Special education as a field is larger than the provision of services within schools. A massive network makes special education happen. This network includes disparate parties, some of whom are in occasional conflict. For the scope and diversity of the network, there appears to be uniformity in cause. On the surface, all involved seem to agree that children and young adults with special needs deserve equitable opportunities. The consensus appears to be these students are worthwhile members of society regardless of their disabilities. Such sentiments are popular and almost taken for granted. However, some doctrine and practice within this network might suggest an unstated lack of unanimity over these notions of value and could even suggest opposition to them. When pressed, many champions of children with special needs may reveal unexpected division in their sentiments. These champions might not realize they harbor such dissonance until pressed. The admission could be upsetting and unsettling.
The first indication of this wavering sentiment comes from the law. The genesis of special education law indicates not all have felt convinced children young people with disabilities deserve a place in public schools. Examining the 1960s and 1970s, no lawmakers spontaneously sat together and decided to enact laws forcing school districts to educate the most needy and least capable students within their catchment regardless of cost. This reform came after years of lobbying by parent organizations. Though reform efforts found support from prominent political friends, the laws that ensure contemporary special education developed primarily in response to pressure from a dedicated advocacy lobby. In short, legal pressure, not goodwill, made special education exist. School districts had to be dragged into compliance. The constant battles between districts and parents demonstrate how districts continue to struggle with providing what the law demands. Take the laws away and replace them with the mere spirit of goodwill and one may have difficulty picturing districts spending so disproportionately on special needs students. Goodwill might not be enough to open the coffers.
Another gauge also stems from the law, but is more connected with how the law is written and what it implies than with how it came to be. The push in special education is towards general education assimilation. Schools must educate students with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers to the greatest extent possible. According to the law, any variation from the content or delivery of the general education curriculum is a restriction. These restrictions are to be avoided. A major aim of special education law is to minimize any form of exclusion. In doing so, the law by default suggests specialized, exclusive educational programming is less desirable than general education, even if it happens to be matched to a student’s needs. A natural conclusion is that special education isn’t just different; it is less than. Special education becomes an undesirable consolation for those not equipped to handle general education. By extension, the implication is network members are conceding to give children with special needs something that might suit them, but isn’t optimal.
While the law is necessary for special education to exist and schools are primarily where special education happens, the public face of the field remains the children who need the services. The way society receives these children gives further evidence of divided sentiment. Over decades, a culture of acceptance has emerged through campaigns to educate the public about people with disabilities. The societal response has been evident from media portrayal to language use. Unfortunately, beyond improved educational opportunities and increased public politeness, meaningful participation in society for people with disabilities continues to be grossly limited by ability. Opportunities are contingent upon what infrastructure can accommodate. A simple ratio is the more disabled the person, the less likely meaningful adult outcomes will be. Many occupations just aren’t available to people with certain limitations. If a person lacks requisite abilities, that is an absolute. Special education can’t fix this. Advocacy efforts have made some impact, but outcomes remain only slightly better than several decades ago.
Today, the general public may have an improved understand of disabilities and may be more sensitive to people with disabilities, but yawning yet unspoken barriers stand between understanding and true acceptance. While popular public sentiment might promote acceptance, no one wants a person with drastic limitations doing their taxes, fixing their plumbing, or minding their children. Would even the most dedicated advocate of special education want a person with poor motor control or limited vision assisting during a dental procedure? How would that advocate feel about having a person with a severe behavior disorder paint their bedroom? These examples hedge on facetious, but in truth, opportunities are scare. They’re scare because of the nature of disabilities as much as because a lack of acceptance. One creates the other in some instances. Meanwhile, much of what is in place for people with disabilities is artificial and exists as state-supported charity efforts. Those within the field may wish to remedy this, but the larger consensus seems to be keeping adults with special needs occupied but safely out of the way is adequate.
A more challenging schism to define appears in the patronizing nature of efforts to support children with special needs. Publicity campaigns for charitable organizations tend to rely heavily on emotional appeals, suggesting that children with special needs deserve help out of universal pity. Some are more empowering than others, but many insultingly state the obvious by reminding the public that people with disabilities are indeed people. From there, a common suggestion is people without disabilities should help out of some sense of guilt. The lack of balance in this suggestion is staggering.
