Special Education Stigma

No doubt there is a stigma that surrounds special education. Even teachers view students receiving services differently at times. I have more than once had students receiving services say they don’t want to be labeled or placed in the “that class.” I ask what class? They respond by saying, “you know the one with the reputation.”

Ever hear someone say, “they belong on the short bus?”

Yes there is a stigma surrounding special education!

It wasn’t until I worked within special education did I realize it operates in a different world. It was like when I was asked to be an interim dean at a middle school. As a teacher you knew the administration did something, you just weren’t exactly sure what “that” was.

The amount of laws, support, administration, districts, parents, and everyone in between works tirelessly to support these students. It is mind boggling how much information comes from TEA and trickles down into the system.

My own personal opinion…it is amazing how one huge bureaucracy filled with lawyers, policy makers, government, and elected officials moves into another huge bureaucracy (school district) filled with the same things…makes it way to the classroom teacher.

It amazes me that it works at all.

All we really know is that public education has always been around and perhaps created by the government. Or at least that is what I use to think. .

In reality, it is because of educational reformers like Horace Mann and the civil rights activists that pressured elected officials and law makers to create the system.

Being a person born in 1969 and isolated from a lot of the movement and not experiencing what others had. I never truly appreciated or should I say understood everything reformers went through to make the changes they did.

There is no doubt racism still exits but it is definitely viewed differently in 2020 then it would of been in the 1950’s and younger. Yet when I moved into Special education I realized how prevalent it was.

It is because of the reformers taking the abuse they did, the lawmakers creating the laws, and people with enough foresight to vote it into law.

The Stigma use to be worse

The entire idea of Horace Mann to create what we now know as public education was based off of social concerns of immigrants. Americans were so afraid of people pouring into our country and taking away what we hold dear that spawned the idea of Horace for communities to establish schools funded by tax dollars.

His premise…He believed that when children from different social, religious, and economic backgrounds were educated together, they would learn to accept and respect each other.

More for preservation of values…a social experiment…than an idea of educating students.

But like all things involving the law or government. Once you open the door, it begins to flood. But in this case the flood was needed. The changes that occurred over the years can be argued for a lifetime. But in hindsight to the treatment of humans, this social experiment had an enormous benefit to all.

I hate making the comparison to what was birthed in the last century, but the thought keeps coming back to the Hitler youth and what was being taught in the schools. Yes he was teaching an entire generation how to be racist and follow him to the death.

Not what Horace was advocating at all. But when we began this social experiment that became our public education system it was geared around common values, self discipline, and tolerance of others. Still a state, or at that time, community driven system to make sure our children learned our values. Thank the Lord that our values were different than the mad man we know as Hitler.

We wanted to socialize children, improve relationships, and improve social conditions as immigrants entered our country.

Crazy right!!!!

Eventually special education programs came into play. I will say upfront, it was not good. We did not come to idea of eliminating anyone with a disability as some countries have, but our thought process around special need kids was not pleasant by any stretch of the imagination.

The beginnings of special education was more for at risk students then for those we serve today. In the 1890’s people viewed the students we serve today as outcast. It was so bad that anyone needing what we would describe today as special education services were shunned and separated from society.

The stigma plays out again in the extremist of ways in other countries. The most documated would be Germany.

Later, the so-called T4 program expanded to include even adults. As stated by Poore (2007, 87), people with disabilities were ‘the first group of victims to be systematically gassed by the Nazi regime’. In the 1930s and 1940s, ‘the Nazi party murdered over 200 000 disabled people’1 (Oliver and Barnes 1998, 34; Poore 2007). According to Nazi ideology, provision of treatment for the mentally and physically disabled ‘weakened the race or nation and expended on the weak resources that could be used for other national interests’ (Gittelman 2006, 8). But, as noted by Grue (2010, 38), the euthanasia program was also motivated by human considerations as a way to ‘free patients from their sufferings’ (see also Benedict, Shields, and O’Donell 2009).

The nations body

As special education morphed from where it began it was a rough start to say the least.

It wasn’t until 1975 were handicapped students were allowed to attend school. If they did attend school they were usually housed away from the normal students and placed in trailers or even at times basements. It was a separate society of people.

In 1958, the Illinois Supreme Court held that compulsory education laws did not apply to children with mental impairments. Until 1969, it was a crime in North Carolina for a parent to try to enroll a handicapped child in public school after the child had been excluded. (Weber, “Statutory Background”)

History SPED law

It wasn’t until Brown v Board of Education did we see the start of a movement that would impact special education for life times to come.

Even though the court case was against segregation it would lead to segregation of any student and not just the African American students.

After the decision in Brown, parents of children with disabilities began to bring lawsuits against their school districts for excluding or segregating children with disabilities. The parents argued that by excluding these children, schools were discriminating against the children because of their disabilities.

History SPED Law

So even still today their is a stigma that surrounds our students and those that serve them. I will say that it has come a long way. I suppose we view those we don’t understand or who we would view as different than ourselves in a distorted way.

I even see those that work in the public education system more bold in defending the rights and services of those we serve. The dedication and work that teachers put out is phenomenal.

Parents have always been invested in advocating the rights of their own children. But what I see is a force of teachers advocating just as strongly for the students they serve.

So while I don’t expect the stigma to change, I do feel confident in the fact that we are able to protect the rights and serve those who fall under the services of special education.

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