Research on Employment Supports for People with Disabilities: Summary of the Focus Group Findings. Special Education

Participants who developed disabilities during childhood commonly reported use of special education, and offered mixed assessments of its value. Among those who identified special education as a valuable support, a number noted the ability of the special education system to provide accommodations as an attractive feature. One participant with cerebral palsy said that special education provided her with valuable mobility training, and another with epilepsy was appreciative that special education teachers allowed her to learn at her own pace.

Other participants who experienced special education as a positive support attributed their positive experiences to special education teachers that challenged them and expected them to be productive:

  • "I had a wonderful [special education] teacher who emphasized the need for reading and educating yourself. Certain teachers along the way were challenging."

  • "Teachers should have the same expectations of kids with disabilities as they have for kids without disabilities…Schools need to apply the same performance standards to all students."

One participant reported having a very positive experience while attending a high school for people with disabilities, where most of the teachers had disabilities, as well.

  • "I went to ‘orthopedic school,' [where] the teachers were role models [who] taught you the way society thought about disabled people. [It was] for people who were physically challenged, not [kids with] learning disabilities…You had to keep up with the other kids…They didn't think about your disability, they just saw you keeping up."

Several participants in special education said their positive experiences were due primarily to the commitment of one or more individuals who were intent on seeing them succeed, and who were even willing to break rules to provide unconventional or additional supports or accommodations:

  • "There were these two social workers [on the school's Child Study Team]. One had been there many, many years. They kind of adopted me. They said, ‘If you're not going to come to school, then just come to see us at the Board of Ed office and we'll go over all the subjects with you.' They knew I was really smart, so they just gave me the homework…[I wouldn't have made it] if it wasn't for the diligence of this lady, who would basically say, 'Just come over and bring a lunch.'

  • "…I eventually did go back to school and finished, [but it was] with these people's help…They broke every rule in the book and I loved them. They were not supposed to take me out to lunch and to come over to my house. [Also, there's a limit on the] number of days that you could be out of school but they said no, he's got some kind of doctor's note or something."

Special education was described as a negative experience, however, for many participants. Many said that special education offered little benefit and may actually have been damaging because it did not provide education but was merely a place to "park" children with disabilities:

  • "Special ed was just a place to be…I was put there because I couldn't walk very well. I hated that. I was with other people who couldn't walk very well either, so we got to do other things that we were good at…and we played silly games…I never got any particular training."

  • "I hid my disability, and when they found out in second grade it was because I was failing everything. I didn't even know what was really going on. Then I went to special classes…but we learned absolutely nothing there. It was just babysitting time.

According to some, the disadvantages of special education were striking. Several people said that their special education programs provided no vocational classes or job opportunities; others said that their programs lacked basic instructional materials and teacher expertise, or that the programs did not otherwise meet their basic needs.

  • "They were putting me in classes that I didn't belong in. They'd associate physical disability with someone who is mentally disabled."

  • "I went to a school that was just for the handicapped [around eighth grade]. I felt that I didn't come away by learning a lot that I wanted to learn. Like, I didn't learn much in reading. They just kind of failed to work with me on reading. I was lucky to learn how to tell time and count money, things like that…Back then, they had to graduate you whether you wanted to graduate or not."

  • "[I also] went to a [segregated] school and it was horrible. I did not get an education there. I went there from first grade through high school, and I hated every minute of it because most of the kids were -- I'm not sure how to put it -- severely emotionally disabled. I did not belong there. The teachers…they pretty much coddled us and would pat our heads a lot, you know, that kind of an attitude."

  • "During my freshman year in high school, I was bussed to another school which had a program for people with disabilities. To be honest, it wasn't [for] me. I couldn't fit [in]. I would actually help the teacher with the other students. I would help them out but I felt that it was a challenge for me. I was mostly in a class with people with developmental disabilities so therefore I didn't see a challenge for me there. So I decided to go back to my [neighborhood] school."

As with individuals who experienced special education as a positive support, experiences with individual teachers were also powerful for those who had negative experiences with special education:

  • "I was having so much problems at school, I couldn't take one of these teachers. I was in Special Ed, and one of these teachers built a wall around me because of my disability. I had my head down to my shoulders, my eyes were criss-cross, and I couldn't walk, [but the] teacher didn't care. [She] built a wall around me. Around me. [Not to protect me, but] to move me out of the way and give me some crayons and a coloring book to color."

Among special education participants who were mainstreamed (moved from special education into regular classrooms), many were happier after mainstreaming was initiated:

  • "When I started school, mainstreaming was the thing. It is good for yourself and good for the rest of the school [for you] to be part of things, not stuck outside the rest of the school and doing your own thing, it's not good…It's the key to accepting how you fit in society, and having society accept you as well."

Another described how her experience in special education stimulated her desire to move into mainstream education:

  • "For me, I think just being around the special ed class, it was motivating for me. Back in the seventies, they would put a Down's Syndrome [person with] retardation and [people with] physical disabilities all in one room. So you've got this visual, and I'm thinking, ‘Is society viewing me the same way that I'm viewing these other individuals?' I think it was motivating for me to try extra hard to be able to mainstream [later on]."

