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No Place for Disability in Special Education

Updated: May 1, 2021

By Cole Sorensen

Anyone who looks at me can tell that I’m autistic. I pace, rock, jump, hum, flap, and over the last few years, I have lost access to most of my verbal speech. I went through school on the fringes of the special education system; my parents believed that if they didn’t have me identified as autistic, it would stop being a problem, but this didn’t stop my teachers from realizing that I needed extra support, so I spent a fair bit of time working with special ed teachers despite having no IEP (Individual Education Plan).

Until I started college, I had never met an adult who was like me. I had other disabled friends, sure, but with no model of what my life could look like after graduation, I couldn’t imagine much of a future for myself at all. My parents fought to keep me from leaving home and attending university, insisting that I couldn’t handle it, but eventually, I won and enrolled at a university to study special education. I had seen first-hand how special education ignores and fails so many students and I wanted to be the supportive adult that I never had for other disabled kids like me.

At the beginning of the semester, each of my special education courses begins the same way. I arrive early and sit in the front row. My classmates slowly enter in groups of 2 to 5, talking and laughing amongst each other. As the room fills up, I start noticing eyes on me, staring but looking away quickly when I meet their gaze. Sometimes a classmate recognizes me from a previous class, and pulls their desk over to mine. “Hi Cole!” they say, always with an overly-cheerful voice. “How was your summer? Did you do anything fun over your break?”. When I answer, they give a brief, enthusiastic response and on more than one occasion, someone has offered a high-five. Their social obligation done, they pull their desk away and return to laughing with their friends. A few more classmates greet me in a similar manner, and then I’m back to sitting alone at the front of the room once again. I never know whether I prefer the isolation to the patronizing small talk or not, but I doubt that my preference would make a difference either way.

The instructor—always another white woman—walks in and begins the class. She asks us to introduce ourselves and share why we are studying special education. My classmates take their turns, telling stories about how they used to volunteer with the Best Buddies program at their high school, or work at a special needs camp, or maybe they have a little brother who has autism. They share how eye-opening it was to understand the way that people with disabilities see the world. “They’re just like everyone else!” they might proclaim. “It’s just not fair that they don’t get to be included with other kids!” Others talk about how much they love working with kids with special needs, and how it brightens their day when their student with low functioning autism comes up and gives them a hug. Then it’s my turn to speak. I explain my own background, the faults I see in the system, the traumatic impact it has on students. The instructor pauses and tells me, “Wow, that’s so powerful. We’re so glad to have you here, Cole.” A few classmates nod in agreement, and then the conversation moves on.

There’s something uniquely alienating about hearing your experiences discussed amongst people who have never lived it, spoken about in the abstract and leaving you feeling like you’ve walked into a conversation about yourself that you were never supposed to hear. I’ve sat, nearly in tears, listening to lecture after lecture talking about the negative impacts of disability on a student’s family, how the horrible fate of having a disabled child can drive couples to divorce, cause depression in family members, and damage their siblings’ development. I’ve had to watch the same graphic film showing photos from inside institutions, never with any kind of content warning, at least once a year, and listened to my classmates mutter to each other about how tired they are of hearing about this while I am grappling with the fact that, had I been born 50 years earlier, that could very well have been me in those photos. I’ve listened to students like me be described in dehumanizing terms, labeled “low functioning” and “simply not capable”. Autistic behavior, body language, expressions of joy or fear are pathologized and dissected with language like “restricted & repetitive”, “stereotyped”, “deficient”, or “undesired” and I become hyper-aware of the ways my body is moving as I sit there, realizing that my classmates are looking at me as nothing more than an example of that same “undesired” behavior. Traumatic and abusive practices are taught uncritically, and every time I push back on these approaches, I’m told I’m lacking perspective and expecting something unreasonable. Instead I have to sit back and watch dozens of future teachers learn how to traumatize their students in exactly the way my teachers traumatized me.

My presence in the special education program is initially praised by faculty, who publicly declare my voice is important over and over again, up until they realize that my views run counter to everything they have built their careers on. Suddenly my voice is no longer important, but rather, dangerous and dissident. I get shut out of class discussions, my criticisms of the ideas in the lectures only ever addressed in private meetings where classmates cannot hear. I am denied the opportunity to student teach, on the basis that a special education teaching program composed of faculty who research the best ways to provide accommodations to students is apparently completely unprepared to offer pre-service teachers those same accommodations. I am told, again and again, that maybe teaching isn’t the best path for me, that maybe I’m just not cut out for it. I can never understand how someone can profess how important it is that my voice is heard while also doing everything in their power to silence it. I went into special education hoping that I could change the field, but all I’ve realized is that the field is beyond repair.

Bio: Cole Sorensen (he/him) is an autistic and multiply disabled undergraduate student studying Special Education. He is an AAC user who communicates with a device about 90% of the time. For the last three years he has worked as a TA, where he helps teach about autism and disability access at university.

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