When you go to the doctor you might receive a diagnosis. Likewise, when you go to a mental health practitioner, like a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor, you might received a diagnosis. The schools also have their diagnosis and they fall within the realm of special education. These children receive an eligibility based on a disability that they are determined to have by a team of educational specialists. The main difference between the diagnosis given by the schools and the diagnosis given by private practitioners is that the ones given by the schools have to have an adverse educational impact. In other words, they have to be having a negative impact on learning or achievement. The two most popular disabilities are Specific Learning Disability (LD) and Behavior Disorder/Seriously Emotionally Disturbed (BD/SED or ED). Back in 1975 the federal government established these disabilities, among others, and gave individual states some flexibility in how they define these categories. Think about that a second – the definition of a disability can vary from state to state. I will get back to this. Part of my job is to determine if children who are having problems in school qualify for these disabilities. For example, do they have a learning disability or are they emotionally disturbed? As a result, I have sat in hundreds of team meetings to first discuss if students should be evaluated to see if they have a disability, and then another meeting to decide if they do have a disability. I learned the same thing that I learned about when children are taken to a private practitioner (psychiatrist, psychologist). Parents and school staff are very inclined to slap a label on the child. After all, the child is having problems, he must have a disability. Right?
My purpose here is not to get into a technical discussion of the criteria by which a child qualifies as having a special education diagnosis. There are thousands of articles discussing the issues discussing these disabilities and related eligibilities. For example, throughout the country minorities have been over identified/overrepresented in certain disabilities (Mentally Retarded, Behavior Disorder). Often times the total number of students with special education eligibilities in a district was much higher than what the experts said it should be. Think about that a second. Is diabetes or certain types of cancer supposed to be evenly distributed throughout the country? Some experts argue that certain special education disabilities don’t even exist. Many experts can’t even agree how the labels LD and BD/ED should be defined, or what these disabilities really are. But I am working in the trenches, with the students, the parents, the teachers, the administration, and the community agencies. I evaluate the student, getting to know how he thinks, his values, his morals, and his view of family, peers, and society. While working with the student I get to know his parent or parents. Are they divorced? How much time do they spend with their children? How are they with relationships? How do they discipline? These are some of the issues that I learn about. I also get to know the child’s teacher or teachers. What is their view of the student and situation. Through all of this intensive evaluating, studying, and learning, I realized that for about 98% of the students I was involved with there wasn’t even a need for a “disability” or eligibility. By far, the majority of kids that I evaluated were not truly disabled.
Let me explain that I don’t determine by myself if a child has a disability. Rather, I am part of a team that essentially takes a vote to determine if a child has a disability. Part of the problem is that the team has to follow criteria, which are very subjective, and open to interpretation. That’s why we vote (or come to “consensus”). Well, if you stop and think about that a minute, you should be a little concerned. When you go to the doctor and get a diagnosis for a physical condition, it is based on the conclusive results of objective testing. With a few exceptions (blindness, deafness), the disabilities in special education do not have such objective tests. In the team process of deciding if a child has a disability, there is the climate and beliefs of your colleagues, administration, and the guidelines we have to follow in determining a diagnosis. I learned that the labeling was more often than not, a reaction to social, family, and education problems, then it was a true disability. For example, take a child who has had a cruddy home life for years because his parents are divorced and he does not get the time and attention (love) he needs and craves. He also has very little supervision and rules to follow at home. So what do you think is going to happen at school eventually? He is going to resent and dislike his teacher and any other adults, because he feels his parents don’t love him. Naturally he is going to end up far behind grade level in his academics. Why should he care, be interested, or try in his school work when his parents don’t care? This is just a brief example of the many types of problems children come to school with, not to mention the problems built into the “system.” For example, grade levels. They are based on a “one-size-fits-all” mentality; if you are in fourth grade you better be doing fourth grade work. We all know this is not real life, but that is the way public education is set up, so educator’s have to deal with it. So the thinking goes, if a child is far enough behind, he must have a “learning disability.” There is no test to prove this of course.
Possibly the most blatant example of how special education labels are subjective is when you look at students transferring from one school district to another. I have seen it happen many times. Students transfer in from other districts: some close by, some across the state, some from a neighboring state, and some from across the country. If the eligibilities of LD and BD/ED are not highly subjective and determined by factors other than a true disability, then why can you transfer to a district right next door to the one you were in, and very possibly have that district tell you that your child does not have a disability? In other words, you had a Learning Disability in Chicago, but not in Schaumburg, Illinois. Or you had a Behavior Disorder in Wisconsin, but not in Iowa. Now consider this. If you are diabetic, asthmatic, or have Leukemia, do you think the same thing would happen if you went to another hospital down the street, in another city, or in another state?