Special Education: Creating an Unfair Advantage or Dismantling Disadvantage?

By Kalisha T. Miller, Director, Special Education

When people use wheelchairs to navigate ramps to get to work, do feelings arise in you?  Use of ramps allows some to arrive to work and give an honest day’s work while demonstrating how accommodations allow someone to achieve similar desired results as others.

Unfortunately, in 1970 we only educated one in five students with disabilities.  In 1975, Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  This law was created with the intent of providing services for students with   disabilities to access a free and appropriate public education thereby giving these students the same opportunity as their non-disabled peers.  

Some believe that students with disabilities are given unfair advantages when modifications and accommodations are provided.  Some students with disabilities use calculators to compute because they have a processing disability that affects calculations but not reasoning.  Some have scribes write what they dictate due to a physical, sensory, or learning disability.  Some students with disabilities have human readers because this allows them to access instruction and assessments when otherwise it would be nearly impossible. 

As outlined in Maryland’s Accommodations Manual, accommodations assist students with disabilities in their setting, presentation, response, timing, and scheduling with the intent of dismantling the disadvantage that disabilities often create.  When effectively provided, these same accommodations diminish and sometimes eradicate the effects of a student’s disability.  Accommodations DO NOT lower learning outcomes.  So when you observe a student with a disability receiving accommodations, an unfair advantage is not being created. 

During the 2012 Summer Olympics, the world had an opportunity to witness an accommodation that dismantled a disadvantage.  Oscar Pistorius competed in the 400 meter sprint although his legs were amputated before his first birthday.  Using prosthetic blades, he was able to qualify for the semi-final heat.  The magnitude of this historic event was not based on his inability to win, but the fact that the world and the Olympic committee got it right.  Initially they would not allow Pistorius to compete because they stated that “he had an unfair advantage.”  Equity is not about all conditions being the same; it is about providing supports that allow equal access.  We are a society that is better when more participate in the process; the example of Pistorius illustrates that principle.

Although this story is not in the educational arena, it parallels the situation many students with disabilities face attempting to obtain a quality education.  A disability that is physical and easily seen is no more or less a disability than a disability that is not readily visible. 

In Baltimore County Public Schools, we are cultivating and spreading a systemic belief that special education is a service and not a place.  All students have a right to a free and appropriate public education, and it is our responsibility to dismantle disadvantages and create learning environments that foster opportunities for students to maximize their educational potential.

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6 thoughts on “Special Education: Creating an Unfair Advantage or Dismantling Disadvantage?

  1. Well said!! I am so grateful for all of the committed administrators, teachers, therapists. and other professionals who are working hard to remove barriers children with disabilities face every day.

  2. This piece is very well stated. Hopefully everyone involved in all phases of educating children will recognize that some disabilities are not clearly visible as you stated in your blog but require certain accommodations in order for students to have a “fighting chance.” A student with an emotional disturbance, learning disability and other disabilities often show no outward sign of their disability. As a result, some educators, parents and administrators get frustrated when these students do not perform according to the adult’s standards when the student’s accommodations are not provided.

    Having effectively and directly worked with BLS students for over a decade as a teacher and behavioral specialist, I experienced more than my share of educating special and general educators, parents, and even administrators of the rights and needs of emotionally disturbed students. If we are providing accommodations and working diligently to help a student replace unwanted behaviors, why do so many students receive swift and sometimes harsh penalties for actions based on their disability? I dare not say that sometimes the adults intentionally or unintentionally assisted in the child experiencing a crisis. Anyway, I digress.

    Why do students with disabilities get suspended at a greater rate than their non-disabled peers? It would be like suspending the Olympic sprinter in your blog for a season because he marked up the track with his blades or because he did not make the finals. Surely the Olympic administrators would not make that mistake. Did they say he had an “unfair advantage”? Unfair advantages. Hello. Are we talking about the double leg amputee? Are we talking about the child with learning disabilities? Are we talking the child with dyslexia?

  3. Kalisha,
    Thank you for bringing this to the forefront! The role of educators is to facilitate success for all of our students. As we continue to venture forth into the 21st century, we have so many more technology and research based options to support all students. Oscar Pistorius certainly made the world aware of benefits of technology. Utilizing technology supports instructional strategies that allow our students to function and learn in the manner in which they are most comfortable. The 21st century learner expects a range of technology tools that supports a variety of instructional strategies and methods of demonstrating their knowledge. The fact that they many have an IEP is not as relevant as it once was. Special educators continue to meet the unique needs of each student. However, incorporating technology and providing instruction based on the principles of Universal Design for Learning will offer all of our students the chance for academic success.

  4. Kalisha,
    Thank you for your advocacy on behalf of our children and for navigating the way for countless children daily in BCPS! If we do not level the playing field with fidelity, our opportunities for closing the achievement gap will diminish. I remain convinced that with the appropriate supports in place, not only will we decrease the suspension rate for our children, but we will increase their achievement and invest greatly in our global society. Simply put, it is what is right and just.

  5. The proper accommodations are so important. When we truly level the playing field for students with disabilities, then we can educate these students in the least restrictive environment with their non-disabled peers. The revised Maryland Accommodations Manual (July 2, 2012) offers a wealth of information and assistance in determining when accommodations are needed and how these accommodations should be implemented. It is available online at http://www.marylandpublicschools.org/NR/rdonlyres/840EFBB6-CD7D-404E-8A77-E978F6D508AA/32878/2012_MD_Accommodations_Manual_.pdf

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