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How the Special Education System Traumatizes Students With Disabilities

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The American education system has been around since the 17th century, and it feels like we’re still living in that time period. Our education system has made only minute changes over time. It is so outdated that it would not only benefit but needs to modernize within our vastly different world. As our world slowly makes a step into a better understanding of disability rights and disability pride, our education system must make that change as well. The current system is created for and around neurotypical students and learners. It thrusts neurodivergent students and learners into an environment where they are almost set up to fail — creating an environment that perpetuates feelings of internalized ableism.

I’ve been in the special education system since I was in first grade. When you’re a young girl that struggles to count and has trouble focusing, there are only minor accommodations needed to be put in place to help. However, once I grew older, the presence of my disabilities became more evident in a classroom setting, and the little accommodations in place were not enough. My needs soon changed from needing someone to read and scribe for me to needing extra time on tests and projects, alternative testing settings, large print text on exams, breaks, etc. The small needs that teachers were previously happy to give me turned into what was viewed as horrible things that got in their way of teaching. I soon went from a cute little girl that teachers loved to a “lazy” student. I had lost my “cute” charm. Once the baby teeth and cute J-crew kids’ clothes were replaced with braces, awkwardness, and anxiety, it seemed like they didn’t want to help anymore. The more help I needed, the less I received, and the more I needed to be seen and begged for help, the more I disappeared within the system.

The accommodations I needed as I became older, although basic and necessary to complete an equitable classroom setting, screamed “more money and effort required,” not “equal accommodations for learning required.” Education as a whole is already so poorly funded that there is no denying that “there’s not enough money in the law to accomplish all that it requires” to factor in the needs of a marginalized community such as the neurodiverse student population. The lack of money given to the special education system within school districts encourages teachers not to provide proper accommodations and necessities to teach equitably.

Gaining accommodations in a school setting is tricky enough, and even if you can get a proper diagnosis of a “learning disability” the school has to approve you to get an IEP or 504 Plan. It’s not until you get one of these plans that you can request accommodations. Even with these plans in place, it’s still very common not to be properly accommodated in a school setting. In fourth grade, my parents and I were called into a meeting, and we watched as our new principal had taken away my IEP. She congratulated me for performing at a normal and sometimes above-average level, and she used her perception of my performance in school as a way to justify removing my IEP plan. Well, of course, I was. I had my accommodations in place that allowed me to perform in that way. Because I showed intelligence, they didn’t believe I had a disability that needed to be accommodated. I was no longer a problem in their eyes. They allowed me to have an equitable opportunity to learn with those accommodations, and the second they took it away, I was destined to fail. It was as if they wanted me to fail to fit the stereotype of being a child with disabilities that’s bad at school.

They eventually got what they wanted, because as soon as my accommodations were gone, so were my good grades, along with any confidence I had in myself. Not until years later did it come to light that the principal at the time took away the disability services of numerous students to save money and appease our district. “Failing to identify and evaluate its students properly keeps special education enrollment numbers artificially low,” essentially cutting the money needed down completely. In fact, it came to light when she was honored for it, getting awards for saving money; but of course, the whole story was not shared. As usual, those with disabilities were left out of the conversation.

In my sophomore year of high school, I was finally confident enough to publicly announce my disability during a Ted Talk project assigned for class. I decided to take this time to educate my peers on the inequalities in special education. To get this topic approved, I had to meet with my teacher and discuss the proposal. I scheduled a meeting with Mr. E and was fully prepared to present my argument in the case. However, within the first sentence of explaining the problems with IEPs, he had to stop me, awkwardly, and ask, “What’s an IEP and 504 Plan?” I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt since he was a newer and younger teacher. However, to hear that he didn’t know a single thing, and I had an IEP in his class left me astonished and was so infuriating it became a joke. It was almost laughable to teach a teacher about a whole group of students and their support in an education system. Is that truly what our education system has come to? Students teaching teachers how to teach? Explaining the education system that I was into a teacher made me embarrassed and made me feel weird. If a teacher didn’t know anything about disabilities, was I that hard to teach and work with?

It’s important to remember where the problem started and that “how children are taught depends on how teachers are taught.” It’s very easy to write off someone’s ignorance as their fault, and while in some cases that may be true, it is important to remember the underlying cause of that ignorance. In Mr. E’s case, his ignorance stemmed from his own education systems’ ignorance, the very institution that is charged with preparing our teachers. He was never equipped in his own educational training with the proper instruction and knowledge in how to teach all types of students because that wasn’t considered a priority in his training. Our college education programs are not adequately setting up new teachers for properly teaching and understanding students with disabilities or learning and attention differences. If universities do not incorporate science and evidence-based practices, they can not expect their future teachers to be properly prepared to support all.

