Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Voices in the Struggle:
In Response to "'Reining In' Special Education"

Beth Ferri, Ph.D
Associate Professor
Programs in Teaching and Leadership, Cultural Foundations of Education, & Disability Studies
Syracuse University
150 Huntington Hall
Syracuse, New York 13244
E-mail: baferri@syracuse.edu


In responding to "'Reining In' Special Education," I explore some of the taken-for-granted assumptions about students with disabilities in The New York Times editorials about special education that Nancy Rice critiques in this issue. Next, I attend to other voices in the editorial page in the form of letters to the editor and editorial pages from the Black press as examples of alternative and competing discourses. Because I contend that editorials are designed not just to persuade, but also to provoke response, I examine ways that these voices talk back and talk with dominant ideologies about special education. And, finally, I examine what these texts are trying to tell readers not only to believe, but also what to do about the so-called "problem" of special education.

Keywords: Special Education, Disability, Media


I commend Nancy Rice on what is likely to be an important contribution to the field. Her insightful analysis of editorial coverage of special education in The New York Times from 1975-2004, illustrates how debates about educating students with disabilities reflect unexamined and problematic ableist assumptions. She finds in these editorials that special education is often characterized as a problem of nightmarish proportions–an out-of-control monster that must be "brought under control"–rather than a set of services and civil rights protections that ensure that students with disabilities gain access to a free and appropriate education. She also finds that parents and their children with disabilities are commonly portrayed as a greedy special interest lobby demanding an unfair share of education resources and ultimately burdening a cash-strapped educational system. War metaphors like "battle" and "alarming expansion" and phrases that cast special education as "devouring" and "eating up" educational dollars are obviously meant to heighten anxiety and fear in the hearts and minds of the non-disabled.

In focusing on editorials, Rice examines opinions, which, she writes, are designed to persuade readers to believe certain truths about reality. She acknowledges that editorials should not be seen as representing the public opinion, but nonetheless can be read as representing the "dominant, mainstream perspective." So, what are we to make of these dominant assumptions about special education? What relationship do these opinions have, not only to special education as a system, but also to students with disabilities, who are ultimately served by that system? If as Rice claims editorials are meant to persuade–what exactly are we to believe and what are we to do about special education? And, finally, since Rice acknowledges that there are always competing discourses, what would attending to other voices, voices which represent competing discourses, tell us about the power of such dominant discourses to shape public opinion?

In this response to Rice's work, I explore some of these questions. First, I attempt to locate places where critiques of special education reveal unstated, yet taken-for-granted assumptions about students with disabilities themselves. Next, I attend to other voices in the editorial page–those of individuals writing letters to the editor and voices from the Black press as examples of alternative and competing discourses. Because I contend that editorials are designed not just to persuade, but also to provoke response in the form of letters to the editor, I examine ways that these voices talk back and talk with dominant ideologies about special education. And, finally, I try to identify not just what these texts are trying to tell readers to believe, but also what, as readers, they call us to do about the "problem" of special education.

Unpacking the Discourse

One of the first themes identified by Rice centers on how special education is causing an alarming budget crisis in education, which is said to be escalating out of control. Editors place special education in direct competition with general education for what they perceive to be scarce resources. Rice concludes that this discourse of competition "perpetuates resentment" for a program that is seen as hoarding more than its fair share of resources. If we consider how this discourse implicitly positions students with disabilities, they too are seen only in terms of lack or deficit, demanding a seemingly endless amount of resources–resources that would otherwise be spent on non-disabled students. Following a logic of eugenics, students with disabilities are characterized as a drain or drag on the progress of the educational system and the society at large. In this equation, there is no value placed on students with disabilities–they are characterized as taking but not contributing to either the classroom or to society. In other words, because students with disabilities are seen as only deficit in a zero-sum game, there can be no return on this investment–this is not money well spent. Thus, money spent on special education must be carefully scrutinized.

Another theme outlined by Rice describes special education as a failed or "troubled" system. This is followed by proposals for how the system should be reformed. As Rice points out, not all "solutions" are put on the table–editors, for example, do not call for parents and students with disabilities to have greater control over the services they receive. Additionally, when you see a call for reforming special education in the editorial pages–it is most often lawmakers and politicians who aim to wrest control of the system away from local educators and parents, according to Rice. Neither are there serious proposals to restructure general education to make it more welcoming and accommodating of diverse students or holding general education teachers accountable for all students. Instead, what is proposed are a series of incremental changes that allow the status quo to remain in place–schools may continue to be designed with non-disabled students in mind–and non-disabled, white, middle class students remain the unexamined norm by which all students are measured. In this way, calls for reform follow medical model principles, placing the emphasis on remediating special education (and by association special education students), rather than overhauling systems and structures that are biased or exclusionary. Thus, general education maintains its normative status even when students with disabilities are allowed into the classroom. In other words, calls for pushing special education supports into the general education classroom do little to substantially change the structure of that classroom or the teaching that occurs there.

