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New Directions in Special Education:
Eliminating Ableism in Policy and Practice

Thomas Hehir
Harvard Education Press, 2005

(Book cover) This book proposes a new approach to educating students with disabilities, by first and foremost changing society's attitude towards disability. Thomas Hehir draws on the research literature, anecdotal material, and his own thirty years of experience in the field – as a high school special education teacher, director of the Office of Special Education within the U.S. Department of Education, and now Professor of Practice at HGSE – to present a reasoned framework for moving special education into the next century.

But before we can define a new role for special education, Hehir believes we must first address society's attitudes toward people with disabilities. While advocacy groups, legislators, policy-makers, teachers, and individuals with disabilities have contributed to changing the educational experience of the disabled, discrimination continues to influence educational policy and decision-making. The result: questionable educational practices for students with disabilities, and even for those without disabilities.

Hehir describes the discriminatory attitude toward people with disabilities as "ableism," a view of individuals as being less "able" as defined by societal norms. The underlying assumptions of ableism are far-reaching and undermine educational equity for students with disabilities. For example, deaf students are often assessed according to their oral skills, even if their sign language communication abilities are much more advanced. Instead, Hehir argues, educators should provide sufficient accommodation, access, and support for students with disabilities to reach the academic levels of their non-disabled peers.

New Directions in Special Education examines issues related to the impact of ableism on disabled students; the relationship between educational equity and special education; the inclusion movement, and a possible resolution to the inclusion controversy; universal design's "promise" to provide access and integration; and policy issues specific to standards-based reform and high-stakes testing.

The ongoing debate around educational inclusion can be solved, Hehir contends, by offering the fullest appropriate accommodation for students with disabilities – from classroom and playground access to test-taking regulations and guidelines for extracurricular activities. Universal design may be a further means to support integration of students with disabilities into a more equitable educational environment.

An important idea throughout the book is that the role of special education is to "minimize the impact of the disability and maximize the opportunities for participation" for those with disabilities. These two key words, "minimize" and "maximize," could reduce the historical role of special education which has served to support "inordinate segregation, low expectations, and overprotection." By minimizing the effect of the disability and maximizing opportunities to participate, all children with disabilities may reach their potential in school, and ultimately, in society.

In the final chapters of the book, Hehir turns to other federal and state policy questions, including the impact of standards-based reform on services for disabled students.

While Hehir celebrates recent advances in special education, he believes that the field lacks a future direction. Specifically, many students with disabilities are not benefiting from new research-based educational practices. He calls for specific changes to ensure that individuals with disabilities fulfill their potential and assume their rightful place in a diverse society.

New Directions in Special Education: Eliminating Ableism in Policy and Practice is available from the Harvard Education Press.

By Deborah Garson, Head of Research and Instruction Services, Gutman Library, HGSE.


Copyright © 2009 The President and Fellows of Harvard College