“So this is special ed,” I told my classes on the first week of school. “How does everyone feel about that?”
As a third-year special education teacher in Baltimore City, I teach in the most restrictive setting, self-contained. All my students have moderate to severe disabilities and most of them have less than 40% of their classes in the general education setting. Their disabilities range from ADHD, intellectual disabilities, emotional disabilities, autism, and specific learning disabilities like dyslexia and dysgraphia.
In the past, my students have had very pejorative opinions towards special ed. It is associated with being “dumb.” Many of my students don’t like questionnaires that ask them about their disabilities. This is not meant to reflect poorly on my students, but meant to reflect the viciousness of many teenagers towards special ed. I have heard much more negative perceptions of special ed from students that weren’t my own, students who spend most of their time in the general education setting.
To me, it indicates a lack of maturity. But I had a lack of maturity as a special ed teacher in how I talked about special ed with my students too. I certainly knew how my students felt about it. As I have documented before, kids around the school would say viciously ableist phrases like “Ohhh, you’re in special ed! Does that mean you can’t read?” and “you’re in special ed! You’re dumb!”
And so during my first year, when one of my students asked me if he was in special ed, I beat around the bush. I completely dodged the question and said it was just a place where he got more help and support to benefit from more individual attention and a smaller setting.
Recently, I have been more firm, direct, and transparent about why my students were in a class with less kids and more supports. On the second day of school, I flat out told my kids they were in special ed. Some kids said “duh” and were not very surprised. But there were others who took it like it was the worse news in the world.
I told my students the preferred term in disability activism is the most direct one — that they had disabilities, not special needs. However, many students took that as even worse. “I don’t have a disability!” one student told me. But I had to stress that was the term we used now, and my students and I in my most crowded class had a transparent conversation about why special education was perceived as “bad” and the stigma and bullying that is often associated with it.
Some asked me what constituted a disability, and I went down the list: ADHD, emotional disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and autism.
One girl asked me if we could make the class being special ed our own little secret within the building. Another asked me what disability she had, and I said I would speak with her more in private. We had a group forum and discussion about our perceptions and stereotypes with a disability, and the next day, I planned a lesson about Elon Musk’s SNL skit where he opened up about Asperger’s Syndrome.
I had a student who could not stop laughing every time someone said “Asperger’s.” I confessed that “if I were 14 I probably would think the word sounds funny too,” but we moved on and talked about why Asperger’s isn’t used anymore when we talk about autism, and why Elon Musk got a lot of pushback from the autism community for using the term Asperger’s. Instead, doctors classify autism as a spectrum, a disability as level 1, level 2, and level 3, going from the highest functioning to the least high functioning.
The lessons were less me talking and students talking about whether they disagree or agree with the idea of a spectrum, and pushing back on many ideas in the reading. I didn’t quite know how to explain the whole idea of a spectrum, so I used the idea of the sexuality spectrum, the idea that sexual identity is a range of possibilities instead of a firm identification. I told them when I heard about the sexuality spectrum, I came away with the idea that “the majority of people are at least a little attracted to their own sex.”
This got everyone’s attention. While the girls were a bit more accepting and more in agreement with the whole idea of sexuality as a spectrum, the boys were not. But that dynamic between homophobia and masculinity is a conversation for another time.
Autism is also a spectrum disability, I explained. I checked for understanding — what were level 1, level 2, and level 3? My students understood the spectrum quite well, but one of my students said “it means you’re really slow” when I asked about level 3.
The whole class then had a conversation about the terminology we use when we talk about disability. I went down the list of terms and phrases we don’t use anymore that I’ve heard from students before: retarded, slow, autistic person (instead of someone with autism). The student who answered “really slow” for level 3 asked why all the nuanced terminology matters when they all mean the same thing. He basically asked why we have to beat around the bush, and a younger version of myself at his age would have probably agreed too.
But the words we use when we talk about disability matters. One girl pushed back on his statement and said “I know you get offended when people make fun of you for being in special ed, so you shouldn’t call people slow.” At that point, I stopped talking and merely facilitated and moderated the discussion, but another theme with Elon Musk is that he is one of the most successful and richest people in the world.
While I don’t like him much, there are students in my class who are obsessed with cars and love Teslas — the theme of the lesson was that if one of the richest people in the world had a disability, people with disabilities can be as successful, if not more successful, as people without disabilities. Everyone was in agreement with that, and I left the lesson with a smile.
The lessons were not perfect. There are statements about disabilities and attitudes I could have confronted about special ed less directly and more carefully. But I know if this is something I struggle talking about and my students struggle talking about, then other classrooms around the country go through the same thing.
I sincerely believe more classrooms need more education and discussion about disabilities and special education instead of beating around the bush and letting ableist attitudes go unchecked. It’s not only for us, but the culture of our schools, our classrooms, and most importantly, the next generation of this country.
Originally published on September 6, 2021 on Invisible Illness.
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