Special Education // Disabilities vs. Differences

A Habit of Character at our school I absolutely love is compassion. We intentionally put time and effort into teaching and demonstrating how compassion looks, feels, and sounds. We find amazing ways to celebrate each other’s differences! Not one student is the same, not even twins! The same goes for students who qualify for extra support under the special education umbrella.

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There’s always an initial shock when schools or outside services tell a parent their little one qualifies for special education under a specific disability (learning disability, autism, emotional impairment, etc). We understand the anxiety these words may cause due what most of us have experienced in education. Disability is defined as “a physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities”  but the special education world is constantly evolving towards the student and how we can help them be successful as we support them through their school journey. At our school, we believe every student can achieve beyond what they think they are capable of and our students are capable of doing their best and more- there are no limitations of what they can do and our students are always surprising us! Which is why we use the term differences instead of disabilities. This may be a shift for a lot of educators and our community as special education has grown so much over the past few years, but we still have a ways to go.

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In the mid-18th century, people with disabilities were seen as a liability in social and economic participation but in the early 19th century, the French brought pioneers on special education to the US and Canada and soon enough, institutions began developing new ways to help people with disabilities, in other words,  exceptional individuals. In those days, however, the goal of these institutions was to protect the “vulnerable” children with needs from the world, which in a way, was very limiting. Move forward to the 1900’s and we see the development of special classes in which many of us grew up seeing in schools. Then in the 1980’s, education was going under major waves of reform and special education began to shift from special education classes to mainstreaming and inclusiveness which is where we are today.

Although those special classes still exist in some schools, the beauty of what we do here is that we are helping our special friends be in the least restrictive environment. We help them be part of their community without hindering their talents and special abilities. Together, we are making our world a more inclusive one that celebrates each other instead of ostracizing those who are different than most of us.