Educating People
with Disabilities

By: Josh Gotwalt

In 1972, an intrepid reporter named Geraldo Rivera (you really get the mustache when you see a 1972 picture of him), then a reporter for WABC-TV, conducted a series of investigations at Willowbrook State School, an institution for children with intellectual disabilities on Staten Island. The children he found there were described as “living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo.” The expose’ won a Peabody Award for Rivera and more importantly the publicity generated by the case led to the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  This legislation sought to redress the fact that many state laws explicitly excluded children who were blind or deaf, and children labeled “emotionally disturbed” or “mentally retarded” from attending public schools. Willowbrook was not an anomaly.  Previous to IDEA many of these children lived at state institutions or were “warehoused” in segregated facilities and received little or no effective instruction.  Under IDEA, children with disabilities are guaranteed a “free and appropriate education” in the “least restrictive environment” that is appropriate to the individual student’s needs. Legislative attempts to improve special education have continued since the 1970s.  In 2004 the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) placed an emphasis on special education and created financial incentives to states that improve their special education services.  As a condition of these incentives, NCLB required that states create assessment levels for special education students aligned to standards for students enrolled in general education.

The days of Willowbrook are now over and special education services in the United States are among the best in the world.  However, special education is still a fairly nascent initiative and many problems remain.  A New York Times article, Educating Donovan, from a few years back does a great job of painting a picture of what a special education classroom actually looks like. The eponymous Donovan “cannot walk, does not speak and cannot feed himself or see much beyond shapes and shadows. He has trouble with tasks most children master in infancy, like opening and closing his eyes on command. Occupied much of the time by his own inner world, he does not respond consistently to his own name.”

What does a free and appropriate education look like for a student like Donovan?  How, as required by NCLB, can Donovan be assessed in a way that is aligned to general education standards?  Are general education academic standards appropriate for students like Donovan or should we be emphasizing functional skills? These are among the issues that special educators grapple with each day, equally enabled and frustrated by well-intended but often burdensome State and Federal policies. Operating beneath the flurry of policy are teaching aides, like the Mr. Adams tenderly depicted in the article, who care for our special needs students in intimate ways every moment of the school day.  Although special education remains imperfect, we can be proud as society of the progress we have made in providing for the needs of these, our most vulnerable citizens.