Chapter Seven: Teachers, Students, and Teaching

7.10 The Development of Special Education

The subject of special education illustrates the interplay of educational considerations with organizational issues in schools, and is a field full of debate and controversy. The extensive development of special education in Canadian public schools goes back about 50 years.  Although the intention of facilitating learning opportunities for students with exceptionalities was laudable, in reality, the initial framing of special education in the school system initially stemmed from deficit thinking and negative assumptions (Cochrane-Smith & Dudley-Marling, 2012). In 1967, a report entitled One Million Children was published by the Canadian Enquiry into Learning Disabilities in Children (CELDIC). The report pointed out that large numbers of students were not being served appropriately by schools because insufficient efforts were being made to meet their particular needs. The CELDIC report was itself the result of organization and lobbying efforts by parents and others interested in these children. After the report’s release, these groups used it to pressure schools and provincial governments to take action on its recommendations.

Over the next 10 years or so, departments and ministries of education in Canada’s provinces developed policies on various aspects of special education. From the outset, the development of special education has been shaped by two simultaneous but contradictory elements. On the one hand, much of special education has been heavily influenced by the concept of normalization (Wolfensberger, 1972), which argues that services to people with disabilities should be as similar as possible to those provided to the rest of the population. The move to normalization was not confined to schools, but developed broadly in the social services, primarily those that served persons with cognitive and physical disabilities. The concept of normalization implies that people with disabilities should receive specific support services to allow them to function as “normally” as possible, instead of being segregated in separate programs or facilities. In this way, thinking was still based on the idea that children with exceptionalities were somehow “less than normal”. On the other hand, a large part of special education involved identifying students as having particular “problems” and then programming to meet their needs, thereby setting them apart from other students. Here the dilemma of grouping, discussed earlier in this chapter, is drawn even more sharply.

Normalization played an important role in the development of special education, initiating policies such as the integration of many disabled students into regular classrooms. Previously, students who were blind, deaf, or physically disabled had been taught primarily in separate schools and classes, and many children with cognitive disabilities were not in school at all. In the 1970s, however, many such students were returned to neighbourhood schools where it was expected that adaptations would be made for their particular needs. This was not, unfortunately, accompanied by effective teacher training such that teachers could actually meet these expectations.

Another set of special-education practices created an entire industry of labelling practices and testing regimes in order to try to support the direction of resources for children with exceptionalities. Concepts such as “learning disability,” “hyperactivity,” “emotionally disturbed,” and other supposed diagnoses of student “problems” were developed in the 1970s, along with a whole series of testing devices that were used to assess students who fell under these categories. In many provinces, definitions of special education were broadened to include such services as English as an Additional Language (EAL) and other learning limitations related to students’ social background that were embedded with white middle class assumptions that led to the creation of special education classrooms full of children who were not actually in need of special education services.

A delivery and support apparatus emerged alongside special education. New programs and classes were created for special-needs students. New categories of teachers, such as resource teachers and behavioural class teachers, were also created, with different certification requirements in some provinces. Extensive professional development programs were offered to teachers. Universities established special-education programs and departments, journals began to publish, and research programs developed. Provinces created special education branches and provided targeted funding to support special education programs and staff. Today, running throughout the school system is a large apparatus dedicated to the area of special education.


Share This Book