A blurred photo of students in a classroom, sitting in desks and standing in front of a chalkboard.

Special Education: A Hindrance to Disability Acceptance

“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.


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  1. Being of “a certain age”, I initially started out in the Special Education system. I have moderate C.P. And back then, I walked with crutches and occasionally used a wheelchair. I now use a power chair full time. As I got older I was slowly mainstreamed into a regular classroom. I don’t regret my special education as it afforded me time to become more physically capeable. Initially I was placed in a 5th grade classroom for part of the day even though I was probably in about a third grade level so I had to hustle. My main complaint about my Special Education time is that academically nobody was challenged. Everybody was taught to the lowest common denominator and that’s why my parents pushed for me to be mainstreamed. After working for 38 years I’m seriously considering retirement but fighting it. In the regular classroom I had my share of kids who were friendly and also my share of those who weren’t. It toughened me up to be in the real world and I am most grateful for having that experience.

  2. You hit the nail on the head in so many ways! The education system still has a very long way to go to ensure equal opportunities for students with disabilities. Plopping these students into a general education classroom to say they are “included” is not enough. I am truly glad that you are now an adult and able to articulate that your time in the general education classes was not all peaches and cream, like most imagine it to be. I do feel that it is very unfortunate that most students won’t be able to express the same and have the chance to voice their opinions until it’s too late to be fixed. Thank you for saying what so many people are thinking!

  3. Thanks again for your post (I replied on FB). On the one hand my son has been surrounded by so many caring, competent people, but also by some completely clueless Special Education teachers. On the one hand Unified sports have given him great new opportunities, on the other hand we have a new Secretary of Education that didn’t know what IDEA is. Thanks for representing those with disabilities.

  4. Actually, there were substantial efforts toward aiding children with disabilities before the IDEA. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 required nondiscrimination against people in federally financed entities, including public schools. The Office for Civil Rights of the then Dept of Health, Education, and Welfare began enforcing it in 1973.

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