In schools, lack of balance manifests itself in relationships. Peer partnerships with disabled students are inherently imbalanced, with non-disabled students often being able to use the experience as service learning. Non-disabled students volunteer to help the poor, pitiful disabled students and get patted on their backs for doing so. College students and community volunteers will do the same. The nature of their interactions calls into question the tense balance between altruism and self-importance. How much of the motivation comes from that pat on the back?
The motivations people have for entering the field continue this imbalance. Special education teachers frequently seem to enter the field because of someone in their lives with a disability rather than a sense of the field’s worth. Some come to the field because of their own disabilities and a drive to give back. Would any of these individuals have sought the field had it not been so close to them? Many who work directly with disabled children cite a sense of obligation to serve based on their faith rather than on purely intrinsic desire. They do so more because their faith tells them charitable work is worthwhile than because they feel people with disabilities deserve equity. The two notions don’t have to exclude one another, but the former dilutes the sincerity of the latter. Public perception of those working in the field is largely sympathetic. The general public often considers those who provide services to be special themselves for having the patience to deal with disabled children. This sentiment is telling. The subtlety in these relationships also is telling of how people in this network often act on external motivation and how those observing from the outside continue to view special needs children as a liability.
The culture of acceptance also has limits, which reveals even more about honest sentiments. Who accepts the student with an emotional disturbance who rapes? Who wants to tolerate the extremely aggressive student with a brain injury who punches his support staff without any noticeable provocation? Who wants to be near the student with cerebral palsy who cannot stop biting herself all day and has cognitive functioning too low to measure? Again, these are extreme examples, but even the more commonplace examples suggest implicit lack of acceptance. Many of the personality traits associated with particular disabilities are the exact opposite of what people seek in friends, partners, and coworkers. Some of the behaviors closely associated with disabling conditions are targeted through interventions meant to extinguish them. Extensive behavioral programming exists to undo or prevent the behaviors that come naturally to some children. Purporting that a child’s natural inclinations need to be eradicated counters any pretense of acceptance.
The cracks continue to show when examining interpersonal relationships. Caregivers often admit the strain and exhaustion of dealing with children with special needs. Special education teachers give away their feelings when they admit relief on days certain students are absent. Even parents admit this when seeking in or out of home respite care or similar services. These sentiments smack of tacit tolerance and not unconditional acceptance.
Perhaps the most poignant example of contrary sentiment is in the campaigns to prevent the existence or recurrence of disability-causing conditions. Gigantic charities exist to raise money for research meant to help prevent certain conditions from forming. The idea of accepting people with cerebral palsy or autism or muscular dystrophy becomes questionable when such institutions are in place to stop new cases. Such campaigns shouldn’t be surprising. Parents don’t hope their children are born with disabilities. Isn’t the prominent parental imperative to desire the best possible lives for children? Can children have the kinds of lives their parents brought them into the world to have when they’re born with disabling conditions? Are there parents who would refuse to take away their child’s disability if they somehow could do so? The concept of unconditional love is noble, but few parents of children with disabilities would turn from a chance to change conditions. Acceptance becomes more and more like a concession when considering all of this.
These antithetical sentiments are hidden but easily revealed. Notions of equity appear to be less genuine upon examination of the behaviors and attitudes of those in the network. The idea that children and adults with special needs belong in our society meets with uncomfortable shrugs when the idea of how to make this happen is questioned. This isn’t to say the entire field is a farce. Instead, it suggests people within it subscribe to an ideal, but half-heartedly or without complete understanding. People want to believe they do what they do for justifiable reasons. People want to feel good about doing what they think is right. These same people might not realize discrepancies between ideals and practices. Supporting children with special needs might serve the members of the support network more than the children themselves. Even contemplating this likely would make many dedicated professionals feel ill at ease. Again, this isn’t to attack what people in this network do. It is to say conflicting sentiments undermine the concepts of equity and value so many in the field would appear to unilaterally advocate. The entire field sends a mixed message to anyone paying attention enough to notice it.