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ESE504 : The Class : Advanced CD : Chapter Four

Characteristics of Students with Special Needs

This set of readings gives us an opportunity to look at differences in learning styles and a wide array of abilities through a positive lens.

In previous material, we gained an appreciation for the educational and individual progress made in the last thirty years. It may seem like we have a long road ahead, but we have come a great distance in just this one generation. Milestones I personally remember:

In the late 1950's it became illegal to sterilize someone against their will.

In 1955 my teacher flunked a fellow student because she could not speak English. The teacher also berated her and called her names all through the year because she only spoke Spanish. No attempt was made to help her -- no help for the child and no instrucitonal support or inservice for the teacher.

In 1968, our family doctor suggested that we have a retarded family member institutionalized rather than take them home from the hospital to live in the family.

In 1977, as part of my job for the State of Arizona, I helped place adults back in family homes. They were being removed from institutions that many had been placed in at birth. Some were 40 years or older and some of their siblings did not even know of their existence.

In 1978 I was part of the task force helping to determine ways to work with legislation that changed the ways people were admitted to state mental hospitals. It was now illegal to lock them in institutions without an appropriate period of observation by doctors who were trained in emotional illnesses.

In 1982 I adopted a youngster and read in her records that the doctor had to be persuaded to put tubes in the infant's ears. The doctor's perspective? Why waste time and money on helping the child hear -- she's going to be retarded anyway.

In 1982-3, the US legislature tried to pass a law that would make it illegal for doctors and parents to withhold food from infants born with disabilities in order to terminate ife - noteably infants with Down Syndrome.

In 1984 one of my children was bussed for 45 minutes to an accommodation school. She was mildly mentally retarded and the school would not serve her. I tried to fight the situation because of the long bus ride, the mistreatment she received from older youth on the bus, and the fact that it was such a restrictive environment, primarily with youngsters who were acting out in the county schools. Neither speaking with the principal, administration or local legal aide gave me any real hope or getting her needs met. I decided to move to another location rather than have to spend years in court.

In 1986 I went to the school where my daughter was placed in a second grade classroom. She was having difficulty learning to read due to learning disabilities. When I got to the office and asked to go to the room, the secretary snickered. She told me that my daughter spent all day in the bathroom playing in the sinks because the teacher didn't know what to do with her. Sure enough, when I got to the classroom, my daughter was not there. When I went to the girl's bathroom, she had water up to her elbows and was busy playing in the sinks in the bathroom.

Even the progress since 1990 -- just ten years -- has been remarkable. My children, in the past decade have had more excellent IEP's, regular and timely evaluations, progressive instructional options built to their personal needs, individual support, been involved in their own IEP's and I have been involved in assessment. My rights have been explained to me, my wishes and hopes have been taken into consideration. WE HAVE COME A LONG WAY!

Who are the Students:

Services for Students who are Special

There are ten overarching categories for special education services.

Special Needs Categories
Youth Involved (ages 6-21)
Percent of Disabilities
Specific learning disabilities 2,524,000 51.1
Speech or language impairments 1,024,000 20.8

Mental Retardation

MR with multiple handicaps





Emotional disturbances 428,000 8.7
Various health impairments 106,500 2.1
Hearing impairment 65,500 1.3
Orthopedic impairment 60,600 1.2
Visual impairment 26,000 0.5
Autism 22,800 0.04
Traumatic brain injury 7,200 0.0014

This data is from the U.S. Department of Education, 1996

Important notes
Special services must be offered to students who meet the criteria for these categories. Generally, about 8 percent of the youngsters in our schools fit within the guidelines and are eligible for services.
The largest category, Learning Disabilities, continues to grow. Over half of the students receiving special services come from the LD diagnosis.
Around 90 percent of students who receive special education services have mild disabilities.
When we look at racial and gender representation, a much higher percentage of males are receiving services. Those of Black, Hispanic and Native American are over represented.
Seven out of ten children who need special services can spend a large part of the day included in regular classroom learning activities.



