This blog post is the first of a three part series on navigating the special education system with a disability studies lens, written by Stephen Hinkle. Stephen is a Chapman Ph.D. student, self-advocate, international speaker, and a person on the autism spectrum.


Since its beginning, the American special education system has been based on a deficit model,and even to this day, one must qualify under one of the thirteen disability categories defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) to be eligible for special education services. While the current system tends to focus on a deficit-driven model, students and parents can begin to focus on a strengths-based approach in order to obtain the best outcome academically and receive all the services and supports their child needs to succeed in school.

The problem with the deficit model approach is that many schools and educators tend to focus on the deficits more than a student’s strengths and talents,and see special education students as a liability.  This ispartlydue to the belief that students with disabilities (SWD) may score lower on standardized tests which can impact the school’s academic ratings, and schools often factor in the increased cost of supporting special education students.   Plus, there is often the misbelief that a student with a disability cannot perform well academically, which is often not the case at all.  What schools often fail to see is that special education students have talents, strengths, and lots to offer the school if they welcome them into the school culture, allow them to access challenging academic curriculum, and be given the chance to participate in social activities with their normal peers. Students with disabilities can be a big asset to schools.

Sadly, too many special education students are often marginalized in schools today, and sometimes are given access to sub-par academic curriculum, placed in segregated classes, and have limited social opportunities.   The level of inclusion, access to general education academic curriculum and extracurricular activities that persons with disabilities have access to today varies by school district, even though all school districts are required to provide access under the IDEIA law.

However, students and parents can turn the tide of disability culture in their schools in their favor by approaching special education with a disability studies lens. Creating a positive culture of disability within school culture requires implementing a complex metamorphosis of policies.   This begins with the practice of implementing inclusive practices in schools, both academically and socially.  The first step that schools must implementisa policy that allows students with disabilities to achieve their maximum academic potential possible.    Next, schools need to implement the practice of not segregating children to implement the academic accommodation in a child’s IEP.   Schools need to implement better practices in classrooms and teaching, as well as making sure good disability culture and one of inclusion trickles down to all aspects of the school experience.

The next step of navigating special education with a disability studies lens begins in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. Students and parents can design IEPs with a strengths-based focus when it comes to student’s needs and goals. To do so, start by making a list of everything positive about the child, including their gifts, strengths, talents, and interests and all positive achievements the child has done, both academically and socially.   Think about what that child brings to the classroom that they can offer to a teacher and their classmates.

First begin the IEP process by considering the child’s academic goals and strengths.   It is very common for individuals with disabilities to have one or more academic subjects they are good at, or even excel in.  Any academic strength or talent needs to be viewed as one of the child’s assets and one should focus on how the child can build or expand upon this knowledge, especially if it is a subject that is of interest to the child.   A child’s interests and strengths can be used to build skill knowledge that can eventually lead them to a career path down the road.  Apply their strengths, talents, and interests to select the best academic classes for the child that meets their needs for the direction they wish to take their schooling, which will result in an academically challenging experience for the child.   Under IDEIA, a person with a disability should have access to the entire general education curriculum, which includes all subject areas, both core subjects and electives, for all grade and academic levels (including gifted, AP, and others) that their school or school district offers.   If a child has some subjects that he/she performs better in than others, it is acceptable to take a higher-level class in one area and an easier class in another, provided those classes best fit the students interests and academic goals.

The IEP team should evaluate any academic accommodations the student needs for success in the classes they are enrolled in.  Common academic accommodations include use of assistive technology for communication, writing or mobility, augmentative communication systems, accessibility accommodations, room placement, note takers, tutoring, and others. Generally, accommodations provide access and do not change the curriculum, standards or expectations.   Use of such accommodations would not reduce academic credit

Curriculum modifications can be useful, if a student has a subject area they struggle with but should be used sparingly when possible. Modifications should only be implemented when a subject is too difficult, and it is unlikely that the student can perform at grade level in that subject.  Modifications can also be useful if a student wishes to pursue different goals than the common academic track. However, use of curriculum modifications can be a double-edged sword, as overuse of modifications may lead to the student receiving no academic credit or deny the person the chance to graduate with a high school diploma.

