Thomas Hehir is professor of practice and director of the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs. In his new book, New Directions in Special Education, Hehir addresses the challenges of eliminating ableism in schools.
What do you mean by the term “ableism”?
Ableism is essentially like racism and sexism and homophobia. It’s societal prejudice against people with disabilities, some of which is blatant—like when disabled people aren’t able to attend an event because they use a wheelchair—and some of which is more subtle, such as the desire for disabled people to perform life tasks in the same ways as nondisabled people. In educational practice, this would be reflected in the desire for children with very little vision to read print as opposed to Braille; having deaf children read lips as opposed to signing; or having kids with physical disabilities spend an inordinate amount of time taking physical therapy so that they might walk—even if it’s just a few stumbling steps—at the expense of taking academic instruction.
How do attitudes toward disability shape the goals of special education?
Special education is adrift as a field. People are often confused about what the goals of special education should be. When I do workshops with special ed directors, and I ask what the goal of special education should be, I get 20 different responses from 20 different people. Which is unfortunate, because if you’re running a program, you should know where it’s going!
Special education is so individualized that people often lack the bigger picture of what we should be accomplishing for all children with disabilities. I believe that what we should be doing in special education is minimizing the impact
of disability and maximizing the opportunity
to participate in the world. All our interventions should be directed toward that goal.
One issue you emphasize in your book is the importance of accommodations, such as the use of taped books or digitized text. How is that different from making modifications to the curriculum?
Teachers often speak of accommodations and modifications as if they are synonymous, when they are not. Accommodations are often needed for children with disabilities. They offer children access to the curriculum but do not change the content that is taught to the child, whereas modification often changes the content. People are very quick to modify curriculum for children with disabilities, which reflects, in my view, an assumption that these kids aren’t capable.
It’s not that modifications aren’t appropriate under some circumstances. For instance, many children with mental retardation are not going to be on grade level in academic subjects. That doesn’t mean that they can’t profit from that subject, but it may have to be modified to the child’s level. For kids with learning disabilities, modification can be appropriate in reading instruction or spelling—things that are directly related to their disability—but not in other areas.
An example of inappropriate modification would be a child with a learning disability who is required to do fewer math problems for homework because he reads slowly, as opposed to giving him a taped version of the assignment and expecting him to do what any other child does.
When is it appropriate to include children with disabilities in classes with nondisabled children and when is it appropriate to pull them out?
Some activists who are seeking to improve the world for people with disabilities have viewed inclusion as a vehicle with which to do that. They feel that children who are educated with disabled kids are likely to grow up more accepting of disability, and there is some research that shows that that may actually be the case.
But some people who are very dogmatic about inclusive education don’t recognize the benefit of removal for certain kids. Sometimes being educated in the regular class doesn’t minimize the impact of disability. For instance, years ago I taught kids with severe learning disabilities at the high school level who were virtual nonreaders. I did not integrate these kids into general education English classes because they needed very intensive work in reading. Placing them in that environment would not have provided the opportunities for them to learn to read.
You have said that sometimes, with individualized education programs (IEPs), “more is less.” Can you say more about that?
If your goal is to minimize disability and maximize children’s ability to participate, you want to have a lot of focus in an IEP. That’s the only way you’re going to have real change and real opportunity. Let’s say you have an eighth grader who is dyslexic and is reading at a fourth-grade level, but at a rate that is one-third the rate of a typical reader. If you’re going to minimize the impact of his disability, you need intensive intervention around reading, and probably writing and spelling as well. But you also need to problem-solve around how that child is going to access science, social studies, or great books. Reading is a gateway skill, and what we find in many dyslexic kids is that their disability begins to have a cumulative effect on their achievement in other areas.
I see a lot of IEPs for these kinds of kids where they’re modifying the rest of the curriculum. You’ll see all kinds of goals in science and in math. These IEPs can go on forever! And what they’re going on forever about is dumbing down the curriculum. That’s a disservice. A better plan would be to give the kid specialized reading intervention and to make sure he has access to digitized text in the rest of his subjects, so that he’s learning at grade level.
What do you see as the potential benefits of standards-based education for children with special needs, and what do you see as the potential pitfalls?
Broadly speaking, I am a supporter of standards-based education because it forces people to confront the greatest ableist assumption in education, which is that kids with disabilities are incapable of achieving at a high level. The disability community has generally been supportive of standards-based reform for that reason.
But there are potential down sides here. Number one is high stakes. I think you have to differentiate between holding schools accountable for achieving high standards and holding kids accountable. If kids haven’t been given opportunities to learn, that can be inappropriate. There’s also the question whether the accommodations in test-taking are robust enough for children with disabilities. So it’s a complex issue.
What can schools do to create a more inclusive environment that does not reinforce ableism?
Generally speaking, the school should be accepting of the disabled children who would normally come to that school. Demographically, maybe 10 or 12 percent of kids will have disabilities. The vast majority of them will fall into four categories: learning disabilities, speech and language disorders, ADHD, and moderate behavioral and intellectual disabilities. That accounts for about 90 percent of the disability population.
So if you’re going to be an inclusive school, you have to look at two key areas: reading and behavior. You will need a more diversified approach to the reading program. Similarly, you should develop positive, consistent strategies for dealing with behavior and discipline. If from the beginning you are developing consistent approaches to behavior and interventions for all kids, not just for disabled kids, you’re going to be able to serve disabled kids better.
You should also consider as a faculty how you are going to make decisions around curricular accommodations and modifications. For instance, if primary-grade teachers make the decision to modify curriculum, it’s going to have a cumulative effect: those kids might not be able to pass a high school exit exam.
One thing that has emerged from the literature on inclusion is that in order to do inclusive education correctly, you have to deal with the issue of teacher isolation. Decisions around behavior, around reading, around curriculum accommodations and modifications, need to be made consistently across the grades.