Back to School, Back to “Special Needs”–Or Are They?

Hello, readers,

For some parts of the country, school has been in session at least a few days now, maybe even a couple of weeks. Most parents, and even kids, will admit to some excitement about this season. As fun as summer is, the long days can get boring as options for activities get repetitive. The weather can wear on even the hardiest soul, and although camps and programs are usually great alternatives to kids vegging out in front of the television, they do cost money and mean car trips, packing, and other more tedious things. So when “back to school” pops back into everyday vocabulary, a lot of people of all ages may be relieved. But what if the kid going back to school this year is a kid with a disability?

I would venture to say that caveat changed the picture. Some parents may, as I write this, feel a headache coming on. Might be a full-blown migraine. I know, because even though I’m not a parent, I had a twinge of one before every school year, especially the years between elementary and middle, and middle and high, schools, which meant a school switch. You guys know the headache I’m talking about–the one that comes with thoughts like:

“Another year, another round of IEP meetings.”

“Will this teacher understand the accommodations my child needs?”

“Another year, another lecture about goals.”

“Is my teacher going to see what I can do, or only what I can’t, this year?”

“Last year’s teacher (or school) thought accommodations and modifications were nothing but trouble for them; will this year be the same way?”

Of course, it’s unfair that students with disabilities, their parents, and/or their guardians need to ask these questions. As we’ve covered before, accommodations should be seen as a natural part of education, not as a pain, and students are students, not automatons who exist only to meet arbitrary goals, or pedigreed dogs to be identified by their “papers.” Yet, it is fair for this question to be asked at all? That is, are accommodations a disability issue? Are they “special needs?”

You probably guessed that my answer is no. I say no for two reasons. One, I don’t believe there is such a thing as “special needs,” as it is defined in Disability World. (As in, Tasha is normal, but her twin Joanne is autistic, so she has “special needs” that must be met by “special” aides in “special” places). The truth is, everyone has needs, and because those needs are specific to each individual person, they could all be considered “special.” For example, some people would be offended if a teacher said, “Your son has a special need–he needs to sit at the front because he wears glasses.” Those people would equate “special needs” with some abnormality or brokenness. But the wearing of glasses is individual to that child, and so his need to sit at the front is a natural extension of that need. It does not equal abnormality.

Or, in keeping with one of the hot trends of today, let’s say a parent brings his or her son or daughter to school and says, “Nick is a vegetarian; does the cafeteria serve vegetarian dishes, and if yes, how often?” That’s not classically considered a “special need,” but it is a particular one that Nick and his parents have. He prefers to eat vegetarian meals; his parents therefore need to know if the school can accommodate or if they should pack his lunches. The question becomes then, why do we see glasses or a vegetarian diet as normal, but continue to brand disability-related accommodations as “special needs?” Why, in particular, do we do it, knowing that in most schools, being a “special needs kids” is as good as being cursed? (Although many schools are, thankfully, working to change this).

The other reason I say accommodations should not be considered special or a problem is that accommodations are not inherently a disability issue. Think about it. When you go on vacation, the hotel at which you stay is called your “accommodations.” The same for a summer camp or a retreat. To call someone “accommodating” generally means you notice they’re open to the needs of others and want to make sure everyone around them is comfortable and happy. To go back to the food example, many cruises will “accommodate” guests with either a meat-and-vegetables meal or a vegetarian choice. The word itself was not originally intended to denote only disability, but in so many cases today, that’s exactly what it denotes.

As an English aficionado, I learned pretty fast about denotation and connotation. Here’s a mini-lesson. Because the word “accommodation” is now used often to denote “disability” or “disability issue,” the connotation has changed, too. The connotation of “accommodation” used to be pleasant, like the mental picture of a plush hotel, or something that someone prepared just for you, a guest, a friend. But now, especially to the school systems in this country, “accommodation” too often means:

  • Extra expense
  • Extra work on the teachers
  • Possible troublemaking from the student, whose behavior will then be excused unfairly (yes, some teachers and administrators think like this, whether or not the student has ever caused trouble)
  • A distraction to the other, “normal” kids
  • A headache if the accommodations don’t get met one certain way, because then the parents or guardians will have the school’s head on a platter

Here’s a news flash: Kids pick up on these attitudes. Even the littlest ones can tell when an adult is stressed or upset, and it rubs off. So here’s an idea. Instead of treating accommodations like a problem, or apologizing for them, how about we treat them like what they really are–natural? After all, teachers, administrators, and staff: every student is a guest in your school. Some will need different accommodations than others, but all will need some type of accommodation or other. Why single out a specific group as the ones whose accommodations are somehow unacceptable or “trouble”? How about we learn to say, “Welcome–enjoy your time with us,” instead?


