Special Education and Disability

As I continue in my studies, I find that blogging helps me to make sense of what I am learning. How I take my readings and conversations, and reflect on them in ways that I can, in turn, continue to share with others, in ways that further shape my own thinking and growth as an educator.

Up until now, special education and disability have been entities that I have merely wanted to learn more about. To become educated about to be better in my roles. However, I now am beginning to understand that special education and disability are so much more than things we need to become educated about. This can be problematic, because educating ourselves only about the disability itself, can merely become an act of understanding how to help students with disability to assimilate better in a normal classroom. To succeed to the best of ‘their’ ability- in relation to ‘normal’ – and if we cannot achieve this, we will need to find a new class, or stream for ‘them’.

But, I want to propose, that when we only see special education and disability as only entities that educators need to become more educated about, we need to think about the idea that we could be in fact problematizing disability and special needs – because we are only learning about them in terms of how much they don’t fit into what a normal classroom should be. We have to consider that we in fact problematize students to the extent that they disrupt the ‘normal’ teaching processes. If they can’t fit in, where should they go? How do we make this happen?

In education we live committed to the notions of ‘normal’ and our desire to ‘normalize’ students. This happens in many ways – formally and informally both through pedagogical practices, the
curriculum, but also in the every day, moment by moment noticings, wonderings, decisions. How our own shadows come through in our judgments and behaviours, decisions and plans made in dealing with and talking about others.

What do we imagine disability to be? How do our own shadows reinforce the labels and stories that we tell in education about special needs? Are we able to understand disability and special needs outside of their relationships to educators? What do the stories and labels that educators attribute to special needs actually tell us about ourselves and our own shadows? We live with
difference all around us, and yet, this idea of ‘normal’ and who doesn’t fit into that mold, really downplays the importance of difference, and the humanity of our students.

Can we examine the implicit, and explicit conceptions that we hold about what it means to maintain normalcy in the classroom? When does a special need or disability become ‘trouble’, and what is in fact this ‘normal’ that the trouble is disrupting. Can we create a picture of this normal that we expect?

Why does disability need to be ‘proven’? In this way, we always make disability a problem. Then we make that individual participate and prove that they are a problem.

What is normal? And if you are not normal, well maybe you need to be elsewhere. Documented. Segregated. And then we will know that a diagnosis must lead to a placement.

How do educators talk about students with impairments? What about disabilities that are assigned disability, even before an ‘official diagnosis’. What are the everyday noticings that tell us that someone is not ‘normal’. How will the curriculum be performed with students who do not fit the ‘norm’. How will we fix this problem?

Who will the actors be in the IEP? Are students allowed to have a voice in this creation?

How will it play out in the ‘theater of the classroom’. The choreography of ability. The cues and performances that we use to determine what we know about someone. What roles do we all play out, because we believe it is what is expected? What is normal? How do we act in ways that further problematize the special needs?

What parts of someones identity leads us to believe that it is something to be feared? Why is the emphasis placed on students as the problem? How does it feel to be a problem? Have we asked? Do we care?

How does this reinforce the discussion and rhetoric about students? The ‘low’ students, the students who come from ‘those’ families, or ‘those’ communities? Or the students that we need to be reminded as being in fact members of healthy families and communities? Reminded that they
do in fact belong somewhere.

If not in a special class, perhaps a stream? Special equipment and technologies that try to help with the adaptation to ‘normal’. If they still can’t fit in, then how about destreaming? New location? new classroom?

But then we layer on the notion that disabled people are just like everyone else, with problems like everyone else.

But unlike everyone else, with everyday problems, those with disabilities not only have problems like everyone else, the disability is in fact a problem that needs to be accommodated to help students fit into the ‘norm’.

Thus, perhaps the the real question of difference that we can turn our focus to, is the difference between ‘having a problem’ and ‘being a problem’.

And the idea of ‘special’ troubles as being different than ‘ordinary’ troubles that students bring to the classroom.

This social construction and idea of the ‘norm’ will in and of itself generate ‘normal problems’ that are need of a solution. Problems for the norm thus requires solutions that will keep the ‘norm normal’.

Even to consider the books we read to and with students. The books that we provide for students in schools. All of the books that emphasize sameness. What differences do we erase by ‘saming’ the disabled and making statements that we are all the same? Our failing to imagine disability as anything other than negative, thus serving to erase that difference with a sense of normalcy. Or as a problem in need of a solution.

In conclusion, beyond educating ourselves about disability, I’d like to invite anyone reading this, including myself, to pay close attention to the things we notice, the things we say, and the things we wonder about – especially when it comes to special needs and disability.  Can we truly attend to difference and humanity as opposed to figuring out how to normalize and create ‘sameness’?

Published by Deborah McCallum

Author of The Feedback Friendly Classroom Literacy Instruction and Assessment Facilitator | Author | AQ Instructor & Developer | MEd @OISEUofT Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development

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