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I recently published a piece titled “How special education is a prime example of our unhealthy ‘obsession with conformity’” that was written by Soyoung Park, an assistant professor in equity and diversity in special education at the University of Texas at Austin, and that said in part:

Our education system is an enterprise designed to “fix” children who do not fit the norms of school. These norms are based on a white, middle class, able-bodied culture. Children learn from a very young age that if they are different — in their behavior, way of thinking, language, etc. — they will fail.

She then pointed to special education in U.S. schools as a prime example of a lack of diversity. This post takes strong issue with her argument.

It was written by Andrew Wiley, an associate professor of special education at Kent State University; Dimitris Anastasiou, an associate professor of special education at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale; and Jim Kauffman, professor emeritus in special education at the University of Virginia.

By Andrew Wiley, Dimitris Anastasiou and Jim Kauffman

The recent opinion piece by Soyoung Park titled “How special education is a prime example of our obsession with conformity” misrepresents the purpose and function of special education, and, in so doing, fails to advance efforts to respond appropriately to all forms of diversity in schools.

Park links discrimination against transgender people with the practice of special education in schools. In fact, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law requiring special education) was major civil rights legislation to address discrimination against students with disabilities, who were historically excluded from appropriate public education in the United States.

In addition, Park makes several sweeping claims that undermine special education as a field and its raison d’etre that are unsupported, or based primarily on her anecdotal observations.

While Park correctly objects to discrimination by the Trump administration against transgender individuals and people outside of the dominant culture, she erroneously compares these with special education, apparently unaware of the false equivalence of the two forms of diversity.

An irrelevant premise (social and systemic discrimination against transgender individuals and minorities) is used to unjustly attack special education. All diversity is not the same. Failure to recognize the meaning and range of disabilities and how disabilities differ from other kinds of diversity has tragic consequences. Park’s arguments taken to their logical conclusion promote social injustice. The main purpose and function of special education is to maximize learning for students with disabilities. Although we are upset with several forms of discrimination by the Trump administration, we are equally upset by Park’s critique of special education because it devalues hard-earned educational protections for students with disabilities.

Repeating standard anti-special education rhetoric, Park claims special education treats disability like a disease and is “obsessed” with “fixing” students’ differences and forcing students to conform.

Crucially, Park makes no distinction between “learning” and “conformity,” such that teaching students to read text “the right way” is presented as an example of “obsession with conformity.” Thus, in the name of “embracing diversity,” schools must eschew any effort to improve students’ abilities to communicate, to solve math problems, to participate in a lesson, to make friends, to feed themselves, even to read skillfully! Are all efforts by special education teachers to help students with disabilities examples of intolerance or “disdain for diversity?”

Disability has unique implications for education that, if ignored, guarantee unjust treatment of students with disabilities. Historically, the discriminatory exclusion of students with disabilities has occurred in two ways — exclusion from public schools and, for those students with disabilities who were not physically excluded, the refusal to provide instruction and other services responsive to their individual learning differences.

In education, not responding differently to learners with exceptional learning needs — as required by federal law — is discriminatory. Not acknowledging differences among diversities and their implications for education leads to unseemly conclusions, like the idea that special education is “designed” to punish or stigmatize difference. Such a claim does a major disservice to generations of stakeholders who have fought for the civil rights of students with disabilities. Pointing out instances of special education practiced badly is one thing; condemning the whole endeavor is quite another.

Students with disabilities have a right to a free and appropriate education and to services that mitigate how their disabilities may be adversely affecting their educational performance. Under IDEA, these services should be individualized to the student. Park’s distorted caricature of special education (e.g., “fixing” children, obsession with conformity) implies discrimination against students with disabilities.

In reality, special education is a system of services designed to promote social justice. Nothing is more unjust than the same and invariant educational treatment of people with exceptional learning needs.

Park seems to perceive embracing diversity as indifference to special learning needs of students with disabilities for the sake of a patina of equality. This is not only morally unacceptable but also very convenient for the political forces that pursue cuts in public school expenditures and withdrawal of the state from any special or additional educational service for students with disabilities.

The tragicomedy here is that these old and befuddled efforts to do away with special education are repackaged and resold as the new. Park’s ideas align with these very reactionary old notions (back to the nonrecognition and nonprotection era for students with several types of disabilities) in a way that, if widely accepted, will hinder the evolution of the truly new.

In our view, the real new reflects efforts to make special education more responsive to the special learning needs of students with disabilities by advancing the use of evidence-based practices in special education as well as meaningful social inclusion and access to appropriate instruction. No matter the theoretical start point (e.g., applied behavioral analysis, Piagetian or Vygotskian approaches, cognitivism, information processing theory, social learning theory, systems theory), data tell us what creates or increases learning and social capabilities within a context of human dignity, and also provide an objective way to evaluate educational philosophies.

To do science in education, we must deal plainly, logically and ethically with differences between diversities and their implications for teaching and learning. Ex cathedra “theorizing” (i.e., speculation outside of practical school experiences such as teaching) may lead to binary and magical thinking — for example, concluding all diversity deserves the same response. We need theories that are testable, confirmable and refutable based on reliable data, as well as clear and rational argumentation, so the logic of the concepts involved can be followed by policymakers and the public.

Disability is, indeed, another form of diversity. But it is a unique kind of diversity that cannot be lumped with other diversities when it comes to education. If we want to respond to diversity in learning in schools in a way that furthers social justice, then we must have special education.