A good strategy if using curriculum modifications is to inquire about the academic impact of the modification before choosing to modify, and to try nottomodify to the level in which the course will be no-credit for the student if completed, if possible.  Always question the value of omitting a subject area, if it will limit the student’s potential to graduate from high school or leave them academically behind in that subject area.  As the result, one should always consider what the student will be missing before choosing to modify curriculum or removinga subject area from their individualized education program.  The more academic classes tied to graduation requirements that one can complete, the better a student’s career and college potential will be when they finish high school.

Next, one needs to consider the settings withinthe classes for the child with a disability.  Under the IDEIA law, least restrictive environment (LRE) means that a person with a disability has a right to be in general education settings with his/her non-disabled peers unless the child is a serious risk to other children and/or the services the child needs cannot be provided in the general education setting.  This includes both core and elective subject areas.

Evaluating if an IEP goal or objective can be accommodated in the general education setting without pull-out services is very simple.   The easiest thing to do is to look for anytimewithiin the school day or subject curriculum in which that goal or objective can be performed naturally.   For example, if an IEP goal or objective was “Lori will learn how to write a sentence”, the goal could be easily accomplished in English, social studies, or science classes as part of Lori’s assignments.   Similarly, if Matt has a goal of “Matt will learn to use a calculator” in his IEP, he could easily use a calculator in his math or science classeswithout leaving the classroom.   If Gretchen has a goal of “Gretchen will learn to read a paragraph out loud” in her IEP, this can could easily be accommodated by having her speak it in English, drama, social studies, or other classes without needing to pull her out of class.   Even if a related service provider needs to work with the student, this can be embedded naturally, such as having a speech therapist come to the class at a time when a lot of students will bespeaking out loud.

Special day classes (SDC) come with additional academic risks, even more so than curriculum modifications, as such classes often do not teach grade level curriculum, and are frequently located in the back corners, rear bungalows, or basements of schools. Enrollment in such a class usually means the child is denied the chance to experience significant portions of the grade-level curriculum that his/her peers are learning.  Prolonged enrollment in segregated classrooms can lead to a child getting further behind academically.   The other drawback to segregated classes is that these classrooms consist of only students with disabilities, leading to the child having fewer positive role models for one to learn good behavior from.  This is especially true if many of the other children in the room have behavior challenges.   As the result, parents need to think twice before agreeing for their child to be placed in a special day class, and such placements should bealast resort.

Always question if the child’s academic needs, accommodations, and modifications can be met in a general education classroom with the proper supports and services before consenting to a child enrolling in an SDC placement.   Next, parents need to always question the dynamics of a special day class before enrolling their child in it.   One should evaluate anSDC class in terms of its academic curriculum offered, the demographics of the students enrolled in the class,andit’s physical location in the school. One should also explore if there is any potential for partial inclusion in terms of academics or social activities before enrolling their child in such a class.  Lastly, a plan for return to the regular classroom should always be implemented if one is in a special day class for all or part of the day.

At the high school level, the academic risk of special day classes is even greater,as many of these classes teach a functional skills curriculum which includes very little academics, which results in a non-diploma track placement.  This non-credit curriculum can seriously impact a child’s career potential in early adulthood.  The lack of grade level academics can result in the high school student not being prepared for college or post-secondary education when he exits high school.   As the result, many community colleges will require remedial coursework for such students should they decide to further their education later.

Not having a standard high school diploma seriously limits a person’s career paths to many entry level jobs, which are becoming a decreasing sector of today’s work force. Due to a massive downsizing of the retail sector that is happening today, the number of entry level jobs that do not require a diploma is plummeting.  As the result, we advise that special education students should always be encouragedto try high school academic curriculum for credit before enrolling a student in a special day class or non-diploma track placement.  If a student has the potential for completing some or all the academic subjects at this level, obtaining academic credit will open doors for them in terms of their career path potential.  If a special education student is capable of completing the academic requirements for a high school diploma, one should always choose this track over a functional skills track.  School districts should encourage special education students to graduate if they can do so.  Even if there is a need to learn Independent living skills, this can be learned in a variety of other ways, such as practicing these skills at home or taking home economics courses.  The non-diploma track should only be taken in cases where the person is not capable of completing the requirements to graduate and should be a last resort.

One can improve the academic outcomes by turning the deficit focus into a strengths-based approach.   Part 2 of this series will focus on paraprofessional supports and part 3 on navigating supports for the social and extracurricular side of school.