This past week was IEP Week, which makes it sound a lot more fun than it is. (It can sometimes feel a little like Shark Week, probably for the wrong reasons.) Our experiences as special needs parents are incredibly varied and diverse, but it feels like for those of us with kids in public schools, the IEP is a universal hurdle. Sometimes it’s a success story, but it’s hardly ever an easy one. Many of us believe that in a perfect world, every public school student would have an Individualized Education Program. That’s mostly because every student learns differently and would benefit greatly from such a focused and customized approach to their education. But there’s this teeny tiny part of us that also just wants to share the fun with everyone. Misery loves company; anxiety does, too.
The exclusivity of the IEP experience is one of our secret handshakes. It’s a thing that separates our kids from their peers, even as it exists to help integrate their school experience with their typical peers. That separation can become a matter of sensitivity for our kids, especially the ones like Schuyler who are now attending those meetings. The thing of which I am frequently reminded by Schuyler is how very much she doesn’t enjoy that separation. She gets why it’s necessary, though; she will tell you that her brain is different and she needs some extra help. The process itself brings that home to her.
Sometimes it’s more than the process.
The term “special education” has been around for a very long time, and it seems to be one of the few disability-related phrases that hasn’t been largely replaced by something either gentler or loaded with administrative euphemism. By and large, I think those changes are positive, at least in their intent, although I still twitch when I read things like “differently abled”. (“I can fly!”) Special education is a term that isn’t going anywhere in most environments, and that’s fine. We pick our battles carefully.
The problem with “special education” may lie in the meaning that so many have come to load it with, particularly outside the disability community. It has become shorthand for inclusion and a kind of perceived entitlement, where special education kids negatively affect the learning environment for everyone else. Teachers are expected to “cater” to special education students, at the expense of everyone else in the classroom. And in situations like Schuyler’s where the class in question is an elective and requiring unique accommodations, there are many who believe that kids like her simply don’t belong.
The thing of which we are reminded sometimes in our kids’ IEP meetings is that for some teachers and members of the community, special education appears to be an alien world, one for which they have no training and ultimately no responsibility. Those of us in the disability community know better. All students fall somewhere on a spectrum, and special education represents just one area of that spectrum. Special education doesn’t serve as a box in which we put the Others Who Don’t Belong. It’s a way to give kids who need it some extra and specialized help. Some need a lot, others not so much. But none of these students are inhuman. None are without value or potential.
When we insist on separating special education students, both literally and philosophically, we make judgments on that value and that potential. When we talk about the few holding back the many, we imply that there’s a disposable percentage. What does that number look like, the throwaways? One percent? Twenty? At what point do we begin throwing out the kids who are hard to reach for other reasons? Do we have boxes for gifted and talented kids, too? Or the ones with attention disorders?
And what if we’re wrong? How many kids do we allow to fall into the abyss of low expectations before we begin to worry?
I hate this idea, the one that suggests that the world suffers when it extends a helping hand. It doesn’t just steal opportunity from people like Schuyler. It diminishes every one of us. It makes us all smaller, and blander, and uglier. Even on a good day, the world can hardly afford that to happen.
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