Educating Students with Disabilities: Some (Not Me) Say It’s Not Worth It

In the case of students with disabilities—autism like my son Charlie and with multiple disabilities—what ought to be the main focus?  Is it academics or more functional areas like life skills and vocational training?  Keep in mind that many of these students will not be attending college and may only be able to work in sheltered workplaces, and/or assisted by job coaches.   Is that the way we should be thinking or are we undermining what these students might potentially learn by not ’rounding out’ what they are taught to include lessons in literature, in social studies, science?

An Enormous Challenge

This question is highlighted in a June 19th New York Times article about the struggles of public schools to teach students with multiple, severe disabilities. The plight of 20-year-old Donovan Forde is highlighted: as a result of a traumatic brain injury that happened when he was only 5 months old, Donovan cannot walk or talk. Should he be learning subjects like science and English, the curricula very much adapted to accommodate his cognitive disabilities?

Donovan’s mother, Michelle Forde, likes his special education high school, Public School 79, the Horan School, in East Harlem, where she feels he is welcome and cared for. But she wishes his teachers would spend more time working on his practical challenges, like his self-abusive habit of hitting himself in the face so hard that he has to wear thick white cotton mitts most of the time, even when he sleeps.

Instead of having him work on basic academic goals, like identifying shapes and coins, she wishes he had physical therapy more than 30 minutes, twice a week, because it is generally the only time during the day he is taken out of his wheelchair, except when an aide takes him to the bathroom to change him.

Troubling Comments

A quick glance at some (thankfully not all of) the comments to the New York Times article suggests—more than unfortunately—that many people have a long way to go as far as understanding why all students have the right to a free and appropriate public education. Writes one reader in a comment that over 300 people ‘recommended’ (I didn’t):

We are spending 5 to 10 times as much on students who will never be the backbone of society, never be able to consistently hold a job. Indeed, many will be shuffled off to expensive group-home settings. Many more will be wards of the State in other, less desirable ways. In our desire to do everything for everyone, state and federal politicians and lobbying interests have carved out special-niche mandates that significantly reduce our ability to serve those who will one day serve our country best.

Providing an education for students like Donovan and for Charlie is not a waste of resources. Far from it, it’s a sign of the humanity of our society and—I know I sound idealistic here, but so be it—of what sets our society apart, that it’s the law to educate students with disabilities.

My son Charlie can talk a little and he does not have any physical disabilities. As Charlie has gotten older, more and more of his learning has been what is called ‘functional’; has been about teaching him ‘skills’ that involve ‘self-care’ and ‘daily living’ (teeth brushing, household chores) and that, it’s hoped, might prepare him for some kind of job. He still receives speech therapy and occupational therapy, with the subject matter of both of these determined according to what might best help him in his day-to-day experiences, needs and interactions. 

Charlie does not read; he’s currently working on various sight words for places, things and the like. Since he was in preschool, teachers and therapists have been trying numerous methods and curricula to teach him the alphabet and reading. It was just a few years ago that Charlie mastered the alphabet (he is 13 years old). I still always feel the tug of hope: Maybe, maybe, and who knows but perhaps Charlie is able to read much more than he appears to, but just hasn’t revealed this yet to us. 

That is, Charlie is not being taught to read with a view towards reading books but to help him navigate the world a little better.  And isn’t that what reading is for, for many?

Still, I often feel a tug: Shouldn’t we be challenging Charlie more? Have we ‘given in’? Charlie is only 13 years old; isn’t it too early to have ‘narrowed’ his education down to teaching him the skills for a job?

And then I feel exactly like Donovan’s mother, who, as quoted in the New York Times, says ‘ “The only goal I had for him was when he was in the hospital after the accident, when the nurse told me he wasn’t going to live……He’s here, and he’s 20 years old. So he surpassed his goal. He’s alive.”’

Yes, Donovan is here and Charlie is here, as are so many students with disabilities and we need to make sure that they have access to the education that they need.  I believe the onus is upon us all to keep finding new and different ways to teach students with so many different needs, to do all that we can to help them learn and grow and achieve their full potential.

It’s the least that we can do.

Photo by the author (yes, that's a page from my son's IEP).


Hanan W.
Hana W8 years ago

Every human being is worth of development, each with his or her particular potential. And, who can judge this potential. I have friends whose child suffered brain damage from a fever in his infancy. The medical experts advised my friends to institutionalize their child because the brain damage was such that he would only be a vegetable. Contrary to the prevailing medical opinions, my friends did not abandon their son. They provided him with love, education, and a nurturing environment. Today their son has excelled. Among other achievements, he speaks two languages and is quite capable of caring for himself 20 years later. Albeit he walks with a limp and has a speech deficiency, he is self-sufficient in every way. Again, every human being is worth of a chance to develop to the fullest and know one can possibly know what their fullest potential really is. They must be given support and opportunities to bloom!

