Special Education: Let's Get One Thing Clear

Recently, Disability Scoop published an article titled “Teen Goes From Special Ed to Valedictorian.” The article discusses the achievements and path of Chance Mair, a high school graduate of the class of 2015 who has Asperger’s. As excited as I was to read about Mair’s education and achievements, I was disappointed by Disability Scoop’s choice of wording for this particular article. There are stereotypes about special education. Stereotypes that pop culture, misinformation, and link bait titles (like this one) perpetuate. In order to move forward, we need to dispel these stereotypes and understand special education for what it truly is. 

Let’s start with this: special education is not a place. Special education is not a classroom. Under federal law (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act- IDEA), special education is the individualized education that each student with disabilities in a public school is entitled to receive.

Special education happens in (almost) every classroom. Special education means a student is receiving the accommodations and modifications that they deserve. Special education means that a student who has dysgraphia and cannot write legibly will be allowed to type their papers and tests, to stand on equal footing with a student who does not experience difficulty with handwriting. Special education means that a student with working memory problems will be allowed to use a notecard to remember the steps to graph an algebraic equation, to stand on equal footing with a student whose memory will store all of the necessary information for a multi-step math problem. 

Special education is the important process of recognizing that the U.S. education system was not built with students different abilities in mind. As much as we try to differentiate instruction, U.S. schools are primarily still built on a one size fits all system.

Special education is not a leg up. Special education is not a hand out. Special education is not a step down from or a step to “regular” education. Special education is a step in creating educational equity for students’ who face difficulty in the general education classroom setting.

So why does the title “Teen Goes From Special Ed to Valedictorian” bother me? It places Special Ed at one end of a spectrum and Valedictorian at another. Why present Chance Mair’s success in such a way? There’s no need to ignore that Chance spent time in a classroom devoted especially to students in special education, it’s equally a part of his success story as being valedictorian. So next time, Disability Scoop, I recommend the title be: “Special Education and Valedictorian: A Student Celebrates His Success.” 

Relevant Terms

Special education means specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including:

  • Instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings; and
  • Instruction in physical education.

Special education includes each of the following, if the services otherwise meet the requirements of paragraph (a)(1) of this section:

  • Speech-language pathology services, or any other related service, if the service is considered special education rather than a related service under State standards;
  • Travel training; and
  • Vocational education.

Source: IDEA, Sec. 300.39 Special Education

To see how Child with a disability is defined under federal law, click here.

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