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What's 'special' about special education?

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ON THE DAY we began to write this article, Mark Wellman, former park ranger and professional rock climber, now a motivational speaker and paraplegic, was shown in his wheelchair modeling a milled wool and nylon jacket ($1,350) and wool trousers ($750) in a fashion supplement to the New York Times. One week earlier, Heather Whitestone, a talented and deaf 21-year-old, had won the Miss America contest, which was covered on national television. And last summer, 30 million moviegoers saw Tom Hanks play a mildly retarded everyman in Forrest Gump.

Such high-profile, positive images of people with disabilities are increasingly common. They symbolize a hard-won victory for those in the disability community who for many years labored for greater normalization, or inclusion, of persons with disabilities in mainstream culture.

These images, however, belie a troubling fact: special education is under fire from within and without, and the disability community, long known for its cohesiveness,(1) appears to be coming apart at the seams.

A Field Under Siege

Immoral. Special education's most strident critics are the "full inclusionists," a small but influential group of special educators and parents who advocate in behalf of children with severe mental retardation. Full inclusionists are adamant about the right of these children to make friends with nondisabled classmates--an objective unlikely to be met, they say, in separate placements. At the same time, they believe that general education historically has used, currently uses, and forever will use special education settings as dumping grounds for children it deems "unteachable" and that general educators typically consider children with severe mental retardation to be the least teachable. Hence, to ensure these children's place in the mainstream and to preclude the stigmatization and warehousing purportedly inherent in separate programs, full inclusionists call for an end to all special education settings, which some...