Does “Special Ed” Serve Students? Disability Activists Say No.

As a child born with cerebral palsy in the 1950s, Gail Cartenuto-Cohn had one option when she was old enough to go to school: enroll in an isolated public program specifically for kids with disabilities. There was no interaction with nondisabled kids, and there were just three classrooms: one for kindergarten through second grade, another for grades three through five, and a third for sixth through eighth.

Occupational therapy, as well as physical therapy and speech therapy, were provided on-site, and although Cartenuto-Cohn describes the education she received as better than adequate, when it was time for her to enroll in high school, she says she was clueless about what to expect.

“I was academically prepared, but I did not even know what ringing bells meant,” she told Truthout. “On the first day I was there, the bell rang and all of a sudden there was this onslaught of students rushing out. I use crutches, and the next thing I knew I was down for the count, lying on the floor.”

While Cartenuto-Cohn’s near trampling led to being given both an elevator key and permission to leave her classes five minutes early, it was clear that the school had given little thought to educating students with limited mobility. Still, Cartenuto-Cohn persisted, not only graduating, but eventually enrolling in college and completing a Masters in Speech and Language Disorders. She subsequently got her teaching certification, taught for 33 years, and is presently on the board of an upstate New York advocacy group called Westchester Disabled on the Move.

As Cartenuto-Cohn describes her achievements, she also recognizes that, had she been born a decade later, she would have benefitted from legislative changes that began nearly 50 years ago. Among them was The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, which stipulates that any program receiving federal monies is barred from excluding people with disabilities from participation in activities. A later bill, 1975’s Education for All Handicapped Children Act further mandated that public schools provide equal access to education to all children, whether their disabilities are physical, emotional or intellectual.

Fast forward to today, and students with disabilities are covered by IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — last reauthorized in 2004 — which requires all school districts to make “a free, appropriate public education available to eligible children with disabilities” that fall into 13 distinct categories including learning disorders, speech and language delays, intellectual disabilities, vision or hearing impairments, or emotional difficulties.

In addition, schools are required to craft, and periodically review and update, an Individualized Education Program, typically referred to as an IEP, for every student diagnosed with a disability — 6.7 million students at last count, 13 percent of total public school enrollment. Schools are also required to track each student’s progress in meeting delineated academic goals.

Students With Disabilities Still Fall Behind

If only the education provided were as good as it sounds on paper.

A recently released report, “An Advocates Guide to Transforming Special Education: Creating Schools Where All Students Can Thrive,” describes some of the issues that children diagnosed with disabilities continue to face: “For far too long, students with disabilities have been left behind. They often get segregated into classrooms with fewer resources and less challenging work. They receive an easier curriculum that does not give them the skills they need for college or for a career. They remain stuck in the same special education services, regardless of how moderate their disability may be, or how much it may change over time.”

The upshot is that just 66 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school on time.

Courtney Cole, a blind woman who writes for Rooted in Rights, the blog of Disability Rights Washington, puts the blame on a lack of teacher preparation, resources and capacity. “Teachers all over the country struggle to meet goals and adhere to Individualized Education Programs because there is not enough attention to go around and not enough proper training,” she writes. “As a result, a lot of time is spent on getting the behavior or a few students under control and much less time is spent actually helping students develop skills that are needed.”

This may explain the high attrition rate among special education instructors, 9 percent of whom leave the profession after their first year, twice the rate for other teachers. The primary reasons cited? A lack of administrative support; excessive paperwork; and burnout. On top of this, 51 percent of classroom teachers told investigators that they felt ill-equipped to implement the IEP that they are legally required to follow and reported that they felt confused by the instructions the program stipulated.

Respondents to a 2015 survey of special education teacher trainees in Michigan — likely representative of special ed students nationwide — further blasted what they saw as insufficient preparation for classroom realities. What’s more, the survey highlighted other deficits, with education students consistently painting a picture of graduate programs with little-to-no practical, hands-on learning. Reports of having to take just one overview class that introduced issues in special education were also distressingly common.

Meanwhile, 51 percent of school districts — and 90 percent of those considered high poverty — report difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers for disabled students.

A New Path: Listen to Students

Emily Ladau, editor-in-chief of Rooted in Rights, originally planned to become a teacher, and was initially eager to demonstrate that someone who uses a wheelchair could be a skilled and dynamic educator, but she changed majors after taking several education classes in college. Instead, she now uses her platform as a writer and public speaker to address how best to teach students with disabilities, drawing on her own and others’ experiences. “If I can get school staff to change the terminology around special ed, that’d be great,” she begins. “We need to move away from terms like special needs and special ed. Yes, labels can be useful but they also stick, and to be called a special needs kid is simply not being inclusive. I want people to notice disabilities, not ignore them as if they don’t see them, and explain the conditions to students who may not know why someone uses a wheelchair or reads braille. Teachers can be role models, and if they’re not weird about disabilities, but are open and straightforward in talking about them, kids won’t be weird about them either.”

In her lectures and presentations, Ladau draws on her personal experience growing up in the 1990s. In elementary school, she tells audiences, she was “assigned a paraprofessional. Since I use a wheelchair, the para was supposed to carry my books and get papers for me, but it was like I had a meddling grandmother standing over my shoulder. I wanted to be treated like a normal student and having this person with me all the time detracted from me feeling included and accepted.”

By seventh grade, Ladau had had enough and in her first attempt at advocacy, requested a meeting with school administrators and asked to let friends help her as needed, something she knows other students might reject. This was not the only time Ladau had to deal with something confounding. When she got to high school, a different dilemma popped up. “There was a physical education requirement in order to graduate, and the school could not figure out what to do with me,” she says. “Each solution was worse than the one before. First, they told me I had to get to school before 7:00 a.m. to meet with the gym teacher before classes started. Then they suggested that I write additional papers, which was basically giving me extra homework. Finally, they had a student teacher take me to a room where we played bocce a few times a week.” This went on for three years.

