Changing the Focus of Conversation within Special Education


This article gives an overview of the construction of disability, the history of special education, and the laws and legislation of special education as they are mandated according to current United States’ special education policy. Topics discussed within the overview are the current models of disability, the least dangerous assumption, the definition of hegemony, the use of “us” vs. “them” language, and the letter vs. spirit of the law. A reflection concludes the overview in order to present a perspective that strives to change the conversation in special education within the United States and abroad.

Disability is viewed through three societal perspectives: the medical model, the social model, and the pity/charity model. According to Rapp and Arndt (2012), viewing disability through the medical model is a way of perceiving “. . . disability as abnormal and sick, as an illness that needs treatment by the medical profession” (p. 8). Rapp and Arndt (2012) also discuss the pity/charity model and the social model in their book TEACHING EVERYONE: AN INTRODUCTION TO INCLUSIVE EDUCATION. The pity/charity model “. . . assumes disability is terrible and limiting . . .” (Rapp & Arndt, 2012, p. 9). This view suggests that people without disabilities should feel sorry for people with disabilities and try to help them by providing charitable funds, even if people with disabilities do not want or need the help (Rapp & Arndt, 2012). The social model “. . . assumes disability is part of the diversity of human experience and the way society responds to disability can change to be supportive” (Rapp & Arndt, 2012, p. 9). This view is part of a growing trend in which people are considering the social model to be the only appropriate and acceptable response to disability, as the social model of disability is thought to be “. . . thinking about disability in a completely new way,” as the social model “. . . is designed to replace the medical and pity/charity models” (Rapp & Arndt, 2012, p. 9).

The least dangerous assumption is a way of interpreting the educational data of students with disabilities. Education personnel look at the data results, and “[i]n the absence of conclusive data . . .,” educational decisions are “. . . based on assumptions which, if incorrect, will have the least dangerous effect on the likelihood that students will be able to function independently” (Jorgensen as cited in Rapp & Arndt, 2012, p. 20). The least dangerous assumption philosophy, when followed appropriately, is followed simultaneously with presuming competence: the assumption of student capability and student comprehension when interpreting educational data and presenting instructional strategies for students with disabilities.

Hegemony is defined as “[a]ssumptions and beliefs that are not often questioned because they benefit the majority” (Rapp & Arndt, 2012, p. 24). An example of hegemony is the cultural idea “‘. . . that Whiteness is superior, that Europe has always represented the pinnacle of human civilizations, and that . . . people of color have some kind of deficit . . .’” (Lee as cited in Rapp & Arndt, 2012, p. 24). Within the field of education, hegemonic views portray people of color as not being able to obtain “. . . a good education . . .” due to the perception that the color of their skin is a learning deficit that they must overcome (Lee as cited in Rapp & Arndt, 2012, p. 24).

Construction of language can create barriers to relationships, learning, and understanding such as using language that creates feuds through the promotion of an “us” vs. “them” mentality. This language is exemplified through phrases such as, “We are human.” vs. “They are. . .” (Rapp & Arndt, 2012, p. 28). Expressing oneself through an “us” vs. “them” mentality portrays those not diagnosed with a disability classification as superior and those diagnosed with a disability classification as inferior, ultimately dehumanizing people with disabilities. When speaking with an “us” vs. “them” tone, segregation occurs rather than unity, which halts the recognition and affirmation of the power that is equality.

Additionally, expressing oneself through an “us” vs. “them” mentality can cause people with disabilities to see those without disabilities as a “them” because they feel so violated from the initial dehumanization spoken by the verbalized “us” vs. “them” mentality that they often speak amongst themselves or to personal and professional advocates they trust, saying things like, “They said. . . .” “They did. . . .” “They are. . . .” None of these uses of language are okay, as using language in this manner perpetuates fear and hate rather than acknowledging and affirming the unification and equalization power of love.

The letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law refers to the way in which people demonstrate compliance with United States’ special education laws. “If a person complies with the ‘letter of the law,’ he or she is acting within the literal interpretation of the law as it is written” (Rapp & Arndt, 2012, p. 56). Compliance with the spirit of the law means that a person “. . . is acting according to the intent of those who wrote the law” (Rapp & Arndt, 2012, p. 56). Complying with the letter of the law is illustrated when education personnel begrudgingly implement accommodations and modifications according to students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). An illustration of complying with the spirit of the law is when students’ accommodations and modifications are implemented with the fidelity and understanding that these accommodations and modifications create equal opportunities for children who are learning that they “. . . are valuable as citizens in the community, in the workplace, and in the classroom” (Rapp & Arndt, 2012, p. 56).

