If I were running things, not that anyone has asked, I would issue an executive order to place the word “special” in relation to people with disabilities in the same category of socially unacceptable words as the notorious n-word, the r-word for people with intellectual disabilities, the k-word for Jews, and a hundred other ethnic/social slurs no longer tolerated.
Special, or the s-word, means special education, special accommodation, special treatment, or in the overly gushy six o’clock news story about a paraplegic climbing Mount McKinley, a very special person. It sounds good, doesn’t it, to be thought of as special? It isn’t. It’s a word that separates, isolates, and in some cases, is the basest for blatant discrimination.
This not-so-hidden implication of the s-word again came to light when the Louisiana House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill that would lower expectations for students with disabilities by allowing school officials to graduate them a diploma without adhering to normal state standards. The argument is that this is a “flexible approach” to giving students with disabilities a chance to graduate that they would otherwise not have. The logic being, I guess, that once they have that diploma, a whole new world of work or higher education will open up to them.
This is, not to make too fine a point of it, hogwash. It is “separate but equal,” the rally cry of Jim Crow supremacists since 1890, applied to a different social group. As one critic put it, “It set all kinds of incentives to lower the bar and over-classify kids as having special needs.”
Here’s the factor that makes this an especially alarming prospect. Louisiana is a very poor state, in fact, the number two state in the nation with most people in poverty (19.9%). Moreover, the child rate of poverty in Louisiana is even higher – 28%. So that means, logically, that a big chuck of students with special needs come from poor and/or minority families. So, if you were really cynical about the political intentions of this pending law, it seems like an easy way to funnel poor, disadvantaged kids with disabilities out of the system and make them someone else’s problem. How many schools in America graduate black and other minority students the same way? A high graduation rate looks good on paper and if you graduate students with special needs on a watered-down basis, it’ll look even better.
This is the reverse of the fight that the legendary Ed Roberts fought way back in 1961. Severely disabled, he attended a high school that wouldn’t let him graduate because he hadn’t taken physical education or driver’s ed. University of California at Berkeley knew he was academically qualified , but didn’t exactly welcome him with open arms. In the words of one dean, “We tried cripples before and it didn’t work.” Ed preserved, of course, and became one of the pioneers in the disability rights community.
Louisiana knows that they can no longer keep disabled students out of school, so they have created a way to graduate them on a fast track of academic sleight of hand. As Ed proved 50 years ago, a disability, even a severe one, doesn’t mean you can’t play academic ball with the “normal” kids. Certainly students with marked intellectual disabilities are a different category of concern, but someone with quadriplegia, CF, blindness, deafness, and even spectrum autism? Why should they be treated any differently than other kids? If you tell a kid that he isn’t smart enough or able enough to meet the standards of graduation, the message is that he or she isn’t smart or able enough to succeed afterwards. And how quickly will a reputable college accept someone with a “special” diploma?
I’m sure the Louisiana matter has more arguments both pro and con than I’ve given here but the fact that students with most disabilities are in a special category to begin with seems egregious. The day will come when you’re sitting in American history class and the girl to your left is a future Temple Grandin (autism) and the boy to your right is a future Greg Abbott, a paraplegic and likely the next governor of Texas. (By the way, “orthopedic impairment” fits the special ed category).
Before World War I, people with disabilities, including kids, were simply shuttled off to institutions with names like “St. Giles Home for the Crippled and Ruptured” where they would be ”cared for.” They were either shameful or an inconvenience to the families who committed them. They were, to use a word, special. The current ways of separating out the disabled are certainly different than the draconian ways of old, but as long as we are special, we will never be accepted as normal. And that’s a real shame.
© 2014 Allen Rucker |
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