Saturday, September 5, 2015

Dear Special Education Majors: You Don't, Actually, Know Everything

Dear Special Education Majors,

Most of you have gone into this field because you want to work with disabled people in one capacity or another.  So when you meet a Real! Live! Actual! Disabled Person! in the wild, you're eager to show off what you've learned.  But here's the thing:  I'm not your professor.  You are not being tested.  I'm not going to grade you.  And when you tell me that you understand when a kid is having a behavior in a public place or when you ask me if I use my mobility aids all the time because it looks like I can walk without them, it does far more to damage your credibility than if you had just kept your mouth shut in the first place.  (Hint: the answer to that last question is "it's none of your business", unless you're a doctor, or a professional that is going to determine how much help I get based on how disabled I look.)

I get it.  I've been on your side of the table.  I was a special ed major in undergrad.  I know how they shove the medical model down your throats, hoping that you'll become perfect little machines that input diagnoses and output accommodations.  I know how they make you forget that the people you'll be working with are actual human beings.  So I'm here to put your tired, overworked minds at ease. I don't want you to thrill me with your vast amounts of knowledge. The reason for that is because, despite what you might think, you don't know everything, and quite possibly don't know anything.

Being a special ed major doesn't tell you anything about what it's like to actually be disabled.  It doesn't put you in my body, nor does it give you magical powers to determine what I can and can't do.  It also doesn't give you the right to determine that I'm "not like [the types of kids you think you'll encounter in special ed]", because guess what?  I am.  And so are my friends.  The message you're sending, whether you mean it or not, is that I am somehow superior because you're having a conversation with me outside the special ed box.  Because you consider me a friend.  Because you like me.  Is that really the attitude you want to bring to your job?  That your students are only worth something if they can conform to social norms?  If you're unwilling to let go of your preconceptions, turn around and walk out the door right now.  Your students are not your charity cases, and neither am I.

Dear special ed majors, please don't tell me you respect disabled people. Show me.  Most of you have a long way to go.



  1. Thank you! If there is one thing I can't stand it's the attitude on Special Ed folks. I know they have good intentions but it is patronizing.

  2. Excellent! Thanks for putting it so well.

  3. Spectacular! Beautiful!
    Thank you for this <3

  4. Hi Cara. I met your friend Emily at a UJA conference and hope she told you.

    I get what you are saying. When I was in the 8th grade, my regular teacher was absent and we had a substitute who was a general education teacher. My para, the one specifically assigned to me, said in front of us "this is not for them", as in, a general education teacher is not for us. She was talking to her colleagues, but in front of us, and never included us in the conversation.

    It's similar to the "disability vs. special needs" idea. Stephen Hawking uses a wheelchair and requires caregivers, but will never be called a "special needs man". If you google "disabled adults" and "special needs adults", you will get different results. Special needs is used is usually reserved for children but is used for adults with intellectual disabilities. There is the "us vs. them" attitude towards disability that is pervasive in society.

    Then there is "us vs. them" attitude. 90% of the school is considered the general education, the normal kids. 10% are special education kids. They are there because they have some sort of disability or handicap. If they were mainstreamed they would just be a distraction to normal students, sometimes just get bullied by normal students. Sometimes they get lunch first. Instead of complaining be grateful you don't some sort of disability or handicap. This attitude is pervasive in all of society, so inevitably, teachers and other special ed professionals will bring this to their job.

    My para could have handled this differently, such as asking us how we felt about having a general education teacher as a sub. That's what's what "nothing about us, without us" means. Just because we didn't respond to her immediately doesn't mean we're OK with her speaking about us like that. She may have felt we didn't get the support we need. She still should ask how we felt about receiving supports. If you still justify this by thinking we were supposed to be receiving special education services, we did not choose to be in special ed. teachers hold IEP meetings without as before the age 14. Students never have a say in their accommodations before 14.

    My middle school, though a general education school, had a class for students with severe intellectual disabilities and medical needs. We knew they were not on the same level of us and as my para put it, "they all have something wrong with them". It's interesting how people may have thought about the same things about us.

    Special ed professionals are taught in their training to write IEPs, collect data, decide services, etc. without consulting the student. This doesn't happen in other professional settings, like the therapy setting. The therapist always asks you why you come to therapy, gathers data with your input etc. Thus teachers and other special ed professionals bring the "us. Vs them" or "my students vs the school" attitude.