There is no D in “Team”: Making Physical Activity Fun for Kids with Disabilities

Hello, readers,

We’re still in back-to-school month, so in keeping with the school theme, today’s topic is recess–more specifically, physical activity. For many students, recess or its equivalents, such as phys ed, is anticipated during the school day. Some are passionate about sports and games, and so physical subjects quickly become their favorites. For some students, such as those with learning disabilities, recess or P.E. may be what makes school bearable. And no matter what kind of student a person is, we all need time in our day to move around, burn off energy, and focus our minds on something less structured than the three R’s.

However, for some students, physical activity, especially the fact that it’s required, is the bane of school. Of course, I’m talking about kids with physical disabilities here–CP, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, you name it. But physical activity can also be difficult for those with sensory disabilities, such as blindness or deafness. A learning disability that has a directional or perceptual component can throw a kid off his or her “game.” Kids on the autism spectrum may struggle because the playground and gym are inherently loud, crowded, and a general bastion of sensory overload. Children with intellectual disabilities may even be left out of games or sports because they haven’t been taught how to follow the rules in a way they can grasp.

Some students without disabilities will support their peers with them when it comes to physical requirements like gym class. For example, in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales, is a story of an elementary boy named Tyler who used a wheelchair, and whose peers pushed him around the gym to make it possible for him to participate in a relay race. That’s a good example of inclusion and how peers should respond to a teammate with a disability. Unfortunately, that kind of support doesn’t always exist. Many gym teachers or playground supervisors don’t know how to modify activities for kids with disabilities, or try, but fall short of what the student actually needs.

In my own experience, for example, a modified activity might fall far below the expectation for a student of my age. “Modified baseball” involved hitting a ball off a cone, repetitively. “Modified tennis” was bouncing a ball up and down on a flat, handheld net. Or sometimes, “modified” meant “stand off to the side and be scorekeeper.” I was usually isolated from the other students, sent out into the hall or into a separate room, to do these activities with the “help” of a “buddy”–usually a person in special education. And I’m sure I am not the only student whose P.E. or recess experiences were like this.

Again, I’m not saying my teachers were being malicious or not trying to help. But what does the experience I’ve just described really say? The subtext there consists of:

  • She can’t be expected to do much
  • Her same-age, same-intellectual-level peers won’t want to help, so she needs to be with the special education kids
  • She needs repetition In order to complete a physical task “successfully,” as we deem success

On the couple of occasions that same-age, same-level peers were pressed into service for me by the teachers (as in, I didn’t ask–they were made to do it), we would either all agree the activity was boring and quit, or the other girl would proceed to shame me and lecture me. I hated it, and if you’re reading this and have a kid with a disability, it might be that they hate that kind of thing, too.

The question becomes, then, what can be done to make recess and P.E., or even involvement on a school sports team, worthwhile for students with disabilities. The “system’s” answer might be to implement fitness goals through IEPs, but too often, that becomes another excuse to “police” the student, by keeping track of how much physical activity they’re doing, what they are or are not eating, and whether they are “succeeding” by the school’s standards. I do understand the argument for those goals–without them, who’s to say some of these kids would ever do anything physical? And isn’t it true that kids with disabilities are 30% more likely to be overweight or obese? (According to recent statistics, yes–but if that stereotype is driven home enough, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that’s no excuse to treat the student as if he or she is lazy and incompetent). Besides which, as I have said before, the goals an IEP team sets often measure success by their standards and don’t incorporate what is meaningful for the student.

