My Biggest Failure As a Teacher Is Failing to Fight Special Ed Stigma

“Mr. Fan, is this special ed?”

Photo by Dee @ Copper and Wild on Unsplash

“Ohhh, you’re in special ed! Does that mean you can’t read?”
“You’re in special ed! You’re dumb!”

These are quotes I’ve heard from other students in my short time teaching say about kids in special education. As a self-contained special education teacher, I’ve heard these comments time and time again. They hurt my feelings. But above all, they hurt my students’ feelings, and perpetuate ableism against special ed kids.

As much as I’ve preached and told people they were wrong for holding these ableist attitudes, it doesn’t do much to actually change those attitudes. Students not in special ed have asked me whether I teach kids who are “different” and when I ask them what they mean, often they will circle their finger at the side of their head. Other students have asked if I teach a class where all the students have anger problems.

Special ed stigma needs to stop, but I have no idea, honestly, how to do it, after being in the classroom for almost two years now. One of my students last year asked: “Mr. Fan, is this special ed?”

I distinctly remember sugercoating the answer. I knew he saw a significant stigma in being in a special ed class and did benefit from a smaller setting and more individual attention, and I said something like:

“It’s just a place where you get more help and support.”

So yes, I sugarcoated my answer and gave in to the pressure for the kid not to feel special ed stigma. I also didn’t want him to feel further demeaned by his peers, since the sixth grade was especially vicious in that stigma. However, I regret not simply being straightforward and saying “yes, this is special ed and there’s nothing to be ashamed of” right away.

This year, teaching 9th-grade special ed, one of my students, earlier in the year, asked me the same thing, and I was much more direct:

“Yes, this is special ed,” I said firmly.

I didn’t sign up to be a special ed teacher, but I accepted the position due to need in my district. To this day, I don’t understand special ed stigma, but I do observe that it was more pernicious at the middle school level than the high school level. And I do acknowledge we do students no service when we beat around the bush. This year, students have asked me all sorts of questions about special ed and their disabilities. One question I often have to ask students on a post-secondary education form is “how will your disability affect your ability to navigate daily life?” A student with ADHD responded:

“I have a disability?”

Yes, I told him. ADHD is a disability. At that moment, I felt like I was a bad messenger, the bearer of bad news. And I realized it was teachers just like me, and many other special ed teachers, who didn’t inform that student he had a disability in the past. How was I going to be critical of his previous special educators for beating around the bush when I did the same thing?

I don’t know how I feel about the right terminology or what I got myself into navigating this minefield of stigma. I know, however, that I’m not doing kids any favors not informing them of their rights and services for their disabilities in school.

But I can see where the student was coming from — for a long time as a kid, I associated “disability” as only a physical disability. I saw “disabled” as just meaning somebody who had gotten into a terrible accident and was in a wheelchair. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I had a more expansive and comprehensive view of the word — according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to be disabled means to be “impaired or limited by a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition.”

Now I use disability and special needs interchangeably. Jill Eulberg, a special ed teacher at Western Governors University, recommends using regular education textbooks and curriculum, partnering with a regular education class, and discussing differences and promoting success stories as ways to combat special education stigma. Eulberg also reiterates that just because a student has special needs doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them — in fact, receiving the extra help and support for disabilities bridge an education gap between special ed and general ed peers. It’s a sign of strength, not a weakness.

So one thing I have to do differently is more direct. According to Eulberg:

“Sadly, many teachers and parents fear making students feel bad, so they don’t teach them about their disabilities. In reality, the opposite is true.”

I can’t agree more with Eulberg. Unfortunately, fighting that stigma in some places can feel like an uphill battle. I see failing to fight special ed stigma as my biggest failures as an instructor and teacher so far — and that’s saying a lot. I’ve failed to manage a classroom. I’ve had ineffective ratings on some portions of my evaluations. I’ve had students feel like they didn’t learn anything in my class because of an inability to manage a classroom.

Even recently, one of my kids asked me “is this a normal class?” I responded with somewhat of a generic answer, saying it was a normal class. After all, we’re learning English and how to read and write better. She told me that wasn’t what she meant. I just moved on with the lesson, using the excuse of not wanting to fall behind in my lesson’s pacing.

Well, I knew exactly what she meant. I knew she was asking whether we were in a general education setting or a special education setting. Even now, after almost two years as a special ed teacher, I didn’t confront the implication head-on. Teachers need to be honest about students’ special needs because those conversations also come with being open with students about their strengths.

A student with dyslexia, for example, has overcome significant barriers in the virtual setting to rise from kindergarten to a 3rd grade level in reading. I know he works very hard and has a high level of aural comprehension, especially when there’s an audiobook or when I read the text. But he just struggles to read independently — he’s not a worse student than any of his peers. He just learns differently.

It’s also important to be direct and combat special ed stigma because children with disabilities are at an increased risk of being bullied, according to Wrightslaw, a special education law and advocacy site. Disability-based harassment is a violation of free appropriate public education (FAPE), a provision under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).

Peter DeWitt at Education Week, a former principal turned author and leadership coach, notes there are many reasons why parents fear having their children labeled with a learning disability. Many students who are labeled with a disability are put into a separate classroom, that is more restrictive and away from their general education peers. I teach self-contained, which means students are in a segregated classroom only for students with disabilities. It is by definition not an inclusive classroom and definition, but previous IEP teams have decided that’s the best way for those students to receive a free and appropriate education.

The targets of the stigma are parents of special needs kids, special ed teachers, and most importantly, the kids themselves. DeWitt says we need to challenge special ed stigma by setting a zero-tolerance policy in schools for special ed stigma. There can be no insults of students based on their disabilities — I regret to say I haven’t always been good at shutting those conversations down. Often they’ll be conversations in the hallways or other classes where a student says, “she can’t read!” I am in a better school environment now, but needless to say, those conversations can’t happen, and I will always regret not intervening to stop those disparaging conversations.

For me, combatting special ed stigma means having much more transparent conversations with students as well as shutting down disparaging comments and insults. It might go as far as saying, “yes, this is special ed” or “yes, you do have an intellectual disability — this is what that means.” The era of sugercoating and dancing around the topic is over, at least for my conversations with my students. Being in special ed and having an IEP is nothing to be ashamed of.

Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of “The Wire.” Email: Support me:

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