When ‘Special’ Feels Like an Insult: Diary of an IEP Kid

I've struggled with learning disabilities my whole life. Not the disability, but being labeled as someone with a disability. I had never felt stupid before, but for some reason getting “special” testing and getting called “special” did not make me feel very special. After enough times being called special, I started to act “special.” And special often meant stupid. While I was pretending to be studious in class, I often wrote rhymes in my notebook. I wrote about how I felt in my classroom. After digging through some old scrapbooks, this is what I found: I am young ADHD I learn differently I run to an IEP Too dumb to be a priority I know none of my ABC’s I default to XYZ’s. It’s not my fault it’s reality Result is jealousy I got mad and yelled at me I was distraught can’t you see I cannot, so let me be I was taught to give up on me. High school was a nightmare with the word “special.” I had “special” classrooms with “special” teachers that had “special” degrees to teach “special” kids like me. Socially, try to put yourself in my place. Try to make friends with the rest of the school while you're classified and identified by a different label.

Labels and stinging remarks

I am a fairly normal guy. I just had a late start. The only thing that is special about me is that I realized what the word “special” meant to the rest of the school. And I decided to resist that label.
Teacher No-Name: A.J., you need to leave the classroom before the rest of the class can start the test. Me: Do you realize the damage caused by your insensitivity to my private accommodations? Do you have any sense that maybe the rest of the class does not need to be made aware of my accommodation? Do you understand that by pointing out my accommodation to the rest of the class you make me appear different? When, in fact, I am not?
Too bad I did not have the stones to say it like that to my teacher back then, only enough to have my own thoughts rattle in my head. I wanted so badly for the class to see how inappropriate that teacher was. On one occasion, I was asked to speak to incoming freshman and their parents during an open house for our school. But I was specifically being asked to speak about our school’s TEAM program, the very program at our school designed for students with IEPs (individualized education programs that every kid in my shoes was assigned). In other words, the “special” program. I spoke for about 10 minutes on the numerous different resources and accommodations our school offered. After I was done speaking, the head of the TEAM program used me as an example and said, “See, our students in this program can learn to advocate for themselves, just like everybody else.” I nearly exploded. Here I was being singled out because of my learning difference. It was assumed that I couldn’t advocate for myself or speak cogently to an audience. Meanwhile, my speech had nothing to do with self-advocating, it was actually about how we as IEP students have no disadvantages in our school. As if to prove me wrong, her remark stung me and reminded me that I was “special.” I felt like the skinniest kid at fat camp. I felt like the best of the worst. I was the smartest of the dumb.

Words matter

Now, there’s nothing wrong with IEPs. The accommodations and resources for children with learning difficulties are not what I have an issue with. It is the lack of sensitivity towards how the child feels. It is the demoralizing effect IEPs can have when schools and educators aren’t thoughtful about how they deal with them. Perhaps, it is the language we choose to use. We call learning differences learning “disabilities.” You hope that your teachers and peers will be wise enough to know that difference is not necessarily disability. But I found that the word “special” was a euphemism for “unintelligent.” And if I’m being identified as unintelligent, well, then I will indeed behave unintelligently. As I wrote in my notebook after one more instance of a teacher expecting less from me: You assume I can’t So therefore I won’t Doubt me again, please don’t Assume that I can, therefore I bloom Tell me I can it is never too soon Express your belief I will stop grinding my teeth For what is underneath Needs to be unleashed Please help me with a plan Please save me superman All you have to do is tell me that I can.
A.J. Spitz
A.J. Spitz is a junior at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa and summer intern for Education Post.

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