A question of language and capabilities

In a recent op-ed piece, former Baltimore school board member and president of Baltimore Special Education Advocacy Coalition Kalman Hettleman (7 October, 2014, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-disabled-students-20141007-story.html, downloaded on October 24, 2014) notes that the issue that many people have with including students with disabilities into educational reform efforts such as Common Core has to do with the vagueness of language often utilized in such efforts.

For example, Hettleman notes that although the term “most severe cognitive disorders” is utilized to create alternative standards for students with such disabilities, there is very little guidance from policymakers as to what exactly this entails (Hettleman, 7 October, 2014, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-disabled-students-20141007-story.html, downloaded on October 24, 2014). While Hettleman does not fully address this, it has to do with the social construction of disability well discussed in more social models of disability (e.g. Wendell, 1996; Liachowitz, 1988; Oliver, 1990; Charlton, 2000; Goodley, 2001). Socially, there is an assumption of what disability is, but there is not a well-defined notion of what severe cognitive impairment actually looks like, hence an open-ended and controversial policy.

This particular change is not well-defined. It is possible that there is intent that the policy remains open so that societal values can decide what “severe cognitive disability is” for itself. That would allow for different interpretations at various historical moments (with the assumption that the policy will endure) and, perhaps, for more local interpretations of disability.

However, as Hettleman notes (7 October, 2014, http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-disabled-students-20141007-story.html, downloaded on October 24, 2014), it is also important to interrogate the assumptions that are being made about the capabilities of people with various kinds of disabilities. For example, certain kinds of supports, such as communication access, screen readers, and less technical solutions such as differential instruction, have assisted individuals, previously not thought to be intellectually capable, to achieve academic competence.

It would seem, therefore, that given the right classroom techniques and other supports may be useful at narrowing the classification of “severely cognitive impaired.” It is, however, important that policymakers, if they make such decisions, narrowly tailor situations, perhaps through interpretive guidance, to decrease the possibility of possible discrimination. It may also be appropriate to allow for “escapes” should a student demonstrate progress they were not previously thought capable of in the past. Such protections would be in better keeping with the protections and capabilities that is currently being promoted in U.S. educational policy.

Andrew Bennett

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