For Ladau, the message is simple: “Teachers and administrators need to listen to students when they advocate for themselves and work with them to find accommodations. They need to make students part of every IEP or 504 meeting.”

Having teachers who are tuned in to student needs is something New Jersey high school senior Dylan Orren-King also values. As someone with a hyperactivity and attention disorder, he says that an observant teacher can make a world of difference. “I had a teacher in junior high school, and if she saw me glancing off or getting unfocused, she’d snap me back,” he says. “She taught me to do this for myself and gave me a system that catered to my specific needs. A teacher can almost always eliminate a problem if he or she works with the kid. The teachers who’ve taken the time to get to know me have helped me find my path.” Something he is tremendously grateful for.

At the same time, he, Ladau and Cole have had bad classroom experiences, with teachers who have been condescending, dismissive or even punitive.

Their position — like that of disability rights activists — favors inclusivity, where students with disabilities spend much of the day in general education, learning the same skills as other students. This, they say, is always preferable to segregated special education classrooms and gives disabled kids equal access to grade-level materials. That said, they are emphatic that this approach requires staff to not only be well-trained in several subject areas, but also in methods of de-escalating conflict and resolving disputes, topics few graduate programs in education emphasize — or even include.

Teachers must also be prepared to work collaboratively, Gail Cartenuto-Cohn adds, because “inclusion classrooms” typically follow a co-teaching model in which 60 percent of the students are in general ed and 40 percent have a disability. “Co-teaching is daunting,” she says. “It’s like a marriage. You have to be willing to relinquish authority and compromise. In a nutshell, both teachers need to be open to working with diverse learners.”

Backlash to Inclusion

Dean Adams, interim director of the Disability Cultural Center at the University of Illinois in Chicago, notes that there is currently a great deal of pushback against inclusion classrooms because of fear that students with disabilities are likely to become violent. “There has been an increase in self-contained classrooms where disabled students never get to socialize with other kids,” he told Truthout. “They’re not even wanted in the cafeteria. When kids who have a history of disruptive behavior fulfill expectations by acting out, many schools have an attitude of zero tolerance.”

This, Adams says, is where racism and ableism intersect.

“In my experience, teachers working with students labeled as emotionally disturbed — a larger percentage of whom are Black or Brown males — expect students to sit still in the classroom, do their work, and conform,” he says. “Should the teacher’s authority be challenged, the student gets written up, which escalates the tension. It then becomes a vicious cycle. The more times a student is written up and sent to detention or suspended, the more frustrated the student becomes and the more he acts out. If it escalates even further and involves the police, the school-to-prison pipeline kicks in to take the student away.”

This is not the only place where race enters the mix. Misdiagnosis, Adams adds, is common, making students of color more likely to be labeled as having an intellectual disability than their white peers. In fact, studies confirm that Black students with a high to normal IQ are 58 percent less likely, and Latinx students are 29 percent less likely, than white kids to be diagnosed with a learning disability — conditions such as dyslexia or dysgraphia — depriving them of the early interventions that have been proven effective in teaching them to read, write and calculate.

Teachers, Adams continues, have a responsibility to probe why students are frustrated and delve into why they use their behavior to send a message. In his work with aspiring educators, he says, he urges them not to take it personally when a student fidgets, is verbally or physically disruptive, or is inattentive. “Teachers have learned that they should not tolerate disruption, but I put the student’s actions directly on them. I ask them to reflect and not refer the kid to the office or call the police department when someone loses it. Instead, they can help the student remain in class. I ask teachers to take the time to find out why the kid is acting out and learn what’s happening in his or her life, in his or her family, and in his or her community. These are skills that every teacher should be required to learn.”

In addition, Adams teaches educators to use restorative justice techniques whenever possible as a way to give students who are verbal a chance to discuss conflicts, dissipate tensions and strategize solutions to grievances.

Changing the Teaching Profession

These are great ideas, says Erica R. Meiners, professor of education and Women’s and Gender Studies at Northeastern Illinois University, but who gets to teach both general and special education classes should also come under scrutiny.

“Education is always political,” Meiners begins, “and schools have always been sites of both social reproduction and struggle.” This is why we have to address who is allowed to become a teacher in the first place.

“In many places, in order to become certified, you need to spend a semester student teaching. This is unpaid, which makes it impossible for students who work full-time to support themselves, their children or other family members,” Meiners says. “A lot of people can’t take a semester off from their jobs, no matter how much they’d like to become a teacher. It’s not a mystery why the vast majority of public school teachers are white women, but if we want teachers to reflect the families served by public schools, we need to make some changes to how people enter the field.”

In addition, while Meiners hopes that respect for different learning styles, communication methods and ways of defining success become part of teacher preparation programs everywhere, she cautions that this is insufficient. “Critical disability studies need to be part of every field,” she adds, “There is a lot of siloing, and the people doing the radical disability rights work are too often far removed from the special ed classroom.”

Additionally, both teachers and students recognize that there are no one-size-fits-all strategies for the education of kids with disabilities. But that’s not to say they don’t have clear ideas about what they need and want. For students and parents, it’s often creative, passionate and compassionate teachers. For teachers, it’s often support, supervision, preparation and ongoing training to prepare them for the job.

“Teachers should never tokenize disabled students or call them out in front of everyone,” Rooted in Rights editor Emily Ladau concludes. “All students are individuals and all students have different needs. A child who has a disability should never be treated as if what he or she needs is too difficult or too inconvenient.”