March 22, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 57°F


Guest Commentary: Special needs students should have more options

At first glance, you may think my younger cousin Teale is a loud, impatient, unruly kid with rage issues. What you may not see is the sweet, caring girl hindered by factors far beyond her control. Teale has had severe disabilities since birth because of complications I have never been able to understand, but I’ve watched Teale grow up in spite of the odds against her. What you should see in Teale is a person — one who deserves as much respect as anyone else.

From left, Teale sits with her cousin, senior Casey Thomas. Teale was born with severe disabilities and is benefitted by teachers who understand her needs.

I recently read about an incident in which a North Carolina teacher cut, without parent permission, about eight inches of hair from the head of a student to eliminate the “distraction.” The victim, 7-year-old Jesslyn, has Down syndrome. Where does someone get the nerve to mistreat a child that way? After reading this article, I Skyped my aunt Ellie, Teale’s mom, to get her experienced opinion on the mistreatment of students with special needs in public school.

Ellie explained to me that, because of her partial deafness, Teale would speak much more loudly than the other kids in order to hear herself. As teacher after teacher told Teale to be quiet, a difficult concept for her to understand, she began to lose her voice entirely in the classroom, along with her confidence. Ellie also told me about the day she visited Teale’s third grade class, only to find her daughter completely isolated from her classmates, sitting at a desk against the wall and flanked by teacher aids. This type of treatment, along with numerous other examples, was what motivated Ellie to find a school for Teale where she would be understood and respected.

After a long four-year struggle, Teale now attends Holy Childhood, a school that focuses on the education and overall development of students with special needs. At last freed from her alienation, Teale is part of a community that respects her distinctive needs. She is making significant strides academically as well as socially, and she is beginning to realize her potential.  I believe all disabled students should have the opportunity to experience such a sense of belonging. While I understand that some people believe integrated school systems encourage diversity, I think we need to give thought to the hardship we are causing disabled students.

Students should have the option to choose the educational environment that best suits them and should not be forced into a learning community that doesn’t have the resources or teachers to fully meet the student’s needs.

This is a topic that should be discussed more in classes at Ithaca College, especially for education majors.  Obviously there will not be one solution that works for everyone, but there should be more opportunities for specialized education settings.  It takes a lot to be a teacher, and I congratulate those who enter the field, but students with special needs should be given the opportunity to learn in a safe, accepting community. No child should have to feel like an outsider.