Special education is innovation

Our need will be the real creator – Plato

Last week, a Washington Post reporter gathered up a lot of string on the status of disability rights in public education and broadcast it on the web. I’m not sure even she expected to learn that special education is innovation.

The first couple of segments featured the big policy folks, including a smiling Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who didn’t stray too far from his talking points. But the last segment made the hourlong watch worthwhile. Rebecca Cokley, of the Ford Foundation, and Jacqueline Rodriguez, CEO for the National Learning Center for Disabilities, are both real firecrackers.

They offered two big ideas that I have been thinking about a lot since then. One was that the pandemic was a mass disabling event, which shifted perspectives for a lot of people who didn’t count themselves among the “disabled.”

Behold the hidden scaffolds of our economy and culture, for they have disabled you, too! It was exhilarating to see so many people questioning this “structure” that, in so many ways, makes little sense.

It’s why, for example, many workers are staying remote and others are getting organized. Dell recently announced its return-to-work policy—no promotions for employees who don’t return full-time—and the words felt hollow. Turns out, Dell employees already felt they had few opportunities for advancement. Apparently, now we just say it out loud. Careful what you wish for, C-suite.

Disney recently announced that they would have to change their disability accommodation policies, after so many people used them to jump the lines. Turns out, cramming 15-17 million people a year into an amusement park to maximize profit doesn’t make a kingdom magical. That kind of accommodation was brand new when Sam was young, so we asked for it. The crowds were already massive for so many things. I can’t imagine how miserable that day would’ve been if we’d spent hours in line for Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean and Mr Toad’s Wild Ride.

But back to education. According to Cokley, we look at special education backwards. Over time, special education has proven itself as a place of innovation. Many discoveries, practices and refinements that started in special ed have crossed over to general ed—the way we teach children to read, for example. She argued that if school districts and communities supported special education teachers as the master teachers and innovators that they are—and public policy experts started talking about them that way—our public education system would bounce back much faster.

Not only could we address the current teacher shortages, particularly in special education, but we’d get back to the business of education innovation and human progress.


  1. matt voegtle on June 28, 2024 at 11:46 am

    great read Peggy thanks.
    Matt V

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