Thoughts on Disability

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As we discuss the challenges of creating school environments that fully integrate students with learning disabilities, it seems worth exploring the idea of disability itself. One of the most interesting things about teaching special education is seeing what a huge variety of students  are lumped into the category of “students with disabilities.” Under the umbrella of special education, I have taught students diagnosed with: dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, cerebral palsy, autism, emotional disturbance, and Asperger’s Syndrome– not to mention dozens of students classified simply with the catch-all diagnosis, “learning disability,” a category which can cover students with mild dyslexia as well as students whose testing reveals borderline mental retardation.

Students with these diagnoses present their teachers with wildly varied needs and challenges, but they are bound together by this one word: “disability.”  So what does it mean? For practical purposes, a learning disability is any condition that interferes with a student’s ability to access a school’s required curriculum. This is simple enough when a student suffers from a disability like deafness. Since this condition makes the physical aspects of learning inordinately difficult for students, the school’s responsibility is to offer the student accommodations (such as assistance with notetaking or sign language interpretation) that will ensure the student’s deafness does not prevent them from learning.

With diagnoses like “emotional disturbance,”  however, the problem of disability is far more complex. The federal guidelines define emotional disturbance as:

  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers.
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances.
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

With criteria this broad, one could argue that most adolescents who struggle in school suffer from emotional disturbances. So, is emotional disturbance an actual learning disability? Or, is it simply a catch-all label used to get students who display “inappropriate behavior under normal circumstances” out of mainstream classrooms? How do we distinguish the type of “pervasive depression” that qualifies students for special education services from other types of depression?

Moreover, if a student’s depression isn’t interfering with their learning, should a school be responsible for providing emotional or psychological support? If “pervasive unhappiness” constitutes a learning disability, how happy must a student be before they’re considered ready for mainstreaming? If a student is academically successful when receiving special education support, should those supports be withdrawn?

One final question: why does a society that cares so little for disabled and disadvantaged adults cast such a wide net when classifying students as disabled?