The power of labels, stories, and stigmas in special education

Determining a student’s eligibility for special education is a critical, yet terrifying, process. If a student is deemed eligible for special education, then he/she receives a special label known as an eligibility category. For some parents, this label may represent a stigma, stirring up concerns about how their child may be perceived or treated as a result of this label. Fear of stigmas can impact decision-making, sometimes delaying the services that a student may need or leading to a fight for a certain label that carries a more acceptable condition or a more favorable set of services.

I never expected to attend an initial evaluation meeting for a 13 year old young man with such intensive needs. The primary concerns that led to the evaluation were his self-injurious and aggressive behaviors, but he had many other needs as well. He had only recently received a diagnosis and now for the first time would begin to have access to educational supports and therapy to address his needs. He was non-verbal and would just now, at age 13, begin to receive speech and language services.

It would be easy to make up a story about what led to this point. In and out of so many schools, this student must have been misunderstood by his teachers. But, how could his disability, so visible now, slip past the eyes of so many? Someone must have noticed his needs and suggested an evaluation. Was it concern about the stigma of a diagnosis that kept his parents from pursuing the evaluation? Didn’t they see that something was wrong, that he needed something different?

In learning more about the actual story, I quickly discovered that labels had been at play long before that initial evaluation. His parents had placed him in a variety of schools, all private, so that he would have the attention he needed. Many of these schools were highly specialized, so before long his teachers had labeled him a “misfit” and he was withdrawn from the program. Rather than explain what wasn’t working, the teachers deflected responsibility. The parents were told to look elsewhere because the school didn’t serve “behavior kids.” “He was disrupting the learning of others” and “he didn’t belong.”

The parents, doing all that they knew to do, continued their search for a school that would accept their son. When they found that school, the teachers were vocal about all of their concerns and pushed for an evaluation. The parent’s were shocked by the level of concern. They felt that the teachers were “overreacting” and “undermining his potential.” The teachers, frustrated and concerned for the wellbeing of the student, grumbled amongst each other about how “disengaged” the parents were. They were baffled by the “lack of awareness” and how “underwhelmed” they were about his needs.

In this story, it was ultimately the evaluation that led to common ground. It brought the parents and the teachers to a shared understanding of what the student’s needs were and what there was to do about it. It would be easy for the labels to follow… for the student to be that “misfit,” for the parents to believe that the teachers were “undermining his potential,” and for the teachers to assume that the parents were “disengaged.” But these labels would only be counterproductive.

We all have a tendency to label others. We usually do this in an effort to control, simplify, rationalize, hide, excuse or deflect responsibility. When labels are misused or misinterpreted, they have the power to harm. These labels may be based on a defining moment from the past or a way of interacting that gets misperceived. It’s the stories that get created and that follow a person that have the power to carry the greatest stigmas.

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One thought on “The power of labels, stories, and stigmas in special education

  1. Trisa does an excellent job of describing the complexities of collaboration around individual needs. The crucial piece here isn’t a label, even though a label opens doors to additional services. The crucial piece is the perception of others’ understanding of and motivation for addressing specific individual differences. As parent of a special education student I’ve been a powerful advocate and have experienced the full range of responses from professional educators, everything from tremendous support to callous and shallow inattention to the individual with learning differences. It took us 2 1/2 years (and numerous failed placements) to find a school in MD that could successfully address our student’s complex needs.

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