It’s time to shine the spotlight on the underdog.

It's time to shine the spotlight on Special Education, the Donald Duck of Mickey Mouse, the underdogs.

Special education is a quiet topic. In today’s strife to redefine education, the spotlight is on ed tech, K-12 policies, STEM in the US, topic-based teaching in Finland, special education is the less glamorous cousin in the backdrop. As much as we fight against the taboo on mental and physical disabilities in our society, we seem to be fighting the same fight for special-needs children in education. The swirl around special education tends to be funding cuts, teacher layoffs, and frustrated parents. However, there is almost no noise on redesigning a floundering system.

Misconception

Before stepping foot into a school, I associated “special education”, or spec-ed, with only physical, mental or learning disabilities. I didn’t realize the category was much wider – it also includes students with disciplinary issues who comprehend the juvenile-justice system a little too well. The grade 9 class I work with splits equally between students with mild to severe ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), and students who carry a behavioral record. The way I see it, the class can be equally divided between students with learning disabilities, and students with attitude problems that impede learning. The former can be medically diagnosed, thus making it more visible than the latter, which requires understanding and patience.

The high school belongs to one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Toronto, where you find housing projects, drugs, weaponry, patrolling police cars, and uncaring parents. One of my students, Austin, got his behavioral record in grade 2, when he was suspended from school for showing aggression towards a teacher. Maybe he did it for attention, or maybe to express his frustration with authority, or maybe he was just sleep deprived because the cops busted into his building last night. Whatever the reason, he got a record that labeled him and set his path. The record basically stickered him as a badass, a rebel, a good-for-nothing. Even if he did not identify himself this way, from then on, society did, and as a grade 2 kid, what can you do but accept it and play the role. Throughout his school life, he was put in a behavioral corrective program, and I could only imagine he was treated either as a troublemaker or a victim by his teachers and peers. What did he learn growing up? Forget about math and English, he learned he is bad, he is special but not in a good way, he is somehow identified as different.

One individual story from a spec-ed classroom. But it’s an important one, because it helps me understand the profound diversity of the students who sit through these classes, and makes me question whether there are students being under-served by a program that intends to help them.

In today’s strife to redefine education… special education is the less glamorous cousin in the backdrop.

Cognition vs. Attitude

A simplified curriculum is vital to most of the students I work with. Many students still struggle with getting through a page of worksheet without being distracted by their thoughts or an obsession to write something over and over again; standardized testing would not be a fair measurement of the effort they put in their learning.

Though I can’t help but wonder if a handful of students fell through the cracks and landed in the classroom by mistake. Austin could be one of them. A spec-ed curriculum works well for him if it is coupled with counselling: He needs guidance on resolving internal issues, finding motivation, allowing himself to aspire so to live a happy life. He’s struggling with his life outside the school grounds. Only if there is someone who can guide him through the real life, it would then be reasonable to expect success in his academic life. However, a spec-ed curriculum alone will not get him back on track, it only whispers “We don’t expect a lot from you”.

As for a few others, there may be other obstacles coupled with learning disadvantages that hinge on learning. Mathematics, for example, is not about numbers, but doggedness. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, debunks the myth that Asians are innately apt at Math, but attributes the success to their agricultural traditions that places importance on persistence, effort and hard work.1  Math is the best lesson on perseverance, and attitude has a tantamount effect on academic success as intelligence. Looking through the class profiles, I remember one student documented to have difficulties connecting one mathematical step to the next, but I couldn’t help asking, were they showing mild learning disability as well as, maybe, laziness? Were they distracted? Did they give up too soon? How much is attributed to cognitive disadvantage, and how much to attitude?

It is almost proverbial that a person is not his illness. As much as this is true, I don’t believe a diagnosis of a student’s cognitive ability defines their learning path. Simply labeling a student with ADHD and feeding them through the spec-ed program is inadequate if the program does not provide the students with what they need most in their learning and in life. Some students need a life mentor, others a family therapist, and others lessons on building character that can bring them success. (KIPP schools in America teach character in school, and they are seeing astounding results. Learn more at KIPP.org) If we are widening the doors to special education, we must also widen the options and resources to help every special-needs student.

Micro Change

This article portrays only a few individuals and their personal stories, with the intention that their voices be found amongst the majority. They are the exception, and they represent the danger of a one-size-fits-all system – a system that receives the least amount of attention from the community and government. Sir Ken Robinson wrote, “Education is a national issue, but it is a local, grassroots process.”2  Change cannot be imposed from above, it happens at the micro level. If we start from the bottom – our children – we have the power to make changes that matter.


1. Gladwell, Malcolm. “Rice Paddies and Math Tests.” Outliers: The Story of Success.
2. Robinson, Ken. “The Creative Classroom: Why America Depends on Schools That Think Differently.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 23 Apr. 2015. Web. 5 May 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sir-ken-robinson/the-creative-classroom_b_7119354.html>.