Letter from the Field of Special Education
by Ben Mitchell - August 07, 2019
After 30 years as a neurodivergent within the field, I believe that it is time to fundamentally reform special education. Not only are we harming the students in our care, the structure of Special Education itself drives 20% of the population into a statistical underclass.
After 30 years as a neurodivergent within the field, I believe that it is time to fundamentally reform special education. Not only are we harming the students in our care, the structure of Special Education itself drives 20% of the population into a statistical underclass. Because I am a man diagnosed with Dyslexia and ADHD, the field sees me as an individual with neurological disabilities, but that is not what I am. I am a proud member of a neurological minority.
Each of the primary neurological subgroups, in fact, shares its characteristics with a significant number of others across the traditional cultural lines of ethnicity, race, class, and religion. People with ADHD share their traits, whether they are in California, Tokyo, or Damascus. Furthermore, these atypical characteristics are genetic: my father, me, and my children all struggled with reading, leading to our being targeted in school. The exact percentage of the population is a subject of debate, but it is clear that a significant and rising percentage of children, adolescents, and adults are diagnosed with neurological anomalies (Houtrow, Larson, Olson, Newacheck, & Halfon, 2014). According to the CDC, between one and two percent of school-aged children have an autism diagnosis (CDC, 2016a); five to eleven percent have an ADHD diagnosis (CDC, 2016b). Some researchers suggest that only five percent of the population meets the criteria for Learning Disability (Cortiella and Horowitz, 2014), whereas the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity suggests, Dyslexia is extremely common, affecting one in five people and representing 8090 percent of all learning disabilities (Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, 2017). Although there is controversy about the actual percentage of the population, the National Center for Educational Statistics states that 14% of the population is identified for special education (NCES, 2019). Though that number may fluctuate, depending on the politics of the school system, 14% seems a minimum baseline accepted by the fieldthe minimum required to comply with the law.
Nevertheless, despite spending anywhere from two to ten times as much per student, the outcomes of people targeted for Special Education are almost universally bad. Higher rates of psychiatric disorders are linked to reading disability (Hendren, Haft, Black, White, & Hoeft, 2018), autism (Hollocks, Lerh, Magiati, Meiser-Stedman, & Brugha, 2018), and ADHD (Katzman, Bilkey, Chokka, Fallu, & Klassen, 2017). Furthermore it is our experience in school, not our inherent neurology, that is the source of our individual mental health issues (Mulvany, 2000). Neurotypical students are often hostile to the inclusion model (Bates, McCafferty, Quayle, McKenzie, 2015), believing it is legitimate to exclude students with autism and/or learning disabilities from classroom activities that will be graded (Bottema-Beutel, Kim, & Miele, 2018). Students with autism are bullied a significantly higher rate than students without (Maiano, Normand, Salvas, Moullec, & Aime, 2016). Girls with ADHD experience more social challenges and difficulty with peers than neurotypical girls (Kok, Groen, Fuermaier, & Tucha, 2016). In general, people with ADHD will experience a negative stigma across their lifespan (Lebowitz, 2013). Taken all together it becomes clear that the neurotypical majority sees only pathology in the manifestations of neurodiversity.
Over thirty years, I have witnessed the way special education promotes a neurotypical paradigm with patronizing beliefs about student potential, creating a society-large Pygmalion effect. In other words, the very structure of "Special Education" unfairly privileges the neurotypical profile. Furthermore, the way we organize schools teaches all elementary students that 14% of the population is fundamentally deficient, and thus not fully human.
Imagine if we structured our school systems with the assumption that students with minority neurological characteristicsat least 20% of the population (arguably)would need alternative approaches in order to be successful. Here are simple reforms that would significantly improve the outcomes while cutting the price tag.
Neurodiversity: Treat neurodiversity like cultural diversity, a natural state of humanity that should be respected and valued for what it can offer the human species overall. If children learned from the first day to celebrate neurological differences and recognize each others strengths, we could significantly reduce the anxiety of being normal.
Teacher training: Require an understanding of neurodiversity as part of teacher training. Teachers, especially in the early grades, should have the training to recognize different neurological profiles and work to ensure that their needs are met.
Lower barriers: Plan educational systems that recognize the different needs of different students and provide different approaches for different profiles. Individual Educational Plans are so expensive because they treat each student on an individualized basis.
Universal Design: Follow Universal Design principles starting in preschool so that all students can experience success from the start. Rather than perpetuating systems that privilege the neurotypical norm, Universal Design seeks to create a context that is accessible to students regardless of profile.
Organize classes by skill level, not age: Rather than defining grade-level as a social construct, we should divide students by reading level and math level. Rather than placing students into classes for which they're under-prepared and then providing them a paraprofessional to keep them from flipping the desk, we could organize students based on their skillsreading level, written expression, math leveland then introduce alternative practices for students who need them without the artificial pressure to keep up with some politically defined norm.
After thirty years as a neurological minority working in schools, I have come to hold deeply mixed feelings about the field of education. I became a writing teacher in an effort to make a difference for others like me, struggling to survive in school. My dyslexia and ADHD made school difficult, but at some point I discovered a love for books and writing. Though I have worked my heart out for thirty years, I cannot help but feel that I have failed. Yes, I have taught students to read; I have watched students discover their voice. I have reassured terrified children that they are in fact welcome here on this planet. Nevertheless, I have been part of a system that forces students to fail, crushing their sense of belonging before we shower upon them the benefits of our superior dictionary skills. I've come to recognize how our status as disabled continuously makes us targets in the field of education.
Just as history has been shaped by the positive accomplishments of atypical people who struggled in school, so too is history shaped by smart, charismatic, often poorly educated individuals who, angry and humiliated, rise to power to exact revenge against a society that could not see their value. How often they are bolstered by large portions of the population who share in their resentment. So I call on the victimsall of us who have struggled under the ignorant assumptions of the neurotypical majorityto come together and stand up. Until our culture, and more importantly the field of education, shifts its paradigm, people from minority neurological profiles will spend our lives either struggling to pretend or recoiling in frustration from the futility of trying to seem normal.