Back. Eventually:
I decided to try to make them do the right thing through due process. The law says that the schools must do what is appropriate. However, that is very loosely defined, giving schools a lot of wiggle room. The least appropriate is still appropriate. I had heard of the Corey H case and thought, aha, I have something to grab onto. I had even located the psychologist who had evaluated him. She wanted nothing to do with me. “I’ve retired,” she explained. I asked her if she had a student who’d be interested. She made a less than half-hearted promise to find someone for me. Then I discovered who the attorney was. She headed up the advocacy organization I had been in contact with. “She won’t talk to you,” the advocacy person said to me.
This was devastating for me. I quickly stopped pursuing due process because I had no money for an attorney, and I realized that the attorney for CPS was going to make several meals out of me. June 2010, my husband and I spent several hundred dollars on an initial consultation with one of the top Special Ed attorneys in Chicago. As we were leaving, he lamented that not enough people in our position could afford attorneys to help their kids. We barely could afford the consultation ourselves. These school districts count on this to keep from providing services and placement that a special needs child deserves. I’ve had two people now tell me that they hear similar stories too often. School districts like CPS probably rarely have to pay up or otherwise do the right thing.
Mentally and physically disabled children are warehoused every day. They are kept secluded for the most part. One woman on Twitter told me she has a gifted child and a special needs child. Naturally, she wants the best for both kids. However, if it were a choice for resources for her gifted child or her special needs child, she would prefer that the resources would go to the special needs child. While it would be a shame for programs to be cut for her gifted child, that child would have an easier time doing without. Budgets slashed for special needs children, however, is much more devastating. For these children to succeed, they need more not less. Most people do not see it this way. This woman told me that fellow parents of gifted children had told her that helping special needs children is a waste of resources.
The meta message is that special needs children are somehow lesser beings. They deserve less because they are less. Who is to say who will give more to society if given a chance? AG Baggs, an autistic woman, asserts in her video, In My Language “Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible.”
Recognizing the “many shapes of personhood” begins at home, begins at school, and begins in our community. The best way to restore dignity to special needs children is to desegregate schools. Abolish Special Education. Make all classrooms multi-age. Let the children who are inclined to mentor do just that. Let the kids who are inclined to care for younger kids or special needs kids do just that. I am not talking about things that adults are needed for. I am talking about modeling care, love, and mutual respect, and most importantly, treating both special needs children and adults with dignity.
Special needs kids grow up to be special needs adults. We need to find a way to allow them to be part of the community. As I wrote in my blog post, Landscaper! There’s a Weed in My Sod: Why We Need Inclusion in Classrooms and Community:
None of us are weeds to be disposed of. We all form an intricate part of the educational ecosystem. We all have our loud humanity that demands attention. And care. And understanding.
We need to stop averting our gaze from the Special Ed elephant in the room. We need to squarely face our fears and judgments of people, who, on the surface, seem different from us. If we do not do this, then we will continue to harm portions of the population who deserve to have their humanity honored. We need to embrace the Special Ed elephant. We need to help the Special Ed elephant dissolve peacefully away.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2012 and has been updated with a new featured image and formatting.