As a child, you are taught from a young age that maybe kids can be harsh or rude with their words, but you can always go to a trusted adult for help or support if that happens. You are never taught what to do, though, when the bully happens to be your teacher. Although I was fortunate enough to never experience blatant bullying, it was clear that stereotypes of special ed students were perpetuated within the school system. Teachers “had relegated [special ed] students to lowered expectations when they were more than capable of meeting the high expectations set forth.” Throughout my high school career, I felt undermined by teachers because of their low expectations and lack of understanding of me as a student and learner. During my sophomore year, my IEP case manager tried to blame my struggling grades on my “lack of effort and care,” claiming that I was just “lazy” no matter how hard “she” tried to help me. The truth was her lack of support and inability (or disinterest) in providing the very support explicitly outlined in my IEP made it crystal clear that my education and success were of little importance to her. She often forgot about me, and when issues came up, it was always my fault. She could not, or would not, face the mistakes made in supporting me, and when called out by her boss, she blamed the vulnerable student at hand.

When a student does not learn or respond to instruction that is geared toward a single learning style, teachers’ first thoughts are not to find a way to help that student bridge the gap. Rather, their first thought is to place the blame solely on the student and assume it is due to the student not wanting to learn and due to behavioral problems. “Often, unless [teachers] have SPED [special education] training, they assume that the student either cannot learn, will be a behavior problem, and will increase their workload.”

In elementary school, during reading and writing time, I was a part of the “gifted” group. We left class to do special reading and writing projects. Still, once it became evident to the teachers that I had a learning disability, I was quickly un-invited to the “special honors” group sessions anymore. They couldn’t fathom that I could be gifted in reading and writing while also having a learning disability affect my science and math skills. How could you be intelligent and have a learning disability? Those two things never seemed to be used in the same sentence. You either had one or the other. Once I was un-invited to attend the advanced reading group and moved into the general reading class, I was left bored, sad, and unchallenged. Most of all, I was left confused. It seemed as though I was left behind with no explanation because I did not fit their uninformed beliefs of intelligence. As soon as I felt like no one believed in me, I struggled to believe in myself. To this day, I struggle with fully believing in my strong intellectual abilities, because for so long the explicit and implicit messages I was hearing were that I was not intelligent.

So much of the academic ableism within our school system stems from accommodations and learning disabilities in a classroom setting not being normalized. Taking tests inside the classroom was what was normal. Going out to an alternative setting to get proctored, read to you, or scribe for you was not. Any, and every, teacher’s job should be to normalize learning for all students in all different kinds of ways. Conforming to the belief that learning only looks like one thing conforms to the belief that school is only made for neurotypical students to thrive and blend in, inherently making neurodivergent students stick out and struggle. It is part of teachers’ job to “help [us] find those ways and not cast off the ways that seem odd, like doodling or taking breaks, not wanting to read out loud, etc..” This should not only be part of a teacher’s job, it should be a primary job requirement.

Freshman year, when my best friend Natalie and I were in high school, we shared the same “regular” classes and special education classes. When taking tests, we would both get pulled out of the classroom for an alternate setting and tests. In special ed classes, we would feel no shame in getting up and leaving the class for our accommodations, and we would make jokes and smile and join our other IEP friends. It was nice to have a class where you knew that your peers had the same struggles and needs. We could all be open with each other, whether we were friends or just classmates. When it was time for tests in normal classes, Natalie and I were always the only ones to leave the classroom with a proctor that came to pick us up, as if we needed our hand held to the “other” room. Even though we were fully able to lead ourselves to our settings, our school did not believe that we would not cheat, so we had to first go to the general classroom, then wait for an adult, then leave the classroom in front of all of our peers. This soon became our daily walk of shame. The embarrassing and awkward walk from sitting at your desk and getting up and leaving in front of everyone testing. It was a joke between us; but of course, all jokes stem from nuggets of truth. After dealing with this for so many years, the embarrassment and trauma that came from school were so normalized, we were forced to deal with our struggles in the only way we could: with laughter and jokes.

It was not until recently that I was able to take a step back and address the discrimination and ableism I felt within a school setting, not to mention from educators themselves. For so long, I went through life believing that I was always the “dumb” one, or that I was always the “wrong” one. I was quick to allow myself to be belittled, and in some cases, belittled myself. My whole experience in the education system made me think the internalized and constant feeling of ableism was normal. I had no idea what being treated as an equal felt like. It took me so long to analyze my experience truly; because, at the time, I was treating the thing I faced as just being “annoying.” It wasn’t until now that I have been able to identify my experience in the education system as a traumatizing one. I believe that is why I blocked out parts of it, along with trying to blame myself for my disability.

The way my teachers treated me inherently led me to succumb to depression and anxiety and the constant questioning of my intelligence. It was, and still is, very hard for me to acknowledge my intelligence and academic achievements. For so long, I was told it would not be possible for me to end up where I am today. It took a lot of self-discovery and realization of what I needed to do for myself, what I should not stand for, and what the rest of the disability community and I deserve. If it was not for having such a great support system from parents, friends, therapy, and a few select special teachers in my life, I would not have realized the importance of standing up for myself, and in turn, standing up for others. Although I still have a long way to go on my journey with self-love and internalized feelings of ableism, hearing stories and creating a better future fires my passion for continuing. We must work to take down and reform a systematically ableist educational system. We must work towards building a system that caters to all types of students, creating not an equal but equitable education system for all.

Getty image by Klaus Vedfelt.

Originally published: December 2, 2021
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