November 2, 2023 | OPINION | By Kole Petersen

Before the 1970s, scholastic opportunities for children with disabilities were extremely limited, if not nonexistent. People with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses were shoved into mental institutions rather than being included in schools, reflecting the neglectful attitude of the American education system toward those who were perceived as intellectually inferior. Finally, in 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was signed into law, assuring that all children with disabilities would have a free public education available to them that met their individual needs.

However, the mistreatment inflicted on students with physical and mental disabilities by American schools has not fully gone away. While the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 intended to improve the prosperity of disabled individuals in American education, the methods that have been used to accomplish this goal merely consist of the lumping of disabled students under a different façade. There are many issues with the current state of special education that are vital to talk about. Still, arguably the most egregious example of the horrific state of American special education is the individualized education program.

As defined by the United States Department of Education, the program is intended to be a truly individualized document designed to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability and thereby improve their educational results.

It is instructed that these programs be formulated with collaboration between the child’s parents, teachers, school staff and the child themselves to properly understand and cater to the needs of the child in question. While program forms look different within each school system and within each state, the stated purpose of it is clear: to maximize the quality of education received by every child with a disability by closely examining and accounting for their individuality.

The reality surrounding the implementation of individualized education programs is vastly different than this imagined utility. Instead of programs being painstakingly crafted for every disabled child, they are created through computer generation and the application of formulas.

These robotic plans do not consist of an individualized curriculum for an entire school year, but rather focus on the compilation of fragmented educational objectives without any clear plan on how to accomplish them. Furthermore, the structure of these forms is incredibly long and confusing, only to provide little to no useful information for both the student and the teachers, making it difficult to implement the programs in the first place. For this reason, many teachers believe that the modification of individualized education programs will aid the process of locating information and make vetting students easier and more successful.

Additionally, the very suggestions and goals hidden within the depths of the programs have arbitrary criteria, are vague in verbiage, and oftentimes are set too low to properly determine if progress is even being made. Due to the near-monotone craft of creating them, academic objectives are commonly crafted in a manner which lacks fidelity and goes against federal policy, further jeopardizing the educational experience of disabled students.

As an example, a common goal of a 50-60% participation rate lacks any sort of specificity and can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, thereby representing the generalization frequently used in a system designed to acknowledge individuality within disability.

While the methodologies used to create these programs are bad enough, the limitations within the American special education system make it incredibly difficult to provide children with disabilities with the very resources contained within these programs. No access to assistive technology, limited inclusive education opportunities, and ineffective communication between educators and parents are just a few of the most ubiquitous problems faced in special education, further exacerbating the issue of the programs doing little to facilitate a productive educational environment for students with disabilities.

Furthermore, although individualized education programs were designed to improve the quality of education for disabled students, studies have suggested that the exact opposite is occurring. Students placed in special education classes that identify them as disabled are much more likely to doubt their academic abilities, experience low self-esteem and feel that they are “dumber” than their peers merely by being labeled as “special.” Being “relegated” to special education classes combined with the lower academic expectations typical of these programs places disabled students in a box, leaving them ostracized from their peers.

However, even if these programs were perfectly formulated and were proven to cause improved educational achievement, the lack of federal funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act makes the very process of getting a program a nightmare.

The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children law promised to provide a “maximum” of 40% of per-student costs for a child with a disability, but as of 2018, this number has plummeted to just 17%. This lack of federal funding has led to delays and rejections in evaluations for disabled students as well as inappropriate changes and limited access to proper services, leading to the failure of schools to create and implement these programs properly.

Ultimately, the modern nature of individual education programs being contradictory to their original intentions has caused disabled students to experience a new form of discrimination. While children with disabilities are technically allowed to be at school, the flawed creation and implementation of the programs have reinforced the divide between disabled students and their neurotypical peers.

The neglect and generalization of students with disabilities is being perpetuated by the formulaic nature of their supposedly personalized programs. For the sake of all American students with disabilities, I can only hope that the American education system takes a hard look at itself in the mirror and prioritizes the “individual” part of individual education programs.

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