From the Executive Director: “Special Education Day”
Annually, a small group mostly of special education administrators in Massachusetts celebrates the anniversary of the signing of the first federal special education law. This event is known as “Special Education Day”. I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at this celebration. The panel was asked to “dream” about improving the future of special education. I want to share some of my dream thoughts: Special education will improve if we . . .
Practice Empathy: Let’s remember the importance of the impact that parent’s feel and the challenges they face when confronted with their child’s ongoing disabling condition or a new diagnosis. Parents seeking services for their child are often facing complex issues and feelings, a type of grief. When we suffer loss or experience grief, we need support, care and respect.
Build Trust: For too long, schools and parents have functioned as adversaries while negotiating the need for and quality of services their student will require in order to “make effective progress” in school. This type of environment can prevent us from creative problem solving and finding innovative solutions to supporting students who face challenges and barriers in school. Trust doesn’t just happen. It has to be deliberately built with integrity. Trust is the foundation for building success.
Work for Justice: The disability rights movement in the U.S. emerged directly out of the Civil Rights movement – as have so many “equality” movements in our culture. Special education consists of services and supports to “level the playing field” for students who need accommodations and modifications to fully participate in the life of the school with their non-disabled peers and make academic progress. School professionals must work for justice for all students and not tolerate inappropriate exclusion, bullying, violence or mistreatment toward any student – especially students with disabilities.
Model Leadership: School professionals in positions of power have the duty and opportunity to model these critical characteristics for their peers and workers. Administrators and school leaders can be life transforming when they demonstrate the joys of embracing all students and experiencing the richness of the diversity these students can bring to any community.
Some are calling for a significant reform of the federal special education law. It seems to me the problem is not so much that the special education law is broken – but rather the stigmatizing of students with differences remains a critical problem. People stigmatize, the law protects.
We will require less focus on the law to protect students with differences when the culture in which we live embraces the uniqueness of each child without fear. Rosemary Dybwad, a pioneer in the world of disability rights frequently commented during her presentations in the 1970’s & 80’s, “It’s normal to be different”. We are still dreaming of such a future.