I want to see more kids with disabilities anticipating the recess bell or their P.E. period. Here are a few ways I think that can happen. Parents, teachers, and especially gym teachers, listen up:

  • Observe like crazy. What does the student with a disability in your life seem to like, physically speaking? Maybe he or she likes dancing to music. Maybe it’s passing a basketball back and forth with a sibling. Maybe all you’ve ever seen them do is jump up and down–well, there’s an invention called a “jump rope”! If they love splashing in the tub, maybe the school has a pool, and your child or young adult could swim there, with teacher supervision. Which brings me to:
  • Really get “moving”–who says P.E. must only take place on campus? This might take some doing, but say the physical activity your SWD enjoys is swimming. Your school doesn’t have facilities for that, but the local fitness center, college, or community pool does. Or, another student with a disability likes walking or running, but your school doesn’t have a track or walking paths. This is where the administration or IEP team can help. Maybe there could be a statement in the IEP, okayed by the principal or other administration, that the student can go off-campus for a physical activity, with supervision of a teacher, parent, or trusted community adult who works at the alternate facility (school systems, do your background checks!) And…
  • Sometimes, physical activities that other kids find very easy can require a lot of exertion for their peers with disabilities. For example, half an hour of walking a track might normally burn, say, 300 calories, but for someone who has to put more effort in, that same half hour might burn twice as much. Therefore, on a case-by-case basis, it may not be necessary for the student to participate in P.E. five days a week (unless he or she would like to participate the maximum number of days. That’s absolutely fine, but teachers will need to be on the lookout for signs of over-training, and encourage the student to take rest or water breaks, or back off activities for awhile. Say, walking at peak exertion for 10 minutes, then slowing down for 5, then alternating back).
  • Recess and P.E. were not meant to be isolating experiences. Get peers involved. For example, maybe John, who has a disability, plays basketball with everybody else, but shoots toward a lower hoop. The modification would be that when he shoots, his team gets that number of points. Or, if John cannot physically play, someone shoots for him, thus awarding points for the team. If a class has a member who’s blind, maybe the kids can all wear bells on their wrists while running, or balls can be equipped with internal beepers so the student who’s blind can hear where they go. Teachers, whenever possible, teams should be a mix of kids with and without disabilities. Some kids, like kids with autism who do experience sensory overload, may need to play in a quieter area, such as an alcove within the gym. However, this should never be treated as an isolating consequence (“stay out of Sara’s corner, you guys.”) It should instead be treated as something someone on the team needs–just like short kids might need to shoot baskets from a different distance than tall kids.
  • “Gym class” is not code for “hall of shame” (readers, whether you have a disability or not, I’m sure most of you know what I’m talking about). But especially for students with disabilities, there needs to be a zero-tolerance policy on teasing and bullying on the field, on the court, and in the locker rooms. Teachers, that goes for you, too. Do NOT single out a student with a disability as incompetent, fat or likely to be fat, or otherwise “less than.” Yes, this happens, and it’s disgusting.

Part of giving students with disabilities the respect they deserve is making them feel part of every team they’re on. Recess and gym are no exception. So, let’s get out there and play this year–together. Let’s show these kids that when it’s time to play, they’re not “that disabled kid.” They’re every inch a part of your team.

Back to School, Back to Bullying Part 2: “Toxic” Teachers

Hello again, readers,

“Are you that @!#* dumb?”
“If you want to get rid of that belly, go for a walk; do you know how to? You’re lazy!”
“You are such a ‘tard.”
“You want to be called ‘normal’ and don’t even know what it is!”

One would expect comments like these to come from cruel classmates, right? Yes, one should be able to expect that, and deal with it. But as the title of today’s post indicates, sometimes a student–particularly one with a disability, for the purpose of this blog–is faced with a bigger threat than the person at the next desk. Sometimes, the teacher is the bully, and unfortunately, students with disabilities (SWDs or KWDs, if you recall yesterday’s abbreviation) can be their preferred victims. In fact, many of the stories of teacher bullying that regularly circulate through the media these days feature students who have been placed in special education for one reason or another. And before you say that those stories are extreme cases, allow me to inform you that according to several Web sources, such as and, only ten (10) studies have been conducted across the United States on bullying and KWDs. I shudder to think how many cases of bullying, especially by teachers, go unreported.

