Special needs education deserves our respect | Guest Columns

At a time when communities around the world are celebrating UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities on December 6, I could not help but think of the taboos that special needs – especially when it comes to education – continue to carry in our society. It is difficult to rationalize that, although America devotes significant resources to the treatment and elimination of disability, we have invested relatively little in developing educational programs tailored to the needs of children with these diseases.

Children with different abilities need educational opportunities that help them learn and grow. With that in mind, I decided to pursue a degree in special education with a focus on autism spectrum disorders at Cleveland State University. After graduating, I wanted to pursue my professional passion by realizing my dream of living in Israel.

After some searching, I came across the innovative Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program run by Masa Israel Journey, which sends young people to Israel to teach English. I was accepted into the program and soon appointed to a position in Jerusalem. My educational experience helped me a lot when I worked to help my students achieve their goals in English.

Although I was not assigned to a special needs class in Israel, my experience of overcoming cultural and language barriers with my students illuminated for me new ways to engage students with special needs upon return to the United States. This is because children, regardless of their background and needs, are still just children. They want to play, learn, joke, make new friends, etc. They all learn who they are and this education never stops.

And it goes beyond children. Adults are also pretty much the same wherever you go. I was hosted by so many good people, I have an amazing roommate and I was overwhelmed by the community in Israel, making me feel a little more at home. My experience was even better than I could have imagined. Even though cultures are different and there is a lot to learn, my eyes have opened and I see that people are basically closer than you can imagine.

Because I do not speak Hebrew and many of my students do not speak English, we sometimes experience classroom situations where one of the parties is at a disadvantage. Too often the nuances of expression are lost in translation. However, this is unlikely to ever derail our classroom discussions and lessons. I have learned to prefer patience and understanding, regardless of the needs of my students. I learned to avoid teaching each class as a monolith. Every student needs to be treated as an individual, with unique needs and interests because they exist.

The same principle can be applied to classes with features of psychophysical development, because not every student has the same abilities in every subject.

Sometimes we have a habit of talking about students with mental and physical disabilities as different from the rest of the population. This is the reality, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2019 and 2020, 7.3 million students received special education services. This is 14% of all public education students. According to the Association of People with Disabilities in Learning America, 60% of adults with severe literacy problems have undetected or untreated learning difficulties, so this is not a problem that ends when we leave school.

I grew up with a brother who suffers from autism and is familiar with people’s misconceptions about deficiencies in education. I know that students with learning abilities – bright, amazing children – like everyone else. They work hard to learn something new, they want to achieve without the help of anyone, and although their needs are special, they do not want to be treated differently. Their strength and perseverance make it much more exciting when they achieve their goals.

Having crossed the language barrier in Israel, I see the same struggles and triumphs that I always see – both in old age, in my education, and in my experience. We all work with different skills and shortcomings. Some just face a struggle that is harder than others. But we all deserve equal respect.

Romi (Shoshana) Larsson is a teacher of Mass Israel from North Olmsted and lives in Jerusalem.


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