Why We Should Treat Disabled Students Unequally

We’ve spent the last month here at Shared Justice discussing education—from the benefits of liberal arts and professional internship experiences, to the need for reform in the cases of immigrant students and standardized testing. Implicit in all of these discussions is the belief that all students—regardless of race, wealth, religious belief, or any other factor—deserve equal access to the same high-quality opportunities in the classroom.

In the case of one set of factors, however, the Christian vision of educational justice requires inequality.

According to government data, nearly 1 in 10 children have some sort of learning or developmental disabilities; 4 in 10 disabled students experience more than one disability. These statistics include a range of disabilities, from mild ADHD or speech impediments to more severe cases like autism or cerebral palsy. More importantly, though, the statistics reveal that physical and mental handicaps are more common than we think.

Still, it’s easy to overlook the disabled—especially in a system and society that prizes top performers. Author and mother Amy Julia Becker was one of those perfect students during her own days as a student at Princeton University. But following her graduation at the top of her class, she has gotten to know a very different side of the education system, one faced by her daughter Penny, who was born with Down syndrome. “Having a child with learning disabilities has challenged my notions of the purpose of education and offered me a broader vision of God's kingdom,” Becker wrote in 2011, the year Penny started kindergarten. Since then, Becker has become a vocal advocate for the disabled; she argues that not everyone with a physical or mental handicap is suffering—or even struggling.  In her review of Amos Yong’s The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God for Christianity Today, Becker states, “Only when people with both physical and intellectual disabilities are not only included, but embraced, can we truly call ourselves the people of God.” In other words, she’s saying that people with disabilities are central to the mission of the church.

Unfortunately, children with disabilities remain sidelined in our education system. Granted, the American Disabilities Act’s (ADA) “Individuals with Disabilities Education” clause requires that all public schools provide disabled children with “a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their individual needs,” according to the ADA guide. It also mandates that students receive Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), which are annually reviewed plans that reflect each student’s particular classroom learning goals.

Yet, many schools fail their disabled students by relegating them to the farthest corners of the building, isolatedfrom the larger student body. In one horrifying example, journalist Bill Lichtenstein describes in the New York Times how educators subjected his his five-year-old, developmentally delayed daughter to both seclusion and restraint when she misbehaved. According to Lichtenstein, these methods “migrated to public schools in the 1970s as federal laws mainstreamed special education students, but without the necessary oversight or staff training.” Lichtenstein’s story likely is among the more extreme scenarios demonstrating that neediest students—and those who teach them—often receive the fewest resources, if any, beyond the “free appropriate public education” they are guaranteed. The result across the board, though, is all too familiar: The system’s ideals hardly reflect reality.

The act of making each individual whole requires special attention that addresses special, personal needs—the very opposite of what can be found in most schools.

Still, some would argue that disabled students are granted justice by the mere fact that they receive equal opportunity—access to education—like all of their peers. Such equity of opportunity, or “blind justice,” is the form of justice with which many Americans are most familiar. It forms the figurative and literal bedrock of many societal institutions, including the Supreme Court, where the motto is engraved in stone: “Equal justice under the law.” Another familiar figure on display in Supreme Court architecture is the Lady of Justice (“Justitia”), who has been depicted as far back as the 16th century holding scales and wearing a blindfold; her blindfold symbolizes her lack of bias in rendering verdicts. But such objective justice can be deeply inequitable in a Christian context, which acknowledges that U.S. citizens viewed without distinction in the eyes of the Constitution are equally beloved as individuals in the eyes of God.

Justice is not blind. As a result, many Christians have begun to embrace the biblical concept of “restorative” justice, which is different from the “rectifying” form prevalent in both Old Testament  and 21st-century society alike. Rather, restorative justice emphasizes right relationships. In his book Generous Justice, pastor Tim Keller says this “refers to day-to-day living in which a person conducts all relationships in family and society with fairness, generosity and equity.” Specifically, he notes, it “may mean taking the time personally to meet the needs of the handicapped, the elderly or the hungry in our neighborhoods.” In the classroom, then, our American emphasis on equality has gone too far. We have marginalized the “least of these” whom Christians are called to love and serve in pursuit of a blind justice that sidetracks us from our ultimate mission: to make individuals, communities, and the cosmos spiritually whole. The act of making each individual whole requires special attention that addresses special, personal needs—the very opposite of what can be found in most schools.

In some classrooms, though, there are signs of this restorative justice where districts have embraced “differentiated learning,” which integrates both disabled and high-achieving students in single classrooms. When done well, this method helps all students learn from one another, allowing them intuitively to grasp each child’s different strengths. Some parents of disabled children also have noted their fears that “mainstreaming” disabled students leaves them feeling excluded, and a series of editorials in The New York Times criticized this approach because research showed that it resulted in fewer achievement gains among top students. However, Becker points out that “differentiated classrooms serve the high-achievers, too, (because) the purpose of education, at least from a Christian perspective, is not simply academic achievement or increased GDP. Education is one aspect of spiritual formation, in which we learn how to love and serve one another as Christ has loved us.”

Of course, policy debates cannot center around whether or not a particular curriculum addresses students’ spiritual formation. But Christians can vote to promote integrated classroom structures that serve students with disabilities more effectively. We ought to support local initiatives that promote full flourishing of all students as individuals, which requires more than mere equal access. Such measures would allocate a greater share of resources to special education, including more training for teachers and paraeducators who specialize in disabilities. We also must be quick to champion any federal initiatives to promote positive alternatives to restraint and seclusion (The 111th Congress considered such legislation, but no related bills have been introduced since). Until such policy opportunities arise, though, we have the chance to shape certain discussions and relationships directly when we take our children to school, visit the park, or teach them in Sunday school. The most effective way to promote high quality learning environments for all is to teach our children to see diversity and beauty in all its forms, to see each child as one created by God. In turn, they also may discover that they have much, if not more, to learn from their peers.

-Melissa Steffan is a 2012 graduate of Seattle Pacific University with degrees in Communications – Journalism and Political Science. She is a former intern of the Washington Post and the Center for Public Justice, and she is the 2012-13 Editorial Resident for Christianity Today magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissasteffan.