Why Special Education?

The beginning

My first recollection of having any interest in special education comes from my early elementary school years.  I was in first or second grade standing at my school’s playground fence looking across the road at another playground.  This playground, however, had a whole group of adults playing on it.  In my eight year old mind, I was thinking why in the world do these adults have a better playground than we do and why do adults have a playground anyway?  In retrospect, I realize that the building across the street was either a sheltered workshop or a day program for people with disabilities and their break happened to be at the same time our recess was.  At the time, I made the decision that I wanted to work at that place because those adults got to play! Since this was during the mid-seventies, the birth of special education in public schools, I don’t have any sort of memories with kids with significant disabilities, or any disabilities at all for that matter, in my school travels until high school. 

My senior year in high school I started to volunteer in the “Diversified Occupations” (DO) department thanks to Mrs. Peggy Llewellyn. I was more aware of students receiving special education services in my high school.  Since this was the 1980’s students with significant needs were in the public schools, but much like my high school, they were “in the basement”.  The DO department I volunteered in was in the vocational wing of the high school and most of the students didn’t venture far from that area for classes.  I had always known I was going to be a teacher and by this time I had decided that I was going to be a special education teacher.  I spent three periods a day volunteering in the DO department.  I was so lucky to have three very different types of classes that I worked with. It gave me a perspective that would forever impact how I look at student with disabilities and life in general. 

The first class of the day was a math class with students with intellectual disabilities.  This class was the only one that I knew of that was held in the mainstream flow of the school.  It was still in the vocational technical wing, however, it was at the entrance of it.  I really was a paraprofessional for the teacher and a positive peer model.  I helped kids with their math, I talked with them, and I learned a lot from the teacher! It was because of him that I became a board member for the local organization for people being moved out of institutions. With time and age, I have forgotten the name of the organization and the teacher, which is very sad because both influenced me so much in my life’s journey. I was the person in charge of student volunteers for the spring Special Olympics that year. The second class I volunteered in had three young men in it.  All three had very significant disabilities.  The class was a functional skills class that was teaching the guys how to wash their faces, brush their teeth, make their bed, and use the kitchen.  Exactly what we would call “old school special ed” today.  The third experience was one on one with Donald. Donald was a young man with a significant intellectual disability. I don’t know how old he was except to say he was at least my age if not older.  Donald and I worked together to learn how to write his name. 

I can point to very specific things in each experience that shaped my beliefs about education, learning, social interactions, and disabilities.  The math class had a mix of students in it, if I remember correctly about 8 I think, who ranged from looking just like me to not just like me.  The math was addition and subtraction so I was able to help anyone who needed it but that part of the experience is not what stands out in my memory. There are two students who impacted me tremendously.  One was a girl, younger than me that I worked with, almost every day.  It seems to me we worked on the same skill over and over and over again. I don’t remember either of us getting frustrated or giving up and looking back on it now, I suspect that is why the teacher had me working with her!  As a teacher now, I can see how he might have been very frustrated with the lack of progress.  The instruction was the key to what we were doing.  I had no idea how to break a skill down at that point, but I understood that there was something not right in what we were doing.  I am sorry to say that we did not master the skill that year, however, the impression of not being able to teach something to someone who so wanted to learn sticks with me today. 

There was a young man with Cerebral Palsy in that math class as well.  He used a walker and moved from class to class by himself so I would walk with him from math class up to the DO department between the periods, just because we were going to the same place.  He changed classes the same time as everyone else in the building so the hallways were crowded. He managed just fine moving from place to place. He did have a stereotypical gate when he walked and his speech could be difficult to understand.  One day we were going by the band room and he accidentally bumped a guy. He said he was sorry, but the guy and one of his friends started to laugh at him and pick on his walking and his speech. I was so mad!  I told the two of them to cut it out and to treat others the way they wanted to be treated and I apologized to my friend for the guys. It happened so fast that I don’t remember the guy’s reaction and I don’t remember my friend’s reaction, but I do remember thinking that stuff like that was wrong and I needed to do something about it.  To this day, I can’t stand it when people tease or pick on others.  I am quick to put a stop to it and I now try to do it in a way that teaches respect to both parties. 

The three young men in the functional skills class were probably the best teachers I ever had.  One of the guys was over six feet tall and over 200 lbs. While I didn’t know it at the time, I am certain that he had autism.  He was non-verbal and had an intellectual impairment.  Like many students with his disability, he communicated his wants and needs in very physical ways.  He would jump up and down and flap his arms and he would yell and grunt at people.  He would grab what he wanted and pull you to where he wanted to go.  As an 18 year old student, I had never experienced anyone like him before and honestly he scared me in the beginning.  The first time he got very upset and started to jump, flap, and yell I was so taken aback that I didn’t know where to go or what to do!  The teacher in that class calmly responded to him and he calmed down. The teacher was young and closer to my size than his and she just responded to him.  She didn’t show any fear or disdain for him.  She simply talked to him.  From that day forward, I modeled her behavior.  That doesn’t mean that there were not times that I was scared as all get out that I was going to get hurt (I never did) and that I understood what skills were supposed to be taught to him to give him other ways to express himself, but I did understand that he was a person that deserved respect for who he was.  His intent was not to hurt someone or to be a “bad” person. His intent was to get his wants and needs met. It just so happens that those socially inappropriate behaviors were the only skills he had to do that.

