Growing up as an undiagnosed autistic child, I faced many challenges in the general education I was provided with, but since I was believed to not have had any mental or neurological abnormalities, my teachers dismissed my eccentric behavior as misbehavior. It was difficult for me to relate to my peers, so my only friends were those who were either also autistic or had severe learning difficulties, all of whom were students in the special education system. I believed that special education was exactly what I needed; it provided therapists and a simpler curriculum. As I got older, however, I began to see how special education was nothing short of dysfunctional; “low-functioning” students were deprived of an education, and instead were used as less-than-human laborers of the school, and “high-functioning” students were patronized and shamed for their differences. Things didn’t change in high school, either; one of my closest friends during my freshman year was a special education student who had various learning disabilities, including mental immaturity. After chatting with her about our plans after school, her aide approached me and pulled me aside.
“You don’t have to take care of her,” Sternly demanded the aide, “That’s my job.”
What was this about “taking care of her”? She was my friend! Her aide, also a special education instructor, had failed to recognize her as a human being and instead saw her as a burden. This catalyzed an uncomfortable conversation between my friend and me, as I couldn’t help but ask her how exactly the school system was treating her; she took no generalized classes and wasn’t even allowed to have lunch with us, so I had no point of reference to begin with. What she told me was utterly disturbing.
Her typical day consisted of performing janitorial duties, such as cleaning tables and floors. Any behavior indicative of her disability, such as self-stimulation, prompted her to be scolded. I spoke to other special education students, and the answers seemed nearly identical; they were not only being deprived of an education; they were being deprived of their humanity.
I was lucky to have not been diagnosed until high school, as I, too, would have been deprived. Many of my peers in special education, despite being of equal intellect to me, were learning material that generalized classes had learned two or three years prior, and many students who had more severe learning disabilities were not learning sufficiently, as lessons moved too fast for them.
Often times we discuss the flaws in general education without considering the even worse flaws in special education. Many of these flaws are present in both, such as the use of a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum, but special education suffers from its own set of flaws; students, despite being treated as inferior to neurotypical individuals, are expected to behave on-par with their peers. A quick Google search yields hundreds of reports, both past and current, detailing the horrors that special education students face on a daily basis, both emotional and physical abuse, from their own teachers.
Special education is, by all means, necessary, but certainly not in the state it’s in now. Special education teachers themselves should be educated, particularly in terms of how mental and intellectual disabilities work and impact their students’ lives, and special education classrooms should be highly regulated, even more so than a generalized classroom. Students should be encouraged to learn at their own paces, and provided with ample opportunities to succeed, rather than be treated as slaves to the staff. It’s imperative that students are not shamed for their disabilities, and are allowed to safely and healthily express themselves and their differences; forcing autistic people to conform only leads to frustration and self-hate. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 6.7 million students are enrolled in special education; reform in special education is a far more imperative issue than most consider. Though the steps we would need to take to truly form special education into a safe, healthy, and productive institution seem immense, it all starts with recognizing special needs students as equals to their peers; everything else will follow suit.