When she had an epileptic seizure during science, I thought she was faking. She was coy, but always considerate. If my frustration ever showed, I’d return from lunch to find an apple on my desk and a sticky note scribbled with crayon. It was important that I acknowledge her, and she was more than pleased to be appreciated. If she hadn’t been so poor they’d have thought her beautiful. She bragged about her IEP and said people gave her free stuff because of it. She’d stolen money from my purse once, and left an apology sticky with a sad face as the signature.

The pounding was horrifying and dramatic. They caught the desk just in time as she fell, her head hitting the floor with such ferocity that we winced in unison. The collapse, the writhing, the motionlessness– I was fixated, but unable to move. The rest of the class was unfazed. Having attended grade school together, they instantly went to work. They knew where to hold her and what to hold still. They knew who to contact and where to find help. When it was over they comforted her, gently rubbed her back, gracefully repositioned her, and finished their science test.

The existence of special education policy is credited to the grassroots advocacy efforts of parents of children with disabilities. During the mid 20th century, these advocacy groups began gaining national attention. During the early 1960s President John F. Kennedy created a panel on mental retardation which included federal aid specifically for states. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, established during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, provided funds for primary education. It is credited with the expansion of children with disabilities’ access to public education.

Prior to the legislation of the ’60s, families of children with special learning needs and physical disabilities often resorted to home care or private education. Although these policies provided access to traditional public education for children with disabilities, very few students with special learning needs were integrated within public schools. Legislation enacted during the 1970s changed the climate of special education and, essentially, established public education as a fundamental right for children with disabilities.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) of 1975 provided that all children, regardless of disability status, had a right to public education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) required schools to provide support services for students with “qualified” disabilities. These support services included individualized education plans and special education classes. States that accepted public funds were required to provide these services as a condition of funding. IDEA outlined guidelines concerning students’ access to education:

  • For individuals with disabilities, education should be tailored to the individual child’s needs.
  • Education must prepare students to live independently, to work independently, and to enter higher education.
  • Disciplinary action against students with disabilities should include an assessment of the child’s disability while determining punishment.

Despite the commitment to providing opportunity and educational access for children with disabilities, students of color are over-represented in special education classes across the nation. Although African-American students make up only 16 percent of the population according to the U.S. Department of Education, they make up as much as 32% of the seats within special education classes. Statistics show similar findings for Hispanic and Latino/a students. In advanced placement and gifted/talented programs, there is an inverse relationship; white students are over-represented in these advanced programs.

Privilege makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like believing that some people are spared from the struggles and burdens of others. I don’t like believing that we can be ignorant of others’ pain because we, ourselves, are not impacted personally. I don’t like believing that we can be oblivious to another’s truth and experience because we willfully choose to be.

It’s harder still to believe that I, too, have privilege. I’m a woman. Left-handed. Texan. The stories I could tell about right-handed scissors and smudging the paper during art class would make you weep!

Special education policy is inherently important. More than 13% of all students enrolled in schools benefit from special education services. Special education is an especially important reminder to me that our blinders, whether willful or benign, can put people in danger–quite literally.

The least we can do in whatever situation we find ourselves is to consider another perspective. The most, arguably, is to become more educated and to advocate for more inclusive policies that provide equal access for underrepresented groups.

What’s your perspective? What else is required? 

To read more about compulsory education and compulsory attendance laws, click here.
To read more about South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, click here

To read more about dropout prevention, click here.
To read more about how schools are funded, click here.  


9 thoughts on “Special Education: On Power and Privilege

  1. As an education professional that worked very closely with special education, I believe there must be cultural training deeply integrated into the education programs for teachers. I have seen one or two courses available in Masters programs. That is not enough. If students are not exhibiting what is considered to be normal behaviors in the classroom, children are quickly labeled as those with special needs as a control mechanism. Especially when parents are not involved, it is very easy for a problem to escalate into a diagnosis. I have seen schools use yoga and meditation to provide students with non medical alternatives to calm their behavior. As educators we have to be willing to try different methods with different children.


    1. Yes! Parent involvement is huge. My brother was “diagnosed” with ADD by his teacher when he was in grade school. She recommended ritalin. My parents got involved because they wanted a more formal diagnosis, but also because they thought cultural bias was at play. Mysteriously, her diagnosis was dismissed and no further paperwork was suggested after they started asking questions.

      I think education certification programs leave something to be desired, given all that teachers experience and all that’s required in order to serve students well.

      Yoga and meditation seem like creative approaches. Do these schools subscribe to restorative justice practices as well?


  2. Thats a wonderful idea. However class sizes and the ratio make treating every child like an individual extremely difficult and impossible. I am a special educator or resource teacher, I am also a case manager and Chairperson in our school. With classes in the 30’s and one teacher with deadlines on curriculum assessments its a disservice to keep children with disabilities in the gen ed setting. Its really a disservice for all students not just students with disabilities. I wish the law had been more clear and specific about how students should be recieving their services.


    1. Thanks for writing, Rachel! I think it’s hard to differentiate instruction when class sizes are so large. We see this in adult ed classrooms (ESL and GED) as well. I think legislation is important, and there’s no one size fits all approach to fixing education.

      I’ve heard some argue for inclusion and others argue that students in special education programs should receive separate, more intimate services. I’d like to continue asking professionals in the field what they prefer. Thanks for offering your opinion!

      Are there any special skills and strategies you’ve learned while working in special education that transfer well to general education instruction? Would you recommend that all teachers experience the training you received?

      In general, what concerns me most about what I’ve seen of the referral process for special education is the potential for bias.


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