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The whole 'special' thing

  • Posted by Seahorse
  • 11 Mar 08, 12:08 PM

Okay. I'm disabled, I have a son, and I don't believe in the word 'special' when talking about people with disabilities.

Unfortunately my son attends a school where preferential treatment is frequently dished out to kids with 'special' needs. The word 'special' is plastered all over the minibus. The treatment is ‘special’ because the kids are ‘special’. Sometimes special treatment is used as a means to contain challenging behaviour. Surely that’s wrong?

The school's tendency to, at times, openly favour disabled kids’ efforts over and above the efforts of non-disabled kids causes resentment and confusion among all concerned and also ultimately damages the children with disabilities.

Do they need to be singled out for pity or special treatment? No. Do they need resentment channelled at them when it’s not their actions but those of the teachers that has caused friction? Absolutely not.

And yet these kids are 'allowed' to win sports events and talent contests, all in the spirit of 'inclusion'. And every time this happens, the children without disabilities take note.

It's a policy that has gone so badly wrong that my son actually suggested sending kids with behavioural or learning disabilities to 'special' school. Remember, this is a child with a disabled mother who has behavioural, neurological and physical disabilities. What really threw me was that he not only wanted disabled children out, but made a distinction between certain types of disability. To him, it seemed okay to allow the kids in wheelchairs, the physically disabled, to stay. It was as if they were seen as alright because they didn’t cause the problems the other ‘difficult’ kids caused.

Boy have I had my work cut out trying to deconstruct the school's misguided policy. I explained to him it's the teachers, not the kids with disabilities that are causing the resentment, and that no, absolutely no way is it right to segregate.

We talked about all sorts of scenarios where being disabled and not being disabled just shouldn’t be an issue. Sport seemed to cause the most prolonged debate. He believes any Olympic athletes with disabilities using those ‘super legs’ should be in their own event. I disagreed, explaining that uniting disabled and non-disabled athletes at the Olympics was a really important thing. We did agree that if it could be scientifically proven that the ‘super legs’ give an unfair advantage, perhaps they could be modified to ‘un-super’ them and bring them back to the performance level of the non-disabled athletes. Then we may have an Olympics where no one gets singled out, whether they are outperforming or ‘trying their best’ and winning medals for being brave, which is what seems to be happening at school.

I told him the words special and normal are to be avoided in our discussions about disability. I am trying to encourage him not only to think about what it means to be disabled, but also what it means to live alongside someone who is disabled when you are not. I want to nurture in him a naturally inclusive nature that will mean he doesn’t need to refer to policies or political correctness when faced with somebody portrayed as different from himself. It’s how he reacts as an individual to an individual that is important.

This week is the first week I have picked him up from school using my recently purchased mobility scooter. It's been momentous, liberating, frightening, and now confusing. Going public with my invisible disability and hitting a major disability issue within school all at once has done my head in.

There are many parents who campaign to have a choice between their local primary and provision for children with disabilities. Parents who feel they have no choice, who feel their children suffer in ‘mainstream’ schools. I can understand why they campaign. When things aren’t managed well, it can be disastrous for their child. But good, clear, effective management is achievable.

I still believe in inclusion. Just not 'inclusion' as in inclusion with 'special' emphasis. Emphasis that casts a spotlight where it can only put children with disabilities under a glare that causes suffering, misunderstanding and further division. And that's the last thing that should be happening when disabled and non-disabled children are being taught alongside each other.

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  • 1.
  • At 07:01 PM on 11 Mar 2008, ann ward wrote:

I just want to agree totally with "Seahorse" I hate the term Special but thought I was the only one. I am disabled and am a youth worker working with young disabled people and I dont see anything that is special about disability.
Young people get the worst education,social life,etc.
I dont really want to get into any discussion about the issue as I will never change my mind about the term "Special".

  • 2.
  • At 02:09 AM on 12 Mar 2008, Lucy wrote:

I was singled out in secondary school, given prizes for 'coping with disability'. Basically doing what everyone else was doing, but while being partially sighted. My classmates certainly resented me for the attention I received.

  • 3.
  • At 01:30 PM on 12 Mar 2008, Luke Jackson wrote:

Where is all this preferential treatment for disabled kids? I wouldn't have minded some when I was at school!
Far from any royalty treatment, at the last school I went to people with any 'difficulties', especially behavioural/learning difficulties, were systematically rooted out and excluded in mysterious circumstances. That said, I did get 'full-time support'. Spelling tests every lunchtime and break. Had a spelling age of 17.6 when I was 12, don'cherknow... and 13, 14, 15...
However, I think the thought's there in this case. It's inclusion gone skewed, like entering someone with no legs into a 200m race then having the other contestants carry them to the finish. On second thought, I suppose that'd make sports day more interesting.

Ann: good to get feedback from someone who works with kids and also has a disability. It's the insight from personal experience that maybe makes us want to say 'this is so wrong'.