The comments with which I opened this post were directed at real-life special education students. The first was a fourteen-year-old Ohio girl named Cheyanne, who was sent to school wired with a microphone so her parents would know what the special education teacher and her aide were allegedly telling Cheyanne. The evidence that came back included these fine educators telling this girl that she was dumb, fat, and lazy, did not deserve friends, and didn’t even need to have her tests graded because she would automatically fail. Cheyanne was also punished by being forced to walk on a treadmill in the classroom for an undefined period.

The other student, a boy named Julio, was taunted by a special education teacher in ways that make me cringe. Julio said to this teacher, “Call me normal; don’t call me special.” The teacher’s response? “Do you even know what ‘normal’ is? You want to be called normal and don’t even know what it is…you’re such a ‘tard.” This teacher also told Julio that “I will kick your a–” and asked, “What are you gonna do about it, get a chopper and chop me?”

And let’s not forget about Tyler, the boy locked in a “quiet room” for allegedly having an autism-related meltdown. Or the six-year-old Louisiana boy with autism whose teacher thought it’d be a brilliant idea to duct-tape him to a chair. I could go on for days, but it’s more important that we deal with the meat of this issue: why it happens, and how to prevent or stop it.

We know from yesterday why some of these things happen–SWDs may be seen as targets because they cannot easily communicate with others or defend themselves, or they’re seen as having poor social skills. But here, with the teachers doing the bullying, the question becomes: Why are you, an educator who supposedly entered the field to nurture children, using your knowledge for evil? Because–and call me dramatic or extreme all you want–this type of behavior is evil. Why did you enter the special education field at all, if you were going to act this way?

I believe several reasons exist for this type of terrible situation. As a lover of all things detective-related, I want to try to get inside the head of a bullying teacher. It’ll be frightening for us all, I’m sure, but here we go.

Reason: The teacher mistakenly believed his or her job would be “easier” with special education kids. This takes us back to a stereotype of SWDs as somehow less intelligent than their peers. But again, that idea doesn’t even stand up in modern society. Today’s doctors and psychologists know, more clearly than ever, that an IQ is often just a rough estimate of intelligence, and that “intelligence” doesn’t have as much to do with your literacy or math skills as we once believed. Yet, special education teachers–not all of them, but a few, who give the rest of the profession a bad name–continue to operate under the delusion that disability = dumb, and dumb = easy. This type of teacher isn’t interested in educating anyone. He or she is interested in a combination of control and relaxation–that is, putting forth minimum effort to keep the kids quiet and occupied, which is where we get mindless tasks that SWDs are often subjected to, so that the teacher can then kick back and have some coffee. This type of teacher also uses punitive measures like “quiet rooms” because they are “easy,” or because he or she is angry that–whoops! Teaching children with disabilities is going to require more time and effort than previously anticipated!
Reason: The teacher thinks no one will ever know what really happened. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard or read a story like Cheyanne’s and Julio’s, where someone–a blogger, a news outlet, someone–explained that the teacher got away with what he or she did because the child did not use verbal communication or because people were used to not believing the child’s words. This is where communication becomes vital, folks. It’s not just a matter of convenience or even quality of life for the person with a disability. It could in fact be life-saving, or at least spare that person a lot of stress and agony. And for goodness’ sakes, I’ll say it again: REFUSE to believe the manipulation myth (see April 2012 archives). Toxic teachers, as I recently heard them called, prey on myths like the one that says, “Kids with disabilities are master manipulators.” Do NOT let them use this excuse to cover up bullying behavior. Ever.

Reason: The teacher believes that whatever he or she did or said is justified. In other words, when and if confronted, the teacher cites the child’s behavior as a reason. As in, “I can’t get through to him,” “She was screaming,” “He hit me,” and so forth. Now, I’d buy that–if we were talking about the interactions of a couple of preschoolers. But we’re talking about interactions between a child with a disability, and the adult who’s supposed to care for him or her. Now, if that adult gets physically attacked, then yes, by all means, call in the cavalry. But don’t, even if that child punches you in the face, take that as an excuse to lock them somewhere or threaten to “kick their a–.” That is what other teachers are there for, school staffers–not to cover your backside when you get in hot water for bullying students, but to back you up when nurturing those students does require authoritative responses.