Donald taught me all about positive reinforcement.  He had been working on writing his name for so long that he was not interested in doing it anymore with me!  The idea of using stickers with him for every letter he wrote was something that just occurred to me, or so I remember. I don’t think anyone told me to do it, I think I just did it.  Every day we practiced and every day he got better and better at writing. I showed Mrs. Llewellyn and I remember her being surprised that I had put the stickers in place and she was happily surprised about Donald’s progress. I had told Donald, that if he got a certain number of stickers we would go across the hall to the culinary classes’ restaurant for dessert.  He loved it!  I had never had lunch or dessert in the restaurant before and I was nervous about going there and taking Donald there.  Honestly, I didn’t know if other kids were going to say anything to us or if Donald was going to behave while we were there, so I was a bit scared of the day that I was going to have to take him over for dessert.  The power of the reinforcer was there for me also.  The closer and closer Donald came to getting the number of stickers he needed the more nervous I got and the more excited he got.  The night before we were going to the restaurant, I don’t think I slept very well, but I got up in the morning determined to do what was going to be hard for me because Donald had done what was hard for him.  The power of Donald’s excitement and happiness allowed me to overcome my fear and nervousness and do what I had promised we would do.  Was I still afraid and nervous the entire time we were in the restaurant? Sure was! But I never let Donald see it and I didn’t let it stop me from enjoying my dessert with him!  Reinforcement is very powerful!

The last experience that really shaped that kind of person I am and the type of teacher I am was the death of Mary.  Mary was 20 years old and she had Down’s Syndrome.  I don’t remember exactly how I interacted with her in classes, but I did know her.  When she died I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do or say.  I had lost friends in my class the previous years, one to suicide and two to a car accident. I had a friend who had been hit by a car, a friend with cancer, and a friend with a heart condition and all three of them had come close to death but had survived. My impression of death at 18 was simply young people die because of things that they do to themselves (suicide, stupid driving, etc.) or they come close to death through illness or accident and survive.  People my age did not die of “natural causes”. Mary died of “natural causes”.  I couldn’t wrap my head around it.  I remember asking Mrs. Llewellyn a couple of times, what happened? Why did that happen?  It was the first time I realized how frail life is. How no matter what you do, sometimes children and young adults die because their bodies just can’t go on any longer. 

Now, thirty-three years later, these experiences are as clear in my mind today as what I just ate for breakfast.  Here’s what it means to me today:

  • Breaks from work are really important. Taking a break and playing are good for the mind and the soul.
  • Everyone belongs and it’s our job to make sure that all people have the ability to share their strengths and their lives with others. 
  • Everyone has an important role to play in this world.  It’s our responsibility to help a person discover what that role is and how they can play it.
  • ALL children can learn.
  • Instruction matters!!! If the child is not learning, I MUST change MY instruction! It is not the child’s or the parent’s or the system’s fault that they are not learning. My instruction is the key to a child’s success so don’t give up! Find another way.
  • Be kind to one another.  Words and actions DO matter. 
  • Communication skills are essential skills.  Teach kids how to communicate effectively and efficiently so they don’t have to resort to other behaviors to get their wants and needs met.
  • Functional skills are as important as academic skills.
  • Everybody is reinforced by something and that is not a bad thing.
  • It’s ok to be afraid but don’t let fear ever stop you.
  • Life is a precious gift given to us for a period of time. Don’t waste time, energy, or worry on the small stuff and realize its all small stuff.
  • Always show people that they are respected and loved. Do your best every day with them. You don’t know if they will be back tomorrow.
  • Don’t put yourself in a position where you look back one day and say, “I wish I had…said goodbye, taken that last turn in the bathroom changing, been more patient, showed him I cared about him one more time”
  • Remember, we are never finished products. There is something to be learned every day.

Special education practices have come a long way since my public school days, however, I hope that some things will never change. Loving one another and respecting people for who they are and what they can do is a core belief necessary to be a really good teacher and, for that matter, a really good human being.  We can all learn a lot from the world of Special Education if we look.

Rebecca Chadwick is the owner of Capabilities for Life LLC. She currently works out of her home in Indiana, PA with school districts to improve instruction, communication, behavior, and life outcomes for children with disabilities.  Rebecca is passionate about teaching all children with a particular interest in reading instruction and real world preparedness. She lives with her husband of 29 years, three of her five children and her granddaughter. Yes, two have moved out into the world! The remaining three are getting there!