Lucy: I think the words 'singled out' really show what it's like to be treated in this way. And as you say, you were 'basically doing what everyone else was doing'. Why not just be allowed to get on with doing just that? Do disabled people need 'validation' from non-disabled people in the form of prizes?

Luke: Sounds like you were singled out too, but excluded rather than 'included'. And yes, if you spent your school years excluded in the way you describe, I guess you'd feel pretty neglected and be fully in favour of inclusion. Which I am too, just well managed inclusion, not 'inclusion gone skewed' as you aptly put it.

  • 6.
  • At 04:54 PM on 13 Mar 2008, Helen wrote:

Really interesting comments. Although, I have not seen evidence of this at my daughter's school, quite the opposite. With the really able children always taking main roles in assemblies etc. Felt compelled to reply as I have also just overcome going to school on my mobility scooter. This was a huge mental hurdle for both me and my daughter. As I am very vain I did choose one that looks like a mini motorbike,and not a conventional mobility scooter! it got lots of positive reactions from the children.

I feel the same way about the word 'special' and would enjoy it very much if the words fabulous, wonderful or outstanding could be substituted. Then we could have talked about my son being educated in fabulous schools, in wonderful classrooms, by outstanding education staff.

I never experienced my son having either healthy or ridiculous preferential treatment at school due to his diagnosis, perhaps because the special education professionals were often at odds with me over the ordinary opportunities I felt he deserved.

But I do know that a student a year or two behind him was treated preferentially with the worse possible explanation to his classmates, because we met a classmate of that boy at a fast food restaurant playground. The little girl was very sweet to my son, and wanted to introduce him to her mother because he was 'like' her friend at school who had Down syndrome, too.

She told her mom, "He has Down syndrome. So if he hits you real hard, don't do anything about it ~ he can't help it. Kids with Down syndrome have violence problems."

I don't know who was more horrified, the other mom, or me. My son was patiently explaining 'people are not for hitting' but the other mom was too busy pulling her daughter away from our table to listen.

My son turned to me and said, "That was weird."

Amen to that.

I have been appropriately punished for despising the word 'special' in earlier years by volunteering to edit a website with that word displayed prominently, and not in people first order, either. And then there was the book title... but that's another story.

Give 'em heck. And hang in there.


  • 8.
  • At 02:16 PM on 14 Mar 2008, Scotty wrote:

Schooling can only be truly inclusive if teachers have received the appropriate training, and have gained experience, to provide the level of education that each individual in the class needs. This includes dealing with children and young people who have disabilities or conditions which seem to disrupt order in the class. But that all costs money...

Helen: Showcasing non-disabled kids and leaving disabled ones in the shadows is not acceptable either. It's just that here we have a problem that not many seem to pick up on (certainly not the teachers anyway) in that deliberately putting the emphasis on children with disabilities causes resentment, and possibly even emotional harm to the children they are trying to protect. Your scooter sounds very cool. Mine, sadly, is not but so far all my son's friends have been nothing but straightforward in their curiosity. Kids are so refreshing and ultimately have the most finely tuned awareness of all.

Pam: That's horrible. What a way to convey disability to kids - giving a condition violent connotations that are unjust and prejudiced. Oh, and being punished, appropriately or not, for 'despising the word special' also seems very wrong to me.

Scotty: Yes it costs money and you are right to say it takes training to get inclusion right. I think it ultimately takes great skill on the part of each individual teacher to manage a class, whatever its make-up, effectively. But unless people make a noise about issues like this, I fear that there are many among the teaching profession who may not even see 'inclusion' in the way I've described it as a problem.

  • 10.
  • At 01:17 AM on 16 Mar 2008, Elizabeth wrote:

The start of this article struck a chord. When I was at high school there was a girl in our class who used a wheelchair. She had a helper, but this helper didn't cause problems as she helped other children in the class as well. The problem that occured was that the teachers would give this girl preferential treatment. For example, we once had a class detention, and the girl was not required to stay. This definitely didn't help relations with the girl, but was the fault of the teachers not hers.

Elizabeth, this is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. To my mind a class detention is a class detention. As in the whole class. How can a child who uses a wheelchair feel truly part of things, whether good times or bad (and nothing unites a class like a class detention) if they are shielded from punishment due to misguided protectionism? Totally the fault of the teachers. And it's sad to hear again that it caused misplaced resentment towards the child involved.

Just wanted to chip in and say that my schools in the rural USA had a similar attitude: It was the 'special' bus for the 'special' kids, etc.

There was a common joke that went something like, "You're so stupid, you should ride the special bus!"

Even as a very young disabled kid, I found that insulting.

How sad that school can't be a place where kids with disabilities experience inclusion in a positive sense, and then go on to experience the same inclusion in adult life. Being excluded, ridiculed, ostracised, 'special', from a young age must set you up to expect it when you are older. And, only because I've had a tough day and lots of pain and exclusion type experiences at the shops on my scooter, yes it does indeed happen in adult life. Would love to be more upbeat. Not everyone is as rude as the man in the post office, I suppose.

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