Foundations for Understanding Special Education: Defining Special Education and the Impact of Cultural Diversity on Special Education
On a certain level, people live in a world of their own choosing, of their own making. Generally, most people have hopes, dreams, personal skills, and educational opportunity, in addition to family and community support. Thus, many people spend a lifetime 'creating their world'. Educators invite children into that world with the hope of teaching and motivating them to achieve similar goals. In such a role, teachers are faced with a crucial question: To what degree can people be different and still live and function in the world?
Persons with special needs are very different, confronted by challenges that most people take for granted. In addition, that difference all too often excludes them from the educators' world. Yet, as teachers enter the world of special needs individuals, they quickly discover the power and potential in their lives. Once educators and lay people realize the strengths and the abilities special needs people have, they begin to celebrate differences.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares the same vision, and often, special needs individuals are ostracized. As a result, protective and supportive measures have been established through laws. Litigation and legislation have guaranteed human rights of all persons, including those with special needs. Most certainly, teachers educate students based on their lay values, beliefs, and attitudes. Therefore, it is imperative for teachers to understand and use special education laws that mandate a free and appropriate education for all students with disabilities.
The goal of this module is to provide learners with an introduction into the world of individuals with disabilities, an invitation to join their struggle for survival, acceptance, and quality of life. The results of this journey may lead to a profound investigation into the stereotypical personal attitudes educators may hold toward individuals with disabilities. Of particular concern is the educator's realization that linguistic and cultural differences are not disabilities or a reason for special education.
Sometimes people say that someone has an attitude or that they need to change their attitude. What exactly is attitude? What is a good or bad attitude? A reaction to these questions may be based in a personal or lay belief system. Attitudes are feelings, a stance, a mind-set, or a viewpoint. People make predictions about others based on their perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes.
Environmental experiences and attitudes often form reciprocal relationships. For example, people's experiences often facilitate individual attitudes, whereas attitudes may help construct experiences in their world. People have well-formed expectations of others as well as themselves and may prefer to join in with groups of people who share similar attitudes. On the other hand, attitudes define not only what people share but also how they are different. People who are different, and do not share a way of doing things, typically do not belong to the dominant culture. Some people do not live up to others' expectations; they do not act in ways others take for granted. People are different for many reasons. They may act, look, or communicate very differently from what most are accustomed to simply because they come from a different culture, speak a different language, or have special needs. Such differences may bring about discomfort among people who are unaware or uneducated about certain differences. For example, people may tend to label, avoid, or reject them. Conversely, others may take the opportunity to invite them into their lives, becoming part of their support network. In considering the differences among people, many people from different cultures, do not speak English. These people are often classified as having disabilities because they speak their mother tongue and have not mastered the English Language. In contrast, too many persons with disabilities are excluded from educational opportunities and assistance that would help them adapt and learn in society.
Persons who have special needs are exceptional; "more than 6 million children and youth with disabilities, ages 3-21, received special education services during the 2005-2006 school year" (U.S. Department of Education, as cited in Heward, 2009, p. 10). They may have gifts and talents, disabilities, or impairments. A lack of understanding about exceptional differences may lead to stereotyping and attitudes that are inaccurate and empirically unfounded. Additionally, these attitudes and stereotypes may contribute to stereotype threat in which an individual with differences may take on the attitudes and stereotypes others have given them and behave accordingly.
What if the feeling were taken out of attitude? Think of attitude as the extent to which a person is able and willing to act. Note that able is prerequisite to willing. Persons are willing to the extent that they are able. Educators have the potential to change beliefs and attitudes because they teach, make students able, and students become willing. However, educators must first challenge their own beliefs and attitudes toward differences. For example, do educators believe that student's with differences are capable of learning? How much can students with differences learn? What kinds of difference can they tolerate; what kinds are they unable to accept? Conversely, how much difference can they celebrate? How do children with differences learn? The goal must be to discover the great potential of every child.
Historically, individuals with disabilities have had to struggle for survival, acceptance, and permission to be accepted in society. More specifically, there has been an adversarial relationship between schools and persons with disabilities. There were social attitudes, state laws, and institutional and educational practices that promoted exclusion of children with disabilities from educational opportunities, guaranteeing a life without hope.
Beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, some people began thinking and acting differently from the rest of society towards those with disabilities. At a time when all disabilities were viewed without distinction as aberrations and persons with disabilities were considered inhuman and condemned to institutional life, Phillipe Pinel (Curtis, 1993) began treatment of persons with mental illness using kindness, respect, and the expectation of appropriate behavior. Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard (Mostert & Crockett, 2000) devoted his life to teaching a child considered hopeless. Eduoard Seguin (Mostert & Crockett, 2000), his student, began educating people with intellectual disability in the United States. In the 1800s, Samuel Gridley Howe (Mostert & Crockett, 2000), who taught deaf and blind children, was able to secure public funding for education of children with disabilities in Massachusetts.