PROS for labeling
CONS against labeling

Convenient for placement decisions

Communicates about the student needs

Makes accountability easier






Isolate youngsters from the norm

"Comes to stay" - once labeled LD, always LD; once bad in math . . .

Self fulfilling prophecy

Over identification -- looking for "what's wrong"





In conclusion - In conclusion -

If you feel strongly about labeling, this might be a good place to visit WebCT and share your opinions. You may choose to write a one minute essay, showcasing your feelings or experiences [25 points] or share the list and conclusions above [25 points]. You may also email your ideas to the instructor.

Who are the students being served? They are people -- and they are people's children, sons and daughters. It is easy to use an on and off switch when we label someone -- to see a role rather than a child. When we are on the outside, looking at the children streaming into our classroom, it is easy to forget that each of them is a very special, unique person. Each feels important to self, valuable, worthy of love, of concern - ideally each feels as good about self as anyone else -- and certainly needs the "armor".

It is possible to have something wrong - - to be different from others, and still value self. It is possible to have a child who has something wrong, and still love them as though the child is perfect. Sometimes we lose sight of how little and unimportant these differences really are. Follow these ideas for a moment to see what I mean.

If you had a child and they had red hair, would you learn to adjust? Could you love her for that special color of hair? Would you mind if others made fun of her? Would it be OK to call her "Copper Top" or carrot top? Would it matter who said it and how they said it? If you had a son and he only grew to be 5'7" would you lament it every day of his life? Does it ruin who he is for you?

Let me share with you, how my daughter's disability affects me. At first, it was hard to accept. I did not understand all the ins and outs of the disability how to parent most effectively - but I had the same kind of discovery process with my natural and normal youngster the first time I was a parent.

With my daughter who was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome, at first I did not believe the child was limited. Then I made an heroic effort to erase the differences - to love the problems and symptoms right out of her, work with her night and day to undo the developmental delays. I was angry when one of the doctors called her a Mongoloid -- I asked him to stop, and when he continued to talk about her as though she were a bandage on a role, I never went back to him. I got upset with teachers who let her play all day in the water fountain rather than helping her. I was adamant that she was going to be "NORMAL" I had a sister who sent me clippings of plastic surgery we could have done on her so no one could tell she was a Down child. I did all the infant stimulation exercises with dramatic flair, read about megavitamin therapy and every other piece of literature that held out a vision of helping her be more normal.

And then one day, I started to laugh at her funny little dance, realized how limber and special her body was, became amused when she dressed herself, two shades of red and orange, shirt inside out and shoes on the wrong feet, and strutted to show me that she was a big girl. I realized that I loved so many things about her, that the things she could not do, who she would not be, were not important. I was so glad that she was able to love me in spite of my disability - my lack of understanding that who she was was just right. I was thankful that I had not ruined her self esteem - that my panic at foolish appearances and receiving peanut butter hugs and kisses wherever her hands and mouth planted them had not thwarted her loving little heart.

I decided from that day on to finish growing up. I wanted to be as loving and kind as she. Now, when someone can't see her beauty, I tell them a funny little story. As we laugh about her life, I celebrate being able to understand that my child, and each child, is a miracle, unique, different, enough.

I also know that part of my job as an educator may be to help parents and teachers hurry along the same road I traveled until they can be delighted, at least in some small measure with who they are and with whom they get to spend life

"Celebrate, celebrate! Dance to the music of life!!!"

.Becoming a parent is a life changing experience. Having a child with disabilities adds to the growth, the changes in perspectives. Much of the changes in our educational revolution came about because parents realized just how special a child was and refused to let others demean the child .IDEA 1997 celebrates that parent spirit and asks us all to grow into more loving and accepting participants in the molding and educating of tomorrow's leaders.

