What’s in a student’s name?
What about the name special education? NPR has an article today about how special education language has evolved. So why not drop the term special ed? I think a lot of parents and teachers would rejoice at that.
The trouble with getting rid of words or changing them to be politically correct, is if we get rid of the name we could also see services disappear. I think that’s what’s happening today.
So how do we address a child’s unique abilities and weaknesses without turning them into a label?
Consider learning disabilities. Much harm has been done, I think, in trying to drop the classifications surrounding learning disabilities. They still exist. Almost all of us have them. But instead of trying to better understand what they are and how to address them we push them aside.
Instead of specializing more when it comes to learning disabilities, you will be hard-pressed to find this area of instruction standing alone in a university setting today. Learning disabilities have been mashed into other special education classes…what’s left of those.
Universities used to teach teachers about learning disabilities. Many of us received credentialing and/or degrees in this area. We learned how to diagnose LD and how to use teaching strategies to address them. We also learned how to teach students how to adapt to having mild differences. Learning disabilities was a special area all its own.
Believe it or not, how to address students with reading difficulties, including dyslexia, was also in the mix of what we learned.
But the term learning disabilities is offensive to some–especially children. I once had a student who hid in the hallway and always came to my classroom late because he did not want other students to know he had difficulties.
Yet, how many parents around the country are angry that their students have special needs that are not being addressed today? Therein, I believe, lies the problem.
Ironically, I recently ran across words from 1941, written by Samuel A. Kirk, who is remembered as the “father of special education.”
Kirk is discussing the differences between regular and special education classrooms and who should be responsible for instructing students with special needs. I was struck by how the article could have been written today if not for the dated language—considered acceptable for that time.
Our jaws would drop if a child was called “mentally defective, average or dull,” or if we addressed a child as “crippled.” But behind such words, Kirk ushered in a period in our history where we focused more on children and how to help them learn than ever before!
Here he describes the need for special equipment and resources for students with extreme types of exceptionalities. He says:
The lack of special equipment, the lack of special skill on the part of the teacher, and the large classes found in many schools make it difficult to adapt instruction to the wide differences among individuals. The regular class teacher, on the other hand, has many children that are not mentally defective but are dull; children that are not markedly visually handicapped but have some visual defect; children that are not completely deaf but have some degree of impairment of hearing; children that are not delinquent but have minor behavior difficulties; children that are not gifted, but still are quite bright; and children that are not so crippled that they need special equipment yet have minor physical handicaps. In other words, the regular classroom teacher has in her class not only so-called average children, but many that possess minor handicaps or special abilities. Every teacher, therefore, is to some extent a teacher of exceptional children, and should utilize with some modifications the techniques employed to educate the more extreme forms of handicapped or gifted children.
Kirk also saw the need for special classes to address extreme disabilities.
The NPR article is all about special education-related words evolving. I agree that special education language is important, and also that children are hurt by words. But getting so politically correct that you lose services is to be guarded against.
We need to look individually at all children and address the difficulties that get in the way of their welfare and happiness. Understanding the meaning behind their difficulties without labeling could be done if we still recognized what those problems are and how to address them.
That’s the challenge for all of us.
Kirk, Samuel A. 1991. From the CEC Archives “We Have Been Engaged.” Teaching Exceptional Children. 23 (4): 5.