The Effects of Disability Labels on Special Education and General Education Teachers' Referrals for Gifted Programs

Article excerpt

Abstract. This study investigated the effect of the disability labels learning disabilities (LD) and emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) on public school general education and special education teachers' willingness to refer students to gifted programs. Results indicated that teachers were significantly influenced by the LD and EBD labels when making referrals to gifted programs. Both groups of teachers were much less willing to refer students with disability labels to gifted programs than identically described students with no disability label. Additionally, when compared to general education teachers, special education teachers were less likely to refer a gifted student, with or without disabilities, to a gifted program.


The potential for giftedness exists in every segment of the population of students with disabilities. We may logically expect to find the same occurrence of giftedness among persons with disabilities as in the general population since most disabling conditions do not preclude the possibility of giftedness; however, for a variety of reasons, students with disabilities remain underrepresented in gifted programs in public schools throughout the country (Coleman, Gallagher, & Foster, 1994; Davis & Rimm, 2004; Johnson, Karnes, & Carr, 1997).

Although estimates vary, the number of gifted students with disabilities ranges from 120,000 to 180,000 (Davis & Rimm, 1998; Friedrichs, 2001). The highest incidence of giftedness among exceptional students is most likely to be found among students with the most frequently occurring disabilities, such as learning disabilities (Miller & Terry-Godt, 1996). For example, Friedrichs estimated that there are approximately 95,000 students in this subpopulation. Although it is generally accepted that gifted students with learning disabilities (LD) are underrepresented in gifted programs, limited empirical data are available regarding the actual prevalence of this population (Karnes, Shaunessy, & Bisland, 2004). One reason for this may be the problematic nature of defining giftedness and identifying who does and who does not meet the criteria.

Defining giftedness, with or without disabilities, is a complicated and often controversial task (Davis & Rimm, 2004). Although the literature abounds with definitions of giftedness (e.g., Clark, 1997; Piirto, 1999; Renzulli, 1978; Tannenbaum, 1997) and theories of intelligence (e.g., Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 1997), there is no one universally accepted definition of giftedness (Davis & Rimm, 1998, 2004). As a result, giftedness means different things to different people (Tannenbaum & Baldwin, 1983) and can be influenced by one's cultural perspective (Busse, Dahme, Wagner, & Wieczerkowski, 1986). To help resolve this dilemma, many states look to the federal definition to guide their policy development (Stephens & Karnes, 2000).

The federal definition of gifted and talented has undergone numerous changes since the first definition appeared in The Education Amendments of 1969 (U.S. Congress, 1970). State departments of education use their interpretation of these definitions to develop school district policies for identification and eligibility criteria (Davis & Rimm, 2004; Stephens & Karnes, 2000). In a recent analysis of states' definitions of gifted and talented, Stephens and Karnes found no single generally accepted definition used for identification and eligibility purposes. However, according to these authors, most states use some modified form of the following 1978 federal definition:

   The term "gifted and talented children" means
   children and, whenever applicable, youth, who are
   identified at the preschool, elementary, or secondary
   level as possessing demonstrated or potential
   abilities that give evidence of high performance
   capability in areas such as intellectual, creative,
   specific academic or leadership ability or in the performing
   and visual arts and who by reason thereof
   require services or activities not ordinarily provided
   by the school. … 


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