Based on their convictions, these pioneers and many others in special education developed effective techniques for teaching students with disabilities that are still used today. While research clearly demonstrated that people with disabilities could learn, it was through efforts of professional advocates and determined parents that people with disabilities were able to create a change in the behavior and attitudes of society. Teachers need to respond as advocates in the lives of students with disabilities.
The responsibility for schools to teach all children and the opportunity for an appropriate education for all children actually began in the courts with theXXXXXcase, Brown v. the Board of Education, Topeka, KS. Educators could not discriminate because students were different. Application of the right to a free and appropriate education for students with disabilities came in two other Supreme Court cases in 1972, Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Mills v. Board of Education, Washington, DC. Even with the passage of special education law, the courts have continued an active role in interpretation and enforcement of the rights of persons with disabilities. From a legal standpoint, schools must educate all students with disabilities. Most educators teach with an attitude of personal commitment to every child. If not, they may face court action.
The first step of the United States legislature in recognizing the rights of persons with disabilities was the civil rights act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973), which prevented discrimination against persons with disabilities. With a broad definition of disabilities, this law mandates all the rights of an appropriate education for persons with disabilities, including those with disabilities not covered under special education law. Teachers need to know their responsibilities under this law.
Special education became law with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), originally passed and commonly known as PL 94-142 in 1975 and reauthorized in a series of amendments through 2004. Students with disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate education with special funding to insure that right. With considerable detail, the law outlines necessary components and procedures relating to that education, including zero reject, nondiscriminatory identification, individualized education program (IEP), least restrictive environment (LRE), due process safeguards, and parent and student rights and participation. In addition, there are related services, an extended school year, and special discipline procedures for children with disabilities. All teachers need to know and understand the details of this law and to participate actively in its implementation. With the law as guidance, most teachers will respond to the special needs of children with disabilities because of their love for the children. If not, legal consequences may ensue.
The adversarial relationship between persons with disabilities (and their parents and supporters) and school systems, however, persists. Parents continue to demand special services for their children with disabilities. Schools continue to question what must be done to comply with the law. Every component of IDEA continues to be tested in the courts (Heward, 2009). Courts, not educators, continue to define what special education law means. Legislators continue to expand school responsibilities with amendments to IDEA (Heward, 2009). Attitudes continue to challenge laws.
What then is special education? It includes students with special needs, professional and parent cooperation, specific plans, suitable curricula, effective interventions and strategies, the right setting, and most importantly, the personal commitment of the individual teacher to teach each student with a disability effectively.
Linguistic and Cultural Diversity
A current controversy facing educators is labeling students with a disability and placing them in special education because they speak a different language or are from a different culture. Special education, of course, is necessary for those students who are different because of their disabilities. All too often, however, students who are different because of language or culture are placed in special education. For example, teachers often speak English and are of the majority culture with behaviors, beliefs, and values of that culture. Children in their classrooms may speak languages other than English and may come from a variety of cultures with many different behaviors, beliefs, and values. Unfortunately, such linguistic and cultural differences are often seen as disabilities.
In addition, assessment of children who are different is not always accurate. Testing biases are well documented and may not truly assess a student's strengths and deficits, especially if the student is of a different culture or speaks a different language. Finally, schools have not been particularly effective in providing the best learning experiences for culturally and linguistically diverse students. The result is student failure, often interpreted as the result of a disability rather than the failure of the school to provide appropriate curriculum and instruction.
Educators can do things differently by becoming aware of and responsive to the linguistic and cultural diversity of students in their class and communicate with their families. Culturally and linguistically sensitive assessment, curricula, and instruction can reduce inappropriate placement. Languages and cultures reveal differences among peoples and differences in values and behaviors. The risk and reward of open communication may result in discovering the value of different customs and beliefs. Difference does not mean disability; it becomes a wealth of possibilities for those who share.
Individuals with disabilities struggle for survival and acceptance. Special education provides them with hope and opportunity guaranteed by litigation and law. With tailored education, these students can contribute to society.
Brown v. Board of Educ. 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Curtis, R. H. (1993). Great lives: medicine. New York : Maxwell Macmillan International.
Heward, W. L. (2009). Exceptional children: An introduction to special education (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, Pub. L. No.108-446 (2004).
Mills v. Board of Education, 348 F. Supp. 866 (1972).
Mostert, M. P., & Crockett, J. B. (2000, June). Reclaiming the history of special education for more effective practice. Exceptionality, 8(2), 133-143. Retrieved October 13, 2008, from http://library.gcu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=3538945&loginpage=Login.asp&site=ehost-live&scope=site
The Rehabilitation Act, Pub. L. No. 93-112,87 Stat. 394, 29 U.S.C. § 701 (1973).