Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A New Way to Talk About Special Education

The terrific Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) recently held its annual meeting, and one important initiative to emerge from this gathering of education attorneys, parents, and advocates was a focus on the importance of language when we talk about children with special learning and other needs and the work we do to help them. Think about it: we know that special education laws grew out of civil rights legislation and court decisions. The very principles that were determined to apply to discrimination on the basis of race eventually grew to apply to discrimination on the basis of disability. Children who were excluded from schools because they had disabilities were no less the victims of discrimination than those who were excluded or segregated because of race.

We've also seen how effective language can be in shaping opinion and practice in areas from politics to marketing consumer goods. As described in a blog on the public area of the COPAA members website, attorneys Mark Martin and Jennifer Laviano propose a new way of talking about what we have always called "special education" and its related areas.

Among the changes they propose are using "civil rights" to refer to this this area of law and advocacy. So, an attorney would not be a "special education lawyer" but, instead, would be a "civil rights lawyer."  Students who are suspended or expelled can be better described as being "excluded from class and from learning." When children are removed from class they are being "segregated." And children don't need special services, they need a "meaningful education."

As the blog authors note, it is time that students and families and the attorneys and advocates who work on their behalf  "have the rights, respect, and equality to which they are entitled." Using language that more accurately conveys the rights of students and the roles of their supporters is one step in that direction. We agree.

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