Since The No Child Left Behind mandate, US education has struggled with the issues of Multicultural Special Education. American society is increasingly multicultural and more children do not speak English as their first language. More children than ever live in poverty and in single-parent households where income is limited and school may be disrupted by custody divisions. These, and other issues make the process of providing quality education to children with special needs more complex than ever.
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What is Special Education?
In its current form, special education is a product of the Individuals With Disabilities Act that says all children must receive a “free, appropriate public education.”
Children with special needs may have developmental delays, physical problems such as deafness, behavioral issues, linguistic or communication deficits or other issues. Special education has historically addressed these issues in the context of a basically homogeneous grouping. Because the nation is increasingly diverse, though, new methods must be adopted to teach children whose basic deficits are compounded by cultural diversity.
A definition at Teach Hub.com defines Multicultural Special Education this way: it is a “set of strategies aimed to address the diverse challenges experienced by rapidly changing US demographics.”
What are the Challenges of Diversity?
One of the first issues of special education is identification of deficits. Children with different racial, ethnic or language backgrounds may have difficulty understanding classroom instruction and may not actually have special needs. The system, however, contains more of these children than would be anticipated by the proportion their demographic represents in society, according to an article at ericdigest.org.
Assessing special needs is difficult in part because of inherent racial biases and cultural differences. Behavioral problems in the classroom, for instance, may not be the result of special needs, but of a culture that does not set strong boundaries for its children. In children with correctly identified special needs, those cultural and language differences may make creating a safe and challenging learning environment for them more difficult.
What are the Goals of Special Education in Cultural Diversity?
Too often we deal with cultural differences by having cultural celebrations once a year. While teaching children to be accepting of difference and teaching culturally diverse students to take pride in their diversity is important, it involves more than that. Culturally relevant special education must start with the teachers. They must be given an increasing awareness of global issues and they have to recognize that history can be viewed from more than one perspective. Schools once taught that Christopher Columbus was an American hero who discovered America. That view ignores the native people who were already here. It also minimizes the fact that conquering races brought illness to the native peoples, virtually exterminating some groups.
This kind of second look at history is important to take when addressing any diverse group, but vital for teaching special needs individuals. Teachers have to deal with their own biases so that they can teach their students to be tolerant and accepting. Parents of children from other cultures may not have the same values as the culture that is assimilating them. That can mean that they will not support homework, counseling or other issues involved in their children’s education. It is imperative that each child is viewed not only through his disability but through the lens of how his culture affects that disability.
This is a complex issue and one that universities are addressing with new degree programs and concentrations. Curriculum creators are also wrestling with the challenge of building programs to teach Multicultural Special Education.