One participant who had a stroke as an infant said that her experience with special education was very negative, and she believed that not being mainstreamed was bad for her because she could have used much more training than she received in her special education program. Another said:

  • "I started special ed at age 10 until graduation…Instead of assisting me in mainstreaming me, they kept me in courses that did repetitive training instead of supporting me in areas that I was lacking…In college I had assistance, I had books-on-tape, I had someone helping me take notes. If I had had that in grade school, I could have been mainstreamed."

One individual with a hearing impairment who attended special schools for the hearing-impaired as well as a mainstream high school explained the importance for the hearing-impaired to have instruction in both types of schools, a specialized school that teaches sign language, as well as an oral school:

  • "I went to three different types of education, because they didn't know how to accommodate the hearing-impaired. They [first] put me in a hearing, or oral, school, ‘to try to let the kid be as normal as he can be with other kids.' Then I went to a deaf school in middle school, [and] then the mainstream. [It was frustrating, and] my family unity is what got me through…In a oral school, you're not taught sign language, you're verbally communicating with your peers. Deaf school, you can't exactly verbally communicate with anybody if 95 percent -- or maybe 98 percent -- sign. I'm in the 2 percent because I don't sign. And putting me in that situation destroyed my entire year, because I got set back. So when I went to mainstream high school, I had to catch up…When you go in the mainstream, you don't have [any other] choice."

Numerous participants said that gaining access to necessary accommodations in the mainstream environment was a substantial challenge. Getting such accommodations was important to ensure equal access to classes and vocational training, and to feel like a full member of the school community. Participants described their own efforts to obtain needed accommodations:

  • "I was actually the only one with a physical disability on campus. I was the only person in a wheelchair. Back then in high school, I started to do my own advocating for someone with disabilities. None of my classrooms were equipped with wheelchair ramps, so I [told] the principal that I would go to the city college. In other words, I was blabbering a lot of things that I didn't really know what I was saying in order to get action or to see some results. I did. I saw results. They started building ramps. I just started telling them I probably won't be the only person who uses a wheelchair attending your school, and it helped."

  • "In the city that I lived in there were several high schools, most of which were two-story high schools and I used crutches at the time. I had a counselor at the high school who said, ‘Why don't you go to the school [that's] a single story? You won't have to climb the stairs.' I said, ‘No, this is the neighborhood I live in, this is where my friends go, and this is where I will go.' And so I used to climb the stairs. My mother never would even go to the high school. She couldn't deal with seeing steps and she knew I climbed them. Then I got a little bit smarter and [when] they'd say, ‘You can't take this class because it's offered upstairs,' I'd say, ‘Move the classroom,' and they did."

  • "Whatever it took, I was going to attend that school. And, again, determination is what got me there, and giving the administration pressure. It was more convenient for them to bus me out of the city, for them not to build a ramp. By me deciding to go to this campus it ruined their routine, the route that they had. The bus [driver] actually had to wake up an hour earlier. [But] I would get picked up at 6:30, two hours before starting school…so in other words, it was for their convenience, not for mine. It was never for my convenience until I started fighting back."

  • "I wanted to make a real effort to completely graduate from my class, and I think it's now what we call mainstreaming, but the…high school was not accessible and they [had to] make provisions to make [it so]."

In some cases, motivated parents were key:

  • "Six weeks before the end of the semester I broke my foot and I was not doing well in first semester algebra. I had a teacher who always wrote equations on the board and didn't bother, unless he was asked two or three times, to [say] them out loud. So my mother calls to arrange for me to have a tutor the last six weeks. [The vice-principal] said, basically, ‘Well, what's the problem, your son is blind, he's not going to college anyway.' And my mother went off on him like Cher went off on the poor principal in ‘Mask,' and said my son will either have a tutor or I will go to [the media]. Needless to say, I got a tutor."

  • "When we first started…public school, it was only the second year of the program and there was no money for blind kids so our parents went out and raised money to buy the first Braille writer to teach us because the teacher they hired didn't know Braille -- one lesson ahead of the blind kids. And then the parents got together and beat up the school district until they started funding and getting us the equipment and then the money just rolled in like water."

  • "The bells were a little bit quick [and] sometimes [things were] a little bit fast paced. The real emphasis was getting large print to read better when it came to taking the quizzes and/or tests, taking them on time, so I could really think through what the correct answers were. [My parents] really worked with the school system to make sure they provided those accommodations."

  • "The school didn't have many accommodations at first, but we went to the school board and pulled some teeth. They were certainly willing to do more once you knocked down the initial barriers…They moved some classes to the first floor, and my parents built ramps. I had to do self-study in a couple of classes, which I didn't appreciate, but I also understood it was because of the logistics."

  • "[I was in] a mainstreaming program for about four of the seven years of the special school…and I was so successful that it was determined that I should return to my home school district and be completely mainstreamed. Then a problem arose and my original school district didn't want to take me back because it felt like because of my multiple disabilities -- by that time I was totally blind and totally deaf -- that they would not be able to accommodate me.…[M]y parents had to organize a campaign to pressure the school district to get them to take me back. They finally took me back the middle of my sophomore year in high school and I had a good support network.…I had a sign language interpreter and I had my textbooks in Braille."