So, now that we know some reasons why this happens, let’s talk about how to stop it. Unfortunately for Cheyanne and Julio, things reached the point where the bullying had to be caught on microphone and videotape. But I don’t believe that our kids’ schools should be so unsafe, and our teachers so toxic, that parents should have to send them to school “wired” every day. (Whether or not they’re wired thanks to sugary cereal is a whole other ballgame). So, some basic tips:

1. Get the whole story in any way that you can, from your child. This may come down to the need for outside technology, but hopefully, your child has other communication methods, such as typing, using picture cards, using a voice-recognition machine…something. Reassure your child he or she is not in trouble and will not be in trouble with anyone at school; you simply want to know what’s going on in there. Even though your child may display the classic “I don’t want to go to school” symptoms, they won’t tell you as much as words or pictures can.

2. Meet with the teacher first, as tempting as it might be to go in there with both guns blazing (unless your child has evidence of physical harm, such as bruising or bleeding–then see below). It may be that what your kid says is bullying, is a teacher who’s doing his or her best, but tends to run the class on the “tight ship” side. Or “She’s mean” could mean, “She makes me do stuff I don’t want to.” If you can, spend some time in the classroom, observing. You may find out that the “special education” curriculum is not so special after all–that the students are, for example, being asked to do tasks below their levels, or to meet arbitrary goals in which they had no say. No, that’s not bullying, but it is a huge issue, and if that’s what you find, or if you find abuse, then:

3. Go to your principal, superintendent, or school board. If there is true bullying in a classroom, it may have been going on for awhile because the teacher has good cover. Administrators can hopefully help you blow that cover. And if there is no bullying, but your child is having problems because of being labeled “special” and treated in an exclusive way? Then it’s time to document what you see and hear. Do your research. Get together with other parents who feel as dissatisfied as you do. And then, do everything you can to get your school to embrace inclusion, thus making students with disabilities part of the school community rather than strange “visitors.” We’re not on Star Trek,, and the students aren’t Vulcans.

What Will be Done?

School systems have different ways of dealing with bullying teachers. They may be placed on corrective “action plans,” or be monitored by supervisory shadows while in the classroom. It’s difficult for a teacher like this to be fired, especially if he or she is tenured, but it does happen. The biggest thing I can say to you is that if you’re in this type of situation, don’t give up. Fight for your student and the other students around them. Stay involved with your school system, especially with your kids’ teachers. Elevate the good ones, so that the ones who act in the way I described, will realize that they’ve been taken to school–and gotten an F in empathy.

Back to School and Back to Bullying? Why Kids with Disabilities are Bullied, and Why the Problem Persists

Hello, readers,

Yes, it has been a long time. Sometimes this happens, as I am not entirely sure what to write. I sometimes feel as though everything I could cover in this blog has already been covered. But then I remember three things: (1) I enjoy writing to you, (2) What is written in this blog needs to be said in some way, and (3) There will always be angles that haven’t been covered yet. So, in the spirit of back-to-school month (boy, I miss buying school supplies!) we have today’s topic.

It may be upsetting to you, because I know it was to me, that we need to cover this topic at all. The fact that kids with disabilities (KWDs) are often more likely to be bullied in school than other kids, is quite disturbing. What’s more, recent studies also show that no KWD is truly exempt. That is, some people think that a child who, say, uses a wheelchair, looks physically different, or displays stereotypical behaviors of autism or a mental disability, is more likely to be picked on. Therefore, kids with disabilities like dyslexia, dyscalculia, or ADD/ADHD are safe, right? Wrong! The truth is that in some cases, “invisible” disabilities are even bigger targets than visible ones, because they come out in ways that don’t immediately call attention to the fact that they are disabilities.

What do I mean by that? Let’s take this to the playground, shall we? I’ll use girls’ names since I think it’s unfair that boys are often cast as bullies in scenarios like this, and because girls can be downright cruel. If, for example, Claire sees Ramona and Josie bullying Vivian, who wears leg braces, she might go over to them and say, “Knock it off,” because she can see that it’s tougher for Vivian to walk away or defend herself. The disability is visible, and it’s obvious. But say instead that Vivian has dyslexia, and only the teacher knows what her disability is. To the rest of the class, including Claire, it may just look like Vivian can’t read or spell. So Claire might just join in the bullying if she feels like she can, or if she’s pressured to do it.

