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?


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