Erin Chawla: The Kiducation Learning Curve


Is Special Education a Bad Word?

The Tale of a Student Who Changed My World

I recently finished reading The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, by Kristine Barnett, which is a wonderful, inspiring read that I highly recommend.

However, one thing stood out for me while reading the book and has been rolling around in my brain ever since. Each time the author mentions the phrase “Special Education” it is said with disdain and disappointment. “Special Education” is shown as something to be avoided whenever possible and a label to be shunned. In the book, Spec. Ed. is almost set up as the villainous force that nearly kept her genius son from becoming the amazing kid he is today.

This makes me very uncomfortable, to say the least. I am a Special Education teacher, but I find myself constantly needing to justify that role, or to explain it. The term “Special Education” has often become synonymous with disappointment and with under achieving students. The view seems to be that a student in Special Education is more flawed or somehow less than a “typical” student. When I meet new people and they ask what I do, I always feel the need to explain about the students I work with, as I know saying “I’m a Special Education teacher” conjures up images of old — small classrooms filled with students with profound challenges and teachers instructing their charges on how to tie their shoes and make sandwiches.

In the book, that is the very example the author gave — namely that the Spec. Ed. class her son was to be put in set a goal for him to tie his own shoes by the time he reached his teenage years. May I just say: no, no, NO! A thousand times, NO! This is not the way Special Education is and this is not the way it is meant to be. We need to shatter the dismal connotations linked to this term. Spec. Ed. is there to support its students in going as far as they possibly can! These programs should never hold a child back, but rather provide the launching pad from which the child can soar.

First, let’s broaden the definition. Special Education is any education that falls outside the “norm.” That means our brightest students, those identified as Gifted fall within Special Education. Also, children with physical needs, ranging from visual impairment to mobility challenges fall under this umbrella term. If a teacher wears a small microphone so that a student with a hearing impairment can hear the lecture better, that is also Special Education. If a student needs a little extra help with one or two school skills, that qualifies as Spec. Ed.  

Special Education can mean students leaving their classroom once a day, once a week or not at all. Spec. Ed. students can be serviced in a specialized program or they may never leave their regular classroom. In my experience, about 1 in 5 students will access Special Education in one form or another throughout their academic careers. Spec. Ed. students are our kids, our kids’ friends and the students that you pass in the school hallways everyday.

There are so many faces, styles and programs that fall under Special Education — we need to widen our view.

The biggest complaint against Special Education in the book is that the teachers’ expectations and the program goals in the classroom are set so ridiculously low that it is impossible for a student to reach their true potential. I have not found this to be true of the Spec. Ed. programs that I have been involved with — and I have been involved with many. The whole focus of the programs is to advance the students as far as possible. The goal is to provide the students with the tools they need to manage school.

Maybe things are a bit different in Ontario, where I teach, than they are in Indiana, the state that the book was set in. I’d like to believe that we are doing a better job educating our exceptional students here. However, I fear that the perception of Special Education here really isn’t all that different. I fear even to us open-hearted Canadians, Spec. Ed. is seen as something to be avoided whenever possible. And everyday, I strive to change that perception. 

Once upon a time, there was a student who touched my life. I was a new teacher taking some additional training and a young man came to address the group about his experiences as a Special Education student. This boy had a profound Learning Disability and was unable to read — not one word. He said he could recognize his name, but that was pretty much the extent of it. The letters just moved around on the page and his brain could not make sense of written word. This eloquent and humorous teen told us stories about struggling with menus and bathroom signs, not to mention his seemingly insurmountable difficulties with school. But this kid did not let his inability to read hold him back. He learned how to use assistive technology to read all his textbooks to him. He used voice-activated software to write his papers. He had learned how to read without actually reading. 

Like so many students with Learning Disabilities, other parts of his brain worked just as well, and often even better than the brain of the “typical learner.” Just because he couldn’t read did not mean he couldn’t think, or that he couldn’t learn or that he couldn’t follow his dreams. At the time he was addressing our group, he had recently graduated high school and had been accepted into the University of Toronto to study Political Science. This kid knew he may have to work ten times harder than everyone else to get through school, but he also knew that that was just the way it was. I remember him saying that a teacher wouldn’t tell a student who couldn’t walk or a student who couldn’t produce insulin that they would never be able to attend university, so why would we ever say that to a student who couldn’t read?

I think of this kid so often and I am reminded of him every time I see one of my students struggle with something particularly hard for them. And I am reminded; there are no limits with Special Education. It is about giving the students the keys to open the doors to their futures, not about adding more locks.

Special Education, like all education, should give our students wings to fly.


Whatever the path, be sure to enjoy the journey!


If you're looking for more posts about special education, you might want to click on Great Apps For Kids With Special Needs and Don't Fix Me: I'm Different, Not Broken.