Hanan W.
Hana W8 years ago

Every life is worth nurturing. I have friends who have a child who suffered brain damage due to a fever in his infancy. The advise of the medical profession was to institutionalize the child because he would be noting more than a vegetable. Contrary to what the doctors said, the child developed into an achieving young man who speaks two languages and has achieved academically. Albeit he has a speech impediment and walks with a limp, he has developed handsomely. If I can reiterate, every life is worthy of development spiritually, mentally, physically....

Avery E.
Avery Ecklein8 years ago

With Indepentent Living Skilling (ILS), cost of care of disabled indivial over lifetime will be reduced!

Gina H.
Gina H8 years ago

I work for the DD/MR population and see such a wide variety of abilities amongst individuals. We need to be humanistic and but also realistic. I think sometimes that our idealism tends to push what WE want onto differently abled people in our lives. Our drive to make ALL humans "productive members" of society only reflects our own limited value system based on labor productiveness. Can't someone still "contribute" to society without being expected to hold down a 9-5 job? I say yes because each day I spent working for my consumers they teach me about different ways of communication, acceptance, appreciation, patience and love. I do believe that accurate assessments need to be made for each differently abled person based on his/her wants/needs before pushing them into what we want for them. Our society needs to evolve past the industrial mindset and see that people are more than just their job and education. Meanwhile, focus on meeting physiological needs such as physical therapy and learning to communicate so that differently abled have a chance at a quality life according to their desires.

Sylvie M.
Sylvie M8 years ago

So, all could be summed up in two lines:
- how much does it cost to train a disabled child so as to help him/her to find a place in society?
- will these disabled children "deserve" all the money spent on their education?

Knowing that a human being is able to publish such articles makes me want to throw up out of disgust - do I also belong to the same "human race" ?

murray m.
Past Member 8 years ago

Teaching disabled children is vital to the health of our country.
Before NAFTA (Bill Clinton, 1993), Americans were manufacturing products in virtually every city, as small businesses. My dad and I starting making camping equipment in 1967, in Seattle. Within five years we had hired over 100 people, mostly women on sewing machines. We had a shop where we employed the disabled for repetitive work. Their wages were subsidized, but it was a win-win for them, our business, and taxpayers. All the dollars went to America and its workers and manufacturers, small business at its best.
After NAFTA, all jobs went out of country, hurting disabled students that would otherwise have become productive workers. The work suited to disabled people is repetitive, but very satisfying. A person in a wheel chair can operate stationary equipment, work on assembly lines, accomplish finite quality control, and many, many other highly specialized processes. A person with epilepsy can do assembly work, and be in a safe place of work when having seizures, aided by trained employees. A person with limited vision, limited mobility, limited use of limbs can be trained for satisfying work. I know because we did it successfully.
We must continue to educate and train our disabled, bring our jobs back to the US of A, and resist this globalization of all people in the world under mega multi-national corporate control.
We must give these disabled every possible opportunity.

Bee Hive Lady
Fiona Ogilvie8 years ago

Educating children with disabilities is the law. LAW. The selfish souls against will just have to adjust.

Tanya G.
Tanya G8 years ago

Everyone deserves an education & people with disabilities should not be discriminated in any way.

Kristi o.
Kirsten O8 years ago

I agree that the education of special needs students is very costly to taxpayers and does not offer as high a "rate of return" in terms of them being able to go to college and become the "backbone" of society. However, it is the law that every child deserves an education. The issue is how they should be educated and what their education consists of. Different disabilities allow or prevent certain cognitive and academic skills to be learned successfully. The biggest problem is the ridiculous state tests...if children with special needs are identified as such, why are they subjected to the same tests as children without special needs?

Emma B.
Emma B8 years ago

An Individualized Education plan should mean just is individual. Some kids are mainstreaming material (my son who has mild to moderate autism and ODD mainstreamed well with pull-out therapies and a 1 to 1 aid for 2 hours a day) others (my daughter thrives in a classroom with other Deaf kids, uses ASL both with the teachers and other students).

Some kids, like my son, should be receiving therapies and educational materials (kid has a genius IQ trapped in there) others, like Donovan, need to be receiving more in the way of life skills. Life skills were the key to unlocking that little girl I worked with. Now, at age 10, she does some academics, using her switch to communicate during circle time.

My daughter, at age 5, is a case where, while we are teaching academics, we are also pushing the life skills. She is losing her eye sight and mobility so we are working with her to get as many of these skills learned in the next few years as we can.

Like I said, IEP stands for INDIVIDUAL education plan for a should be INDIVIDUAL...