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2 Questions About Special Education That Shock and Sadden Me

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I have worked in the field of special education for the past 16 years; my personal experience with people with special educational needs and disabilities goes back 35 years. In this time, I’ve been asked a couple of questions which I personally find shocking and saddening, but which I feel need answering. I have always answered them when they’ve been asked and I will answer them here. The questions themselves are what shock me; the saddening part is who asks them. These questions are asked by lovely people, out of compassion and concern. As a starting point that’s fine, but why is it still happening? Why aren’t attitudes changing?

Question 1: Do you think they should be alive?

This question is asked in hushed tones, by kind people who look at the life of someone with profound disabilities and ask whether it’s worth living.

The answer is simple: Yes.

Now, not that this has direct relevance here, it’s more a personal quirk that puts my answer in a different light: I am not someone who thinks life has inherent value. I am not arguing that they should live simply because they have been born. I think the value of a life belongs to the individual themselves. I have known able-bodied, able-minded individuals who have found no value in their lives, and I have known many wonderful, unique individuals with profound disabilities who love life with a passion that puts me to shame. Their lives are most definitely worth living to them.

Implicit in the question is the idea that the value of life comes on a sliding scale with disability, that the more “disabled” you are the less “valuable” your life is. Consider that for a moment. There are some very obvious examples: Stephan Hawking probably springs to mind. The point is: Whether a life is worth living or not has nothing to do with disability.

Evolution has been pushed along by the need to survive. The strongest, the fastest, the tallest and to some extent the luckiest survived and bred. Together we have reached a point where how fast we run and how strong we are have little influence over our survival and our chances at reproduction. People talk about horizontal and vertical evolution. The vertical was the survival of the fittest, the horizontal now comes in things like the sharing of knowledge — the more we know in the current age the more likely we are to do well in life, to lead healthy lives, to bring up young who hold influential positions in society. If you took a step back and looked at a species from a distance, what would you want us to become? Stronger still? Taller? Faster? What about cleverer? Kinder? More understanding?

We gained our strength by overcoming physical challenges. Do we not stand to gain more capacious hearts by overcoming the challenges associated with caring for others?

To make the point blunter still: What can you learn from someone who is exactly the same as you? Possibly nothing. How much can you learn from someone who is incredibly different from you in some ways and incredibly similar in others? A whole lot more than nothing.

Diversity and difference, in all their forms, are not things to be coped with or overcome; they are incredibly precious and valuable commodities to be cherished, explored and celebrated.

Question 2: Is there any point in teaching them?

I’ve found this question is often asked by very intelligent people, people who value themselves by the level of academic achievement they have acquired. Inside this question, I feel, is the assumption that someone is only worth teaching if they are going to reach a particular level of academic achievement. Phrased like that, would it also make sense to weed out the students in mainstream settings who may not achieve suitable grades and just stop teaching them? Perhaps this could solve some of the current budget/class size issues?

The answer is: Yes.

The point of all teaching is learning. And there is an inherent value in learning. A few years ago I read a report on happiness. In it the authors stated that we all need five things to be happy. The first four items on the list were relatively obvious things:

  1. Enough sleep
  2. To get a little exercise
  3. To eat a nutritious diet
  4. To spend time with friends and families

Item number five was learning: We need to learn something new. Learning is one of life’s joys.

Often the people asking the question are wondering if there is a point in teaching people who can’t learn. But that’s not what they ask. Perhaps if they phrased the question that way I’d have a different answer. Perhaps there is no point in teaching someone who cannot learn. I wouldn’t know. I have never met a student incapable of learning, and I have worked with students with significant disabilities. A few years ago, I read a brilliant article in PMLD Link about a young man called Christian. The article’s authors write that Christian is typically described as someone with impaired communication; they then turned this notion on its head, pointing out that Christian is actually an exceptionally skilled communicator who just happens to have been given a very limited set of tools to communicate with. With the few tools that he has, Christian is able to communicate a great range of opinions. It is always the risk that by defining people by their disabilities we begin to think of them as people “unable to…” when actually the view of them as people able to do things and to do these things in spite of the obstacles they face is often far more accurate.

Perhaps I should phrase the question the other way around: Is there a point in teaching someone who learns in a fantastic and different way, in teaching someone who learns in spite of hurdles put in their way, in teaching someone who is thrilled by learning and who will keep on working on their learning way past the point others may have given up? Surely this is a student every teacher would want? These students have been my students over the years, and I can whole heartedly say there is every point in teaching them, not just for them, but for the benefit of the person doing the teaching, too. We all learn.

My simplest answer to the question is one true of all teaching: that in teaching we learn. Often we teach what we most need to learn. In teaching these students, I’ve learned to value my own life more; I’ve learned resilience and perseverance. I’ve had my creativity, understanding and knowledge challenged and moved on. From a purely selfish point of view there is enormous point in teaching these learners.

You may have noticed that I’ve ended both my answers on rather selfish notes, focusing on what we get out of the inclusion of individuals with special educational needs and disabilities. This is because I do not think inclusion will move forward out of the goodness of our hearts, out of our generosity and compassion. Yes, those things may take us so far, but not far enough — and I don’t believe that kind of sympathy-based inclusion will end up with the equality that us idealists aim for. Equality is not saying we are all the same, or can even all be the same. It is saying we all have equal value and recognizing that worth in one another. I sometimes balk at the word “special” attached to these children. It is a lovely word intended to point out to the world that they are of value. It grew out of a time when they may not have been considered as such; I feel it was a form of over-compensation. But at the end of the day, they are no more special than a mainstreamed child — they are equal. But arguing over labels wastes a lot of time, so I’ll side-step that tangent and go back to my point: I believe inclusion will move forward when people become aware of its value to them personally.

Inclusion viewed as a list of challenges and problems seems unattractive, a sort of moral good like eating a perfectly healthy diet: great in principle, but no one would ever want to do it.

I believe inclusion viewed as opportunities and solutions is altogether more attractive. On my training days, I show teachers how inclusive teaching strategies can benefit all of their students, not just those who need them in order to learn — and I also talk about seagulls!

As a child, I grew up on a yacht sailing the oceans. On long ocean voyages when the cries of “are we nearly there yet” grew to be unbearable, my parents would send me to lie on the bowsprit and look for land. The first sign of land is the gulls; they fly out to meet the boat to see if you will drop any fish scraps. The gulls mean you’ve come a very long way, and the land is nearly in sight, but you are not there yet. When I think of inclusion, I think of the gulls: We’ve still a fair way to go.

May the wind fill our sails.

a sea gull flying over the ocean with the backdrop of a cloudy sky

Follow this journey on Joanna’s website.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one commonly held opinion within the community surrounding your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) that doesn’t resonate with you? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Originally published: April 26, 2016
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