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Ethical Dilemmas in Special Education
The ethical issues involved in special education are manifold. In many cases, the students are unable to perform certain activities unimpaired, and in many cases they will not ever attain a legal majority or emancipation. This already puts the educator in a more proprietary position than the mere invocation of in loco parentis could ever hope to capture.
Yet this seems to point toward a greater degree of potential paternalistic condescension on the educators part, something which we might consider as a particularly bitter irony about the state of special education overall, based on the origins of the present system of special education in America as being among the legal and educational reforms prompted by the Civil Rights movement inititated by African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. Congress' 1975 passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children act would remedy the earlier shocking statistic that only one in five handicapped children in the United States received an education at all, and it was widely credited as an achievement made possible by the earlier pivotal justice provided in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Special education to a certain extent remains a civil rights issue, and a potentially contentious one.
I propose to conduct a literature review which focuses on this aspect of special education specifically, and to see if a survey of existing opinion provides us with any sort of consensus as to the present state of ethics in the profession.
The more specific statement of the ethical issue to be addressed here is disparities in standards of treatment. This is a running theme, as I hope to demonstrate, throughout the available literature on ethical issues relating to special education. Anyone with even the most passing experience with special education is aware that it entails the question of "mainstreaming," but it is worth recalling that the opposite of such mainstreaming -- and the standard practice in special education in most areas -- is a certain degree of segregation. Whether or not this segregation is problematic in and of itself -- and the degree of "labeling" which necessarily accompanies it, and which may also represent an added source of grief for special needs children, as they discover their own educational classification becomes a term of abuse, and terms like "retard" and "short bus" are thrown around with knowing contempt and hatefulness.
Of course, there are larger issues involved in special education -- sometimes it involves questions of official medical diagnosis, or sometimes it involves a lack of uniformity in standards and practices, but in all of these cases the central ethical issue of special education continues to be, in some sense, how "special" it really out to be, and how "special" it is. An alarmist might worry that we are placing special needs children into "special but unequal" facilities, yet this is not the ethical issue that troubles most educators in the field.
Instead, I think issues of how to provide the best treatment for each individual student remains the pre-eminent ethical concern for most educators actually on the ground and working in the field -- the ethical issues surveyed here are really more related to policy and administrative level concern.
The ethical issues involved in special education are manifold, and so I have concentrated my survey of literature on three specific areas: the involvement of medical standards, the problems posed by minority groups within special education, and the general issues of diagnosis, labeling and segregation (which to a certain degree can be critiqued from the standpoint of either the medical profession or of the "civil rights" standards set by minority groups in the 1960s which would have the additional result of the passage of 1970s-era legislation mandating educational support for the handicapped and those with special needs.
From the standpoint of purely medical ethics, both Black and Subotsky and also Alderson and Goodey address the issue of special education specifically. Black and Subotsky address the issues of special needs education within the larger context of medical ethics for those treating young persons for any sort of psychiatric reason which might require educational segregation, a common theme in all ethics-related writings on special education. Although their survey is based on London and they write from a European perspective, their conclusions would apply to the medical community's approach to special education in America as well:
A more common set of problems arises when a child is classified as maladjusted, or more correctly, assessed as being able to benefit from the kind of special education provided in schools for the maladjusted. A number of ethical difficulties arise from this procedure, particularly when the needs of the individual child have to be evaluated in conjunction with those of his teachers and his classmates, and economic factors may also have to be considered. (Black and Subotsky 1982, 7).
As we will see, their concerns here -- intended to be generally for the psychiatric profession as a whole -- will be echoed by the various other writers surveyed, particularly in the ethical dilemmas found in balancing the needs of students vs. those of teachers, and also the problems related to economic issues (which may or may not correlate with issues of race as well. Meanwhile, Alderson and Goodey also consider special education from the standpoint of specifically medical ethics, claiming that "the relationship between medical and educational approaches to children with disabilities and other difficulties has a long history" in which "the educational profession has veered between optimistic, often successful experiments in teaching such children, and disclaiming responsibility for many of them as 'ineducable'," while "the medical profession has…a parsimonious view of their developmental potential" (Alderson and Goodey 1998, 49). In some sense, they imply that the medical profession itself is probably best left out of any debates over care, because it has emphasized a more consistent standard of medical care for the differently abled while not necessarily endorsing any specific educational philosophy or goal.
A survey of the literature on ethical issues related to special education, though, also turns up a persistent theme between issues of racial segregation and second-class treatment, and how they may blend over into issues related to the segregatory practices of special education. Talbert-Johnson (2001) focuses specifically on racial issues. But she rightly emphasizes that it is a profession-wide scandal that the inability to attract and retain qualified African-American teachers specifically within the special education. She argues moreover that "the scarcity of African-American teachers in special education limits opportunities for these individuals to know and communicate in more than one culture" especially when the official statistics she cites from the United States Department of Education are so troubling and potentially ethically problematic: "African-Americans comprise 6.8% and 9.6% of elementary and secondary special education teachers, respectively" but "by contrast, approximately 18.4% of special education students are African-American" (286). In terms of the ethical issues involved in her survey, though, Talbert-Johnson is most sharp about the tendency to mislabel or mistakenly segregate African-American students within the special education system itself: she cites an intensive 1993 journalistic survey whose analysis found that African-American students are more likely to be overrepresented in special education classes when they are students in predominantly White school districts. The report also documented a network of programs that regularly used subjective testing criteria that relied on funding formulas and identification procedures that funnel ever greater numbers of minority children into special education programs each year. In state after state, disproportionately high numbers of African-American children were misidentified for special education programs.
(Talbert-Johnson 2001, 289)
Talbert-Johnson seems to conclude here that it is the overall lower quality of services provided to minority groups such as African-Americans or Latinos that is to account for their additional sloppy service from special education professionals as well. Of course these issues relate to the more general ethical issues involved in segregative designations for special education students and the whole question of identifiying "special education" as a separate and non-integrated educational category. Connor and Ferri also place an emphasis on the linkage between the establishment of special education infrastructure and the larger civil rights movement, but including discussion of the landmark legal cases which would hinge on the same issues of race and segregation. The 1970 Diana v. State Board of Education case involved nine Latino children falsely classified as Educable Mentally Retarded by a Caucasian examiner but then "retested by a Hispanic examiner" who found eight of the nine to be normal; the Larry P. v. Riles case in 1979 would hinge on the "overrepresentation of minority children in Educable Mentally Retarded classes in the San Francisco public schools" found to be "due to educational practices, including teacher bias" (Connor and Ferri 2005, 108). Here the ethical issues involve perhaps a secondary level of treatment offered to both minorities and students with special needs, which corresponds to a shockingly low standard for the treatment of students at the intersection of both groups. Connor and Ferri…[continue]
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