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Confessions of a Special Educator

National Inclusive Education Month – Commentary #6

By Sheila Bennett, PhD

6.SheilaBennettI was trained in what some might call the glory days of special education. The late 70’s and early 80’s were a time of palpable excitement and unprecedented emancipation. Following on the heels of changes in social justice and the opening up of human rights discussions, together with a still robust belief in expertise and answers, in particular by those with credentials, everything seemed possible and everyone was fixable. More than three decades later and having been a credentialed, brief case carrying expert, it is time to come clean.

I don’t believe anymore.

I don’t believe in fixing, because we are all complete. I don’t believe in measuring because it often leads to judgement and isolation rather than real benefit. I don’t believe in expertise as it is more often used as a mask to hide behind than providing legitimate contribution.

So, what do I believe in then?

What have thirty plus years of practice, a robust teaching and research career and multiple credentials taught me? It has taught me that isolation is wrong. Simple really. It is just wrong. I have had far too many discussions with individuals who stand behind the mask of expertise, discussing measurable data that proves that specialized segregated programming is essential and that to do otherwise would be against the best interest of the child. I have tried to understand the perspective of those who claim that segregation will fix what ails, even after the child has spent multiple years in the setting with no ‘measurable’ improvement. And while data comes in many forms, including assessment data, I have seen those numbers and percentiles relied on as the only and most important part of the information network, they become the nail to which all our tools transform into a single hammer.

I believe we do not need to change kids, we need to change ourselves. We do not need to fix kids, we need to provide environments that are diverse and multidimensional and that allow all learners to find a space to engage in learning. So as not to be accused of rampant naiveté, this is not a simple endeavour. It takes commitment, trust, communication, resources and, of course, hard work. It always strikes me as interesting that the amount of work we put into maintaining separate infrastructures, because it is commonplace, seems a reasonable everyday practice, whereas adding a dimension of differentiation to course delivery seems, somehow, an extra. In many ways the field of special education is complicit in the development of a mythology of expertise. We have for decades, with increasing knowledge and research, developed a jargon, a set of practices (particularly with regard to assessment), and a formidable body of literature and discourse that isolated those that are in the special education loop and those that are not. It seems ironic that one of the greatest challenges now faced is the demystification of those practices that we made seem so essential.

What if one entertained the idea that inclusion is a naturally occurring phenomenon that we complicated through misguided good intention?

Dr. Sheila Bennett is Professor of Education and former Chair in the Department of Teacher Education in the Faculty of Education at Brock University. She has presented widely, nationally and abroad, and has authored and coedited numerous books, chapters, monographs and articles including; Special Education in Ontario Schools; Community Living Ontario’s Community Inclusion Initiative Report on the Delivery of Education Services for Students Who Have an Intellectual Disability in the Province of Ontario; Including students with exceptionalities (Research monograph 16); and, A Canadian Perspective on the Inclusion of Students with Intellectual Disabilities in High Schools.

Her research centres on inclusion for students with diverse needs. Upon completion of her graduate work at the University of Toronto, Dr. Bennett held a number of school and school board based positions prior to joining the Faculty of Education at Brock. She brings her practical experiences as an educator to the field of research, providing a blend of theory and practice essential to bridge the gap between what we do in classrooms and how we understand those actions in the larger context. Dr. Bennett is a member of Inclusive Education Canada’s Network of Associates.