However, even if we know why students harass classmates with disabilities, at any age, I believe our knowledge can be part of the problem. For example, some parents, teachers, or administrators may become so vigilant about protecting students with “invisible” disabilities that they forget about the “visible” ones, and vice versa. Yet, there are far more insidious examples than this. For instance, let’s look at the reasons studies point out KWDs are bullied, and how knowledge of these reasons can become an issue unto itself.

Reason: Kids with disabilities often lack the communication skills to stand up for themselves.

Why the knowledge is a problem: Have these students been given any means to communicate? Or are teachers content to say “they can’t,” and then continue to let other students pick on these kids because they communicate through, say, gestures, grunting, or screaming? Or, in the case of children whose communication is known (say, a kid who’s Deaf and uses ASL, or a student who has access to an assistive technology device), do teachers (and other adults, too) assume that the child will take full responsibility for explaining the communication method, and thus, never be harassed? Most likely not. For example, even if a student has an assistive technology device that classmates think is cool, envy could arise. Harassment could come in the form of, “She uses that to cheat!” or, “Why can’t I try/borrow it?” even if the classmate has clearly said “no.”

Reason: Some kids with disabilities look different/use different modifications.

Why it’s a problem: The fact that classmates are absorbing the idea that this is “different,” wherein “different” = “bad,” is an issue. One of my sources describes this problem by saying that a KWDs needed supports “may disrupt class or get in the way of other students.” My heart squeezed at that one; my typewriters, computers, and printers were considered disruptions, and inconveniences to staff, all through school. Memo to adult members of any school community: By agreeing to educate a student with a disability (and thus, obeying federal law) you have agreed to place “convenience” secondary to that student’s needs. Now, yes, if a support might cause students to get hurt–say, if James uses a walker–then absolutely, he should be taught to stow it out of the way when not using it. But if you’re just upset because you have to hear clacking Braille writer keys or the voice of an assistive device? Really, how petty is that? Instead of shaming the student who needs support, either overtly or covertly, through your attitude, help your class get used to the presence of said support and help the student feel more a part of the classroom community.

Reason: Kids with disabilities lack social skills/may behave in odd ways

Why it’s a problem: Aside from the fact that any behavior is considered “odd” (don’t we all have those)?, what do we normally do with a student who’s considered to have “poor social skills” or “behavior problems?” Right–Segregated Classroom to the Rescue! Or not. Again, yes, some behaviors or quirks can be distracting, but by isolating these children and saying “they have no social skills,” you are putting upon them a self-fulfilling prophecy. You want to see those kids picked on, hanging around the fringes of recess or extracurricular activities? Then by all means, continue to label them social zeroes. If, instead, you’d rather see them interact like “everybody else,” keep in mind that no two people are exactly alike, and do all you can to facilitate natural, friendly interactions.

Reason: The kid with a disability may in fact be the bully.

Why it’s a Problem: Yes, according to Michelle Diament of Disability Scoop, this does happen. And if it does happen, what to do? Do what you would for any other bullying student. First, try to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing, and then respond with a natural solution. That is, if the student is bullying because he or she was bullied first, then it’s time to reevaluate the relationships among the kids in your classroom or school environment. If it’s because having a disability is stressful (say, he or she always acts out during math class because of dyscalculia) then work with the student to find ways to make “trigger” times easier. But do not–I repeat, do not–fall back on the options of segregation and shame.

Hopefully, any school personnel reading this is listening and agreeing. Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that the teachers are the bullies in this situation (stay tuned for my next post, on toxic teachers, for more on this issue). But for every bully out there, I would hope there is someone willing to examine what’s causing the harassment, and who knows that the “time-honored” traditions of Disability World won’t help matters.

No one wants any kid to be bullied, but I say we’ve overlooked the bullying of students with disabilities for too long. This school year, let’s make sure these students have “kid” things to worry about, such as which extracurricular club to try, who to play with at recess, or who to take to the prom.