Exceptionality: What? Why?

In my short lifetime, the world of special education has been scrambling to evolve and become more inclusive and supportive of all. When my sister was supposed to transition to the high school, the principal walked my mother down a long hall, away from the bustle of students, around a corner, opened the door to a literal storage closet, and told her that this would be where my sister would be spending 80% of her day. Away from peers, in a closet. The closet was, of course, going to be converted, shouldn’t that make my mom feel better? That was in the 90s. Up until a few years ago, small, solitary spaces were still being used as “cool-down” spots for children with emotional struggles. Alternative placement is still used in states like Massachusetts where statewide standardized tests serve as graduation criteria (and, more importantly to some, funding criteria) as a means to remove students from the general population and educate them in different programs, sometimes on completely different campuses. The descriptors we use to describe people with disabilities have changed as well. Mental Retardation (MR) was what my sister was diagnosed with, and it wasn’t changed until she was almost an adult. Based solely on the definition, mental retardation is totally appropriate, but it soon became clear that the societal connotation was so negative and damaging, that something needed to be changed. Next came Intellectual Disability. While this was a step forward, Intellectual Disability only accounts for a small percentage of people with disabilities. By definition, a person diagnosed with Autism or a Specific Learning Disability, may not also have an Intellectual Disability, and calling someone disabled also carries negative implications.

In education, we are trying to inspire a mindset shift to look at students with differences (whether social, medical, linguistic, emotional or otherwise), not through the lens of what they lack, or how they are disadvantaged, but instead, what do they bring to the table that others don’t? What makes them unique? How can that benefit us as a class? a school? Instead of looking at a student with Autism and thinking about how they might have outbursts or “stim” in your class and be distracting, think instead about how their logical/practical/organized mind might teach his/her classmates a different way to approach a problem, and how to utilize this as a strength. Instead of viewing our child with ADHD as a burden or nuisance because they cannot sit still for an entire lesson, think about how beneficial it is to all students that we now include movement breaks or multi-sensory activities. This mindset shift doesn’t have room for the term “disabled” which literally means “not-able-to”.

Exceptional is a positively connotated word that means “unusual; not typical; unusually good/outstanding; (of a child) mentally or physically different so as to require special schooling”. Doesn’t that sound much more positive? Being called “exceptional” is so empowering and contains so much joy and positivity. Yes, it implies a difference to others, but it also recognizes the power and unique skills that each student brings. I entitled my company Exceptional Services because I wanted people to know that I believe in them. I believe in the capability of their family unit and their children and know that through proper education and specially tailored sessions, I know that they will be successful. As an educator, when I think back on the history of Special Education, I am proud of how far we as an industry have come, and I am excited for us to continue growing and influencing others and inspiring inclusivity across all facets of society. I think about how empowered our children and students are and will continue to be, and think about the ripple effect that this will have as they enter the world, empowered and filled with pride.

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