Unpacking the assumption that special education is a failed or broken system demands that we think about what, according to these editors, would constitute success? From the excerpts that Rice analyzes, it would seem that special education is criticized first because it is too expensive, and second, because it does not show a return on the investment in terms of graduation rates and test scores. As Rice suggests, "the focus is on where students are placed, how funding works and who reports to whom." She points out that in the editorials she analyzed, many other "more fundamental" issues are not raised. Thus, for example, the problem of the disproportionate numbers of students of color who are placed in special education (Losen & Orfield, 2002) is not a central concern. Also left out is the increasingly narrow measures that schools and students are held accountable. Moreover, when students fail to meet expected norms for achievement, the measures themselves, which are assumed to be valid and neutral, are rarely questioned in these editorials. Instead, students and the schools they attend, most of which are also under-resourced schools, are said to have failed when they do not measure up to these standards. Conveniently, the current testing system punishes the most disadvantaged students and the most under-funded schools; however, addressing the unequal funding of suburban and urban schools is also left off the list of suggested reforms.

Expanding the Debate

As stated earlier, editorials are only one voice on the editorial page, which are often a cacophony of voices and opinions. Those who write letters to the editor, as well as voices from the Black press, are both examples of alternative discourses, which talk back and talk with the dominant ideologies about special education that we see in the editorials that Rice analyzes. As Black feminist scholars have argued, much can be learned by attending to voices on the periphery–both about marginalization but also domination. By situating our analysis not just in the center of power, but from the margin we gain "new angles of vision on oppression" (Collins, 2000, p. 11). As hooks (1996) writes, the margin is "much more than a site of deprivation," it is a "space of radical openness"–it is "a central location for the production of a counterhegemonic discourse" (p. 51-52).

In a cursory review of letters to the editor published in the New York Times during the years that Rice analyzes we see an immediate broadening of the issues. For example, in a letter by Imparato (2001), among a list of critiques is a call for both increasing funding for special education and for the meaningful enforcement of special education laws, like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (p. 14). Some parents also share their own experiences (both good and bad) with the services their disabled children receive. A parent of two children who receive special education suggests that education must be tailored to each child's "differing abilities and needs" and should not be measured "simply by how many children are not longer in it, but rather by ensuring that each child is in a setting that maximizes her chances for success" (Engel, 2001, p. 16). One letter questions the so-called problem of special education spiraling out of control, by calling attention to the "tens of thousands of children in New York City who need special education intervention...[but who are left to] flounder in regular education classrooms" with no services (Farago, 1999, p. 15). In these letters we see calls for more rather than less funding and an awareness that when it comes to education, no one size fits all. A commitment to differentiating instruction and an accounting for student diversity and differences lies in stark contrast to the current preoccupation for standards-based accountability systems.

In the Black press there is a similar expansion of the terms of the debate over special education. As Vogel (2001) explains, the Black press "worked to change American culture... [as it] redefined class, restaged race and nationhood, and reset the terms of public conversation" (p. 1). The Black press, according to Vogel, was [and is] a space where the dominant discourse could be countered and questioned. During the years that Rice analyzes coverage of special education in the New York Times, the Black press was also considering the role of special education in the Black community. In a guest editorial Chance, Desvigne, Dunbar, Solomon, Tanner, and Thomas (1988) express skepticism of reforms brought by self-appointed "educational messiahs" who are "sent forth to save the schools" (p. 10). Writers find the reforms brought forth by such experts to be simply a "smoke screen to perpetuate the status quo–the non-education and miseducation of the Black child" (p. 10). In other words, the authors do not place a lot of faith in solutions that have no connection to the local context. In contrast to the editorials that Rice analyzes, the Black press is also brimming with critiques of the overrepresentation of Black students in special education (Baillou, 1991; Edelman, 1989; Mason, 1994; Thomas, 1995). As Mason (1994) writes, "There are too many children of color in special education who have been taken off the express train and put on the local. The local never catches up with the express" (p. A9). Another calls special education "as a not so special reservation for Black youth...[an] educational purgatory" (Thomas, 1995, p. A1). In these posts special education is characterized as a tool used by general education to rid itself of students of color. Referring to special education as the "stigmatized 'underbelly' of education" (A1), Thomas highlights how special education is itself marginalized in education. Mason (1994) concurs; special education and general education are "two parallel but unequal systems" (p. A9).