In reflecting upon the overview of the construction of disability, the history of special education, and the laws and legislation of United States’ special education, I speak honestly when I say that none of these models of disability discussions resonate with me. That is, other than presuming competence, but presuming competence also goes hand-in-hand with the least dangerous assumption when interpreting assessment results. Children with disabilities deserve respect and love if they are to be taken seriously as valuable, contributing citizens of the community, the classroom, and the workplace. Two ways to always do that is to presume competence and to interpret the data collected from assessment results with the least dangerous assumption. No other special education constructs presently discussed within the field of special education resonate with me because all the others are essentially built on the falsehood of good intentions, for the field of special education, at least within the United States, can be summarized in one word: inclusion.

The construction of the continuum of services is not inclusion. Inclusion can never be mandated by forcing someone to comply with the letter of the law. The very act of forcible compliance demonstrates that inclusion is not really taking place and what is really happening, instead, is a legal, but still yet acceptable form of segregation. Inclusion is not a Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Inclusion is love, acceptance, and belonging. That is all: just love, acceptance, and belonging.

Wherever a child is loved, accepted, and feels as if he or she belongs while he or she is engaging in the learning process of academics or life skills, that is inclusion. Any learning environment where love, acceptance, and belonging do not take place is where children are restricted from engaging in the learning process. With this definition of inclusion, full inclusion may not actually be in a general education classroom with minimal to no support. Instead, full inclusion may actually be in a self-contained special education classroom with extensive support.

When a person is fully included, no one has to announce its reality, not in the community or in the classroom. The reality just is because of the fostered environment of love, acceptance, and belonging, for everyone who has gathered is there to be together for a time. Specifically, in the classroom, that gathering is the learning environment in which children academically and developmentally progress with or without learning support. That progressive learning environment could be any of the learning environments within what is known, in United States’ special education policy, as the continuum of services, meaning that as a child learns, he or she has the total freedom to learn within one or all of the learning environments that truly benefit his or her pursuit of his or her own maximum potential, as every child wants to explore his or her maximum potential. A child who is exploring his or her maximum potential is discovering what he or she can do, not what someone else tells him or her can be done.

The conversation in special education, since its foundation, in 1975, from the first United States’ special education law, EHA—Education for All Handicapped Children Act—has focused on inclusion because society believes full inclusion is what eliminates segregation. This societal belief is true, but only if inclusion is accurately defined as a matter of the heart, not as a matter of the law. Rather than focusing on inclusion as the ultimate, superior goal, a change in conversation needs to occur within the framework of special education that starts with rethinking inclusive learning environments: Do inclusive learning environments provide not just access to the academic and life skill curricula, but do they also provide a way in which students receiving special education services can achieve mastery learning in both academic and life skill curricula?

This rethinking of inclusive learning environments should include the rethinking of disability models and the rethinking of special education laws and legislation within the United States and abroad. People cannot rethink the history of special education within the United States and other countries because history is the story of past events, but they can most certainly learn from the history of special education within the United States and other countries. Therefore, the relevant thing to learn from the United States’ history of special education is that through constructing an inclusive framework for teaching and learning in which government and education policy legislate inclusion (by the letter of the law), children with disabilities come to understand that they can be fully included in a self-contained special education classroom, but fully excluded in a general education classroom. The reverse is also true. Children with disabilities come to understand that they can be fully excluded in a self-contained special education classroom, but fully included in a general education classroom. The difference, then, in what is a fully inclusive learning environment is a matter of the heart. Always. Because inclusion is solely a matter of the heart, justice and civil rights can only be fully realized when United States’ special education laws and legislation as well as the special education laws and legislation of other countries are interpreted through the eyes of truth and love by all people and not just through the eyes of truth and love by some.


Jorgensen, C. (2005). The least dangerous assumption: A challenge to create a new paradigm. Disability Solutions, 6(3), 1, 5-9, 10.Lee, C.D. (2009).

From Du Bois to Obama: The education of peoples of African descent in the United states in the 21st century. The Journal of Negro Education, 78(4), 367-384.

Rapp, W.H. & Arndt, K.L. (2012). Teaching everyone: an introduction to inclusive education. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

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