Special Education 332 (Education and Inclusion of Individuals with Special Needs) has been enlightening for me as a secondary mathematics educator. In the beginning of the semester, my feelings towards special education were those of apathy and insensitivity. I now understand that my feelings were due to my lack of knowledge and my judgment based on stereotypes. I always knew that making fun of students with learning disabilities was wrong. However, I never felt that inclusion of special education students in general education classes was plausible or made sense.
I felt that special education students belonged in their own classrooms; and that is why we have special education educators. As a prospective secondary mathematics educator, I felt that it was unfair that I would have special education students in my classes. I would rationalize my attitude by saying that I signed up to teach “normal” students, and that the special education students were not my problem or responsibility. I did not want to deal with them. I did not see them as individuals who seek meaning through learning.
As a constructivist, my goal as an educator is to provide students with meaning by imparting knowledge. As I reflect on my feelings towards special education students, I ask myself why do I not see them in the same way. If they are students as well, why do I discriminate against them? Why is it, when I think about teaching students with learning disabilities, I get uncomfortable? It is due to my lack of knowledge of students with learning disabilities. It was not until I saw the movie (before our class) “I Am Sam”, my thoughts about people with learning disabilities started to change.
The movie changed my perception that mentally challenged individuals are strange by nature because they do not seem to understand when people talk to them and is different from myself. The movie showed me that they do comprehend information, have feelings as I do, and most importantly, that I have wrongly stereotyped their differences. This course not only gave me the knowledge I needed to understand students with learning disabilities, I was also able to empathize with these students through active participation in the sensitivity activities.
Participating in the activities during our class was eye opening; I was able to have a taste of what it was like for people with learning disabilities. I always believed that there was something wrong with people with learning disabilities, and thus classified them as abnormal. The activities made me realize that with their learning disability aside, they were no different from me. People with learning disabilities had their strengths and weaknesses, and I had mine. The activities, without fail, made me frustrated.
I wanted to lash out at the world, and I always wondered why students with learning disabilities had emotional problems. I came to realize that people with learning disabilities live with their disabilities for the rest of their lives. That these sensitivity activities were only temporary for us, but it was reality for those dealing with the disabilities. This is what changed me the most, realizing this simple truth. Throughout my years at Lehigh, I have proclaimed that I have a passion to teach, to show students that mathematics is not difficult, and that they are able to understand mathematics.
However, when it came to special education students, my philosophy changed, due to their learning disability. I was ignorant to the special education movement of inclusion, because I feared the idea of teaching students who were not “normal”. I use the word normal in quotations because I now realize that special education students are like anybody else, and that we, special and general education students alike, are all normal. There is nothing wrong with special education students. Special education students are individuals who desire to learn.
My feelings towards special education students have also changed through my counseling psychology class. In the class I learned that every student, whether they are homosexuals, rape victims, Jewish, Christian, or special education students, are students. Every student should not be discriminated because of who they are; rather they should be treated as children who need to learn. I was annoyed to find out that students, who had special needs, were included in classes where teachers were not trained or educated and therefore did not know how to instruct these students.
I strongly believe that the special education movement of inclusion will succeed only if general education educators become aware of what it means to have learning disabilities and understand the concept of universal design. One of the greatest tools that this class has given me is universal design. “Universal design for learning is a process for considering the needs of all students in the classroom… and designing curriculum, instruction, and evaluation with sufficient flexibility so that each student benefits” (Turnbull, Turnbull, Shank, and Smith, 2004).
I will not be able to teach my general education class with special education students in it, by using universal design to teach everyone. I believe that this tool is the most powerful one that will advance the inclusion of special education students in general education classrooms movement. Fortunately, I was placed in a classroom (for my pre-intern teaching experience) where there was a student who had learning disabilities, and was included in a general education classroom. I was able to experience having a special education student in a general education classroom.
Through this experience, I was able to get to know the student, and saw that he was an awesome kid. I liked him so much because despite his IEP’s, he impressed me with his determination to learn and get good grades. He was a special education student who sought meaning through learning. My transformation became most apparent to me in writing my advocacy letter. I wanted to condemn the publisher of the Website and give him a piece of my mind. How dare he condone such blasphemy? Does he not see the damaging affects that his Website has on the special education community?
What I did not see was that I was just like him once. I was also ignorant and apathetic towards students with learning disabilities. Even though, I understand special education students better than I had in the past and empathize with them, I must be careful on how I educate others. How can expect others to listen to me and change their views if I do it in a way that makes them defensive immediately? I have to be sympathetic towards those once in my position, and must communicate myself to produce a change in their view of students with learning disabilities.
Furthermore, I must not become disillusioned into thinking that I have learned everything about students with learning disabilities and that I have done a complete one-eighty in my view of these students. There was several times where I caught myself using the term retarded, in describing something that was unintelligent. I must understand that my advocacy towards this issue will only grow if I continue to find out more about learning disabilities, to watch what I say, and to be careful when trying to teach others to change their views. Overall, I must admit that I have been blessed from taking this course.
I feel that I have grown throughout the course of the class, where I once stereotyped students with learning disabilities to understanding students with disabilities. Many people judge and classify what they do not understand, and through that ignorance is birthed. I am thankful that I have taken this class as I have become aware of my ignorance and have a deeper understanding and acceptance of those with learning disabilities, inside and outside of the classroom. References Turnbull, R. , Turnbull, A. , Shank, M. , Smith, S. J. (2004). Exceptional Lives: Special Education in Today’s Schools. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.