Special education. Thinking about this topic I’m reminded of how my school system treated most students who were “in the special ed program.” For me (back then), special ed was only for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities. These students were kept apart from the other students to varying (and sometimes quite dramatic) ways. In elementary school there was the “special ed room.” This was a centralized location where the students, who the system determined couldn’t be mainstreamed, were schooled. There was very little interaction with these students and we often wondered why they always stayed apart. We never had recess together or lunch; their lunch was brought to them in the classroom.
When I got to middle school, there was a special ed wing that was actually apart from the rest of the school. There was a hallway (with a lock if I recall correctly) that led into an area that used to be the old elementary school. Here, students with severe disabilities were kept away from everyone else. Their lunch was loaded onto carts and wheeled into their area. We never had gym or any other classes with them. The interaction in middle school was non-existent. We had no idea what the classrooms in that area looked like or what the curriculum was like. I remember a group of us asking one of our teachers what the kids in the special ed wing were taught and our teacher didn’t know.
When I got to high school, the special ed class was kept on the first floor, which was kind of like the basement. There were a couple of rooms down there along with the weight room for advanced physical education. The special ed department was, as always, kept separate, but now we got to have lunch with the students that had always been an isolated mystery. Occasionally, they would be allowed to come out during our gym time and they even came to pep rallies (unlike middle school). Being able to interact with the “special ed kids” (as we often called them) made them seem less foreign. In elementary school I remember being afraid of that room when I was in kindergarten and first grade.
When I was in twelfth grade it suddenly occurred to me that, for my entire school life, I had also been in special ed. I just wasn’t isolated from the general population. Because my disability was physical (my eyes and a little speech therapy for a stutter) I wasn’t forced to stay away from the general school population. A class I took talked about mainstreaming and special ed and we discussed the system that was in place in our county and saw how flawed it was.
All throughout school I met with my “vision teacher;” this person remained with me from kindergarten until I graduated. She was always there to help me advocate for myself and teach me how to request accommodations, and, if they weren’t provided, how to go about making things happen. I recall there being meetings with the vision teacher, my instructors, and mom, to discuss what needed to be done in order to accommodate me. In high school, most of the responsibility for disclosing my disability and requesting accommodations was on me. If I felt it necessary, I could set up a meeting my vision teacher, guidance counselor and whomever else and we could work things out.
I now sit back and think about the students that weren’t mainstreamed and were kept apart from everyone else. Were they taught how to advocate for themselves? What were they learning while kept away from everyone else? Why was it deemed necessary to seclude this population? I don’t really have any firm answers for this other than the special ed system in my county was flawed and needed to be reformed.
What were your experiences with special education programs where you grew up? Was it similar? Better? Worse?