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The Tragedy of Special Education

As somebody who was a special education student as a child, who grew up between the window between the passing of the Americans with Disability Act and the September 11 attacks, I saw the breakdown of separate special education classes and the reestablishment of separate schools for autism. I was able to graduate with my high school degree with minimal special education help. I am an avid reader and like to work with numbers but have dysgraphia. I somehow escaped the treadmill of failure experienced by future students.

Recently, an opinion piece found in the Wall Street Journal stated that special education students are consigned to a treadmill of failure. The author further writes that there are financial and employment rewards for classifying and retaining special needs children, and they are only accommodated until the point where they are of further interest to the system (i.e., age out of the system).

After comparing my primary and secondary education journey to reality today, there were times when my carefree journey had stumbling blocks. I did have a lower-than-average reading level in third grade, but my parents found a way for me to get tutored in reading during the summer so that I caught up with the rest of the class. In math, which is now my strong subject, I failed the 6th grade math exam and was held back one level, which I successfully completed with a 100% final grade and was able to finish as a college prep student in High School. As for writing, I still can only write my full name in cursive writing but am a strong computer keyboarder. Based on my experience, it is possible to overcome the treadmill of failure, but it takes hard work and self-determination, and most importantly long- and short-term goals.

However, many former special education students that I have met over the years do

not have any long- or short-term goals or lack the motivation to put in the work to improve their lives. I have asked many people who were forced to abandon their ambitions to appease others. Unlike others, I tend to have a more optimistic outlook and focus on the present and future, which has led me to three graduate degrees and multiple peer-reviewed manuscripts. My journey has been showing others that a treadmill of failure with encouragement of family and friends can become a mission of hope.

Some other recommendations on surviving and overcoming the treadmill of failure is to start small and think big. Very often people with special needs fell like a silo, where nobody can relate to their experiences. At the same time the perception of doing everything wrong can be draining on these same individuals. I know firsthand the power of negative words can pull down optimism. Sometimes I say yes just to avoid conflict, but it buries feelings that can explode like a volcano if not dealt with appropriately, leading to meltdowns. Although meltdowns cannot be completely unavoidable the occurrences of them can be reduced by talking though the issues rather than burying them. I also found that programs like Mental Health First Aid ( can be a godsend for developing “adaptive empathy”, by teaching that mental health is not a solo activity and that people with mental illness can manage symptoms and live productive lives.


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