Take the word “special” for example. The American Heritage Dictionary lists no fewer than 9; 6 as an adjective, 3 as a noun. Webster’s College Dictionary settles for 5 meanings for “special.” And not only are the meanings not the same, sometimes, in their implications, the same word can express not only different, but opposed ideas.
In the American Heritage Dictionary, the first meaning for special is surpassing, exceptional, both values entirely positive. The second meaning is “distinct among others; singular,” or as Webster’s has it in their first meaning of special, “different,” a more ambiguous value, which Webster’s underscores with its synonyms, “distinctive, peculiar or unique.” Only in its second listed meaning does Webster’s go positive – “exceptional, extraordinary.”
When we tell a child he or she is “special,” we are almost always signaling something positive, you are exceptional, you are extraordinary, you are special.
But most kids in classes labeled special, “special ed,” don’t take it that way. They take the more neutral meaning, “different,” and perhaps feel it, experience it as a negative. Their difference is their “special needs,” and who wants to be labeled as exceptionally needy. And being “singular” in a school setting usually means isolated, walled off, or more literally roomed off from almost everyone else.
Almost nobody sees isolation as a good thing, as a sign of being highly valued. In America today, what is called “special ed” is the product, first and foremost of isolation, of a culling of the classroom herd into a “mainstream” for children for whom we have high hopes if not expectations, and the “special classrooms and curricula for the kids whose physical, or emotional, or cognitive differences we label as disabilities, and for whom hopes, and especially expectations have been lowered. Special, for them means limited.
Dan Habib is the creator of the award-winning documentary films Including Samuel, Who Cares About Kelsey?, Restraint and Seclusion: Hear Our Stories, and many other short films on disability-related topics. Habib is a filmmaker at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. He is currently working on a new documentary, with the working title of Intelligent Lives, which will examine our society’s narrow perceptions of intelligence. Including Samuel was broadcast nationally on public television stations in the fall of 2009, and Who Cares About Kelsey? aired on public television in the fall of 2013. Both films were nominated for Emmy awards. Including Samuel has been translated into 17 languages and is used as a teaching tool worldwide. Before joining UNH in April of 2008, Habib was the photography editor of the Concord Monitor (NH). In 2006 and 2008, he was named the national Photography Editor of the Year and has been a judge of the Pulitzer Prizes and the Best of Photojournalism. In 2014, Habib was appointed by President Barack Obama to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities—a committee that promotes policies and initiatives that support independence and lifelong inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.