Take the time to talk with parents of children. Some parents have a healthy child and are upset because they wanted a kid with blue eyes, or one who could sing, one who has beauty pageant potential. Other parents are busy seeing who a child is and looking for ways to enhance life and draw out the best the child can be. These ways of seeing children are not unique to special education. . . but we may have the gift of needing to learning to look more deeply, more acutely - and with the dazzling colors of "enough"



Click on the category to move to readings with definitions, links and ideas for enhancing teaching.

Gifted is also a category for special education, though it is not addressed in the same way in IDEA 97.

Another informational reading discusses at-risk. A style of learning, social, cultural, language stressors or life experiences may make it difficult for a youngster to learn. Having difficulty learning, as noted earlier, does not constitute a necessary condition for referral or placement.

Click to go to a general definition of each category:

Assignment Array

If you feel strongly about labeling, this might be a good place to visit WebCT and share your opinions. You may choose to write a one minute essay, showcasing your feelings or experiences [25 points] or share the list and conclusions above [25 points]. You may also email your ideas to the instructor.

Take time to interview the parent of a special needs child and the parent of a child without a label. Look for similarities and differences. Write up a one minute essay about your findings and send it by email to the instructor. [50 points]

Read Chapter Four in the Wood text (pp. 70-100), noting characteristics that define various disability labels.[50 points]

Review the lists of methods offered by the Wood text. As you go through each idea, put a star by each suggestion that could be seen as common sense. [25 points]

Make your own narrative time line of changes in treatment of students since you began school. Share it in WebCT. [25 points]

Services to Youth

with Special Needs

It is important to learn about children - to understand learning theory, child development, explore the wide variety of ways students learn and the unique needs or learning styles that make up the population of those who will need special services. It is also important to look at the other pieces in the puzzle - the services that are available in the classroom, the school and the district. All the people I know have a wish list. I certainly have one. I also understand the difference between what I need and what I wish for or want.

It is critical to sort out some of these distinctions. Our ability to provide services can be strengthened by scrutinizing what we have the ability to provide, the skills we need to gain to provide better services and also look for ways to involve the community in helping us work more effectively within the financial and "people" resources.

The supreme court made it very clear that schools cannot use lack of money as an excuse for not providing services. At the same time, schools do not have unlimited resources, and do not have a magic lamp. Recognizing legitimate barriers can help all of us, parents, students and educators feel better about what we can do and plan for better services in the future. Here are some examples of barriers:

If a child comes to our little rural Arizona school from Belgrade, at least initially, we probably will not be able to:

provide adequate bilingual services explain due process to parents in their native language
test the youngster in his native language provide qualified post traumatic stress counseling

If we have youngsters who need daily physical therapy, but we live in a remote area with a small population and no one trained as a therapist, we may be limited in the amount and frequency of therapy we can provide, despite wanting or needing the services.

When a youngster has serious emotional issues, we may not have the training or expertise to recognize the warning signs that would help us get therapy for a youngster.

We may believe that a student would benefit from special services, but parents may not believe it is in their son or daughter's best interest to be in a special program. They may refuse to allow testing, or refuse to cooperate with a course of action suggested by the evaluation process.

We have several ways of talking about services. Remember these words? Jot down a quick definition for them.




Due Process

These words are easier to say than put into practice. They defy practical definition because they must be individualized to each youngster. In each case, the concept describes a continuum of possibilities. In each instance a group of people, parents, administrators, educators, the student, professionals in the community, strive to come to a consensus about the most dynamic use of available resources for the student. (For a review of the mandates and guidelines that address these concepts, click here.

In the response box, write a list of at least five creative things educators and parents can do to enhance student situations and improve education without greater funding. You may wish to refer to this list as Opportunities for Empowerment.


Excellent response: List includes five or more items, with a clear focus on ways to utlize current resources creatively and optimize human resources. The general sense of the material will include ways that we can optimize student well-being within the honest limitations of limited funding.

For grading purposes, please provide the following information:

Your Name:
Your Email address:

Once you have filled in the areas above, click the Send button below to send your response to the instructor.


E-mail J'Anne Ellsworth at

Course developed by J'Anne Ellsworth


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