These critiques focus on ways that race and disability status combine to further marginalize Black students. Moreover, because there is an awareness of the relationship between overrepresentation and racial discrimination, calls for special education reform in the Black press require a commitment to address both ableism and racism simultaneously.


In summary, I want to consider what we as readers are called to believe and, as a result, what we are called to do about the "problem" of special education? As Rice's analysis highlights, special education is typically portrayed as the source of what is wrong with education–it is too expensive and woefully ineffective–and in its parasitic relation to general education, it ultimately threatens all of education. Ultimately it is politicians who are positioned as the most reasoned voice about how to solve the problem of special education. Calls for reform or action focus narrowly on funding, oversight, or accountability, rather than more radical restructuring of all of education. As a reader, I am told to mistrust the special education "lobby" and put my trust instead in political officials and legislative reform to "contain" special education–to keep it from rampaging out of control, like a renegade flu virus. The presumed audience of these editorials appears decidedly to be non-disabled parents of non-disabled kids and tax payers.

In the Black press we see some very different ways to reform education. There are calls for addressing deep and "systematic discrimination" (Baillou, 1996, p. 4) of students of color and for reforms that are grounded in "quality and equity" for all (Mason, 1994, p. A9). There are also demands for more teachers of color and for increased funding for under resourced schools. The "financial crisis" that plagues education, however, is not blamed on students with disabilities or the services they require, but on outside experts and their inequitable funding schemes, which serve only to protect the privileged (Chance et al., 1988). One proposal creatively suggests taking the substantial money spent every year on special education eligibility testing in New York City, which the author estimates at "$400 million" and using it "to pay for 100 extra teachers in each of the city's 1,000 schools" (Mason, p. A9). Many advocate for local solutions and local control and question an unqualified allegiance to testing. There is also a deep distrust of segregation in all of its forms–and as a result, several advocate for more inclusive practices. Similarly, in letters to the editor of the New York Times we also see calls for increased funding and for ensuring that rights students are entitled to under IDEA are guaranteed. These calls to action do not ignore the problems associated with special education, such as low expectations or overrepresentation of students of color, or ways that parents are "bullied" into accepting special education labels (Mason, 1994, p. A9), but the solutions presented reflect a critique of power and the need to disrupt the status quo.

In both mainstream editorials and in examples of what I am calling alternative discourses we are persuaded to believe certain truths and then to act, presumably on behalf of students with disabilities. In the editorials that Rice critiques, however, the concern is more about containing special education than it is about tackling the real problems of inequality that students with disabilities face in and out of school. By attending to the voices of those positioned on the margins of educational reforms we highlight the complicated ways that power operates to further marginalize students with disabilities and students of color, and particularly students of color who are disabled. If we are to really address what is wrong with special education and general education we would do well to listen carefully to those most silenced by those who are given the largest platform on which to speak.


Baillou, C. (1996, May 4). Mother battles bureaucracy 14 years, still at it. Amsterdam News, p. 4.

Baillou, C. (1991, April 27). Special Ed said to work best with parents' active involvement. Amsterdam News, p. 24.

Chance, B.M., Desvigne, L.M., Dunbar, M., Solomon, R., Tanner, M.A., & Thomas, M.E. (1988, Jan. 2). Public education crisis. Amsterdam News, p. 10. [guest editorial].

Collins, P.H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Edelman, M.W. (1989, July 20). Schools and Black students: Working toward fairness. The Call and Post, p. 5A. [op-ed].

Engel, J.P. (2001, May 7). Learning-Disabled kids. New York Times, p. 16. [letter].

Farago, J. (1999, June 27). Essay on special education used false premises. New York Times, p. 15. [letter]

hooks, b. (1996). Choosing the margin as a space of radical openness. In A. Garry & M. Pearsall (Eds.). Women, knowledge, and reality: Explorations in feminist philosophy (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Imparato, A.J. (2001, Jan. 28). Aid disabled students. New York Times, p. 14. [letter].

Losen, D.L. & Orfield, G. (2002). Racial inequality in special education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mason, B. (1994, July 9). Special education: Warehousing Black youths. Pittsburgh Courier, p. A9.

Thomas, S. (1995, April 8). Educators explore new frontier in special education. The Indianapolis Recorder, p. A1.

Copyright (c) 2006 Beth A. Ferri

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