Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What's 'Special' about Special Education?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What's 'Special' about Special Education?

Article excerpt

In many places special education (like general education) requires change. Let's get on with it, the authors say, but let's also no forget what's special about special education - because, if we do, many students will pay the price.

On the day we began to write this article, Mark Wellman, former park ranger and professional rock climber, now a motivational speaker and paraplegic, was shown in his wheelchair modeling a milled wool and nylon jacket ($1,350) and wool trousers ($750) in a fashion supplement to the New York Times. One week earlier, Heather Whitestone, a talented and deaf 21-year-old, had won the Miss America contest, which was covered on national television. And last summer, 30 million moviegoers saw Tom Hanks play a mildly retarded everyman in Forrest Gump.

Such high-profile, positive images Of people with disabilities are increasingly common. They symbolize a hard-won victory for those in the disability community who for many years labored for greater normalization. or inclusion, of persons with disabilities in mainstream culture.

These images, however, belie a troubling fact: special education is under fire from within and without, and the disability community, long known for its cohesiveness,(1) appears to be coming apart at the seams.

A Field Under Siege

Immoral. Special education's most strident critics are the "full inclusionists," a small but influential group of special educators and parents who advocate in behalf of children with severe mental retardation. Full inclusionists are adamant about the right of these children to make friends with nondisabled classmates - an objective unlikely to be met, they say, in separate placements. At the same time, they believe that general education historically has used, currently uses, and forever will use special education settings as dumping grounds for children it deems "unteachable" and that general educators typically consider children with severe mental retardation to be the least teachable. Hence, to ensure these children's place in the mainstream and to preclude the stigmatization and warehousing purportedly inherent in separate programs, full inclusionists call for an end to all special education settings, which some have described as the moral equivalent of apartheid and even of slavery.(2)

Intellectually bankrupt. Some advocates of detracking,(3) in concert with special educators like Maynard Reynolds,(4) have focused less on the purported injustice of separate placements and more on what they see as the invalidity of special education's disability categories, tests, and instructional services. A typical salvo from this group announces that many disability categories - most notably, "learning disabilities" - are social constructions without scientific validity.(5) These categories are merely the inventions of parents lobbying for services for their children,(6) of classroom teachers seeking to unburden themselves of difficult-to-teach students,(7) and of special education administrators eager for more special-needs "clients" to bring in more teachers and dollars for their programs.(8) Given the absence of sound theory to undergird such constructs as learning disabilities, say the critics, it should come as no surprise that many tests used to identify students with special needs are invalid for such purposes, leading to the labeling of many "false positives," those wrongly identified as disabled.(9)

The coup de grace in this critique of special education's legitimacy is the contention that the enterprise flat out doesn't work. The professional literature is full of pronouncements like "[Special education] pulls students from general education classrooms and places them in small, segregated classes, in which they . . . are given watered-down curriculum and receive less rather than more instructional time."(10)

Whereas most detracking proponents do not join the full inclusionists in arguing for an end to special education placements, at least some of them would like to see the system considerably reduced in size. …

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