Drawing a Line or Choosing Inclusion? The Place of Special Education in a Christian School Setting

Last November, I was blessed to be a part of leading a wonderful, integral, and responsive discussion on the role of special education in Christian schools. During the Ontario Christian School Teachers Association Convention in fall 2009, participants of the “Educators Helping Educators: Special Education” session passionately probed key questions surrounding this ever-growing area of exploration in our Christian school communities. One of the topics of interest that threaded itself through essential moments of participation by classroom teachers, resource teachers, special education leaders, school administrators, and other community members, was the issue of the place of special education in our Christian schools. From survey research conducted by Dr. Steve Sider of Redeemer University College in 2005, it appears that this discussion is timely: that our Christian school communities are indeed involved in service to our children with exceptionalities.

While taking the time to write and reflect, it is clear that these very issues can be examined through a number of lenses: theologically, examining our mission and calling to serve all children within God’s very diverse kingdom; philosophically, by considering our understanding of the special in special education; and pragmatically, by considering the limitations of our varied funding models.

Theologically, 1 Corinthians 12:23–26 (The Message) addresses the wholeness of our one body in Christ:

“When it is a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. . . . The way God has designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part. . . . If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.”

It is clear, then, that every person who is part of this discussion is indeed a member of our community, our Christian community, and our Christian school communities. Just as the diversity is clear in God’s physical creation, diversity is also clearly present in God’s children. However, our sin is also clearly present in some of our responses to this diversity. A comprehensive model of ten ways in which we use bias and discrimination to respond to the diversity of others around us has been developed as a response to the world of education in which our children are immersed. The Checklist for Quality Inclusive Education, edited by Rachel Langford, outlines these potential problem areas as “ability, age, appearance, beliefs, culture, family composition, gender, race, socioeconomic status and sexuality” (16).

Matthew 22:36–40 speaks to the special place Jesus has in his heart for children, teaching us that in God’s kingdom, each person is a valued child who is gifted, special and deserving of grace.

“‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Should our love, then, for all the diversity in God’s creation, supersede our potential for bias and discrimination, and move our hearts towards acceptance for all? In Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf deconstructs the notion of exclusion, naming it as an act that underlies many problems with how we treat our neighbours. If we are to love and we are not to exclude, where does that lead us if we apply these expectations in the school community?

Philosophically, we must reflect on how society as a whole has reacted to those who have been considered to be “beyond the norm.” From assuming that disability was a direct result of maternal amorality as described in Phillip Ferguson’s A Place in the Family, through our societal journey in eugenics, advocacy, normalization to our current struggle to focus on inclusion, we are paying far more attention to bias and discrimination. We are embracing differences with celebration rather than emphasizing sameness. For example, one of the training sessions I have been asked to partake of as a public employee in Ontario is Access ON: Ontarians with Disabilities Act implemented by the Ministry of Social and Community Services.

Along with these historical changes and contemplations comes the question: Who is the “we” who decides the norm? At times, it may be necessary to apply labels and quantitatively define exceptionalities as a means of accessing services. This may be especially true in strong categorical education models, such as Ontario and Newfoundland, described by Dr. Don Dworet and myself in “Canadian School Programs for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders: An Updated Look” (2007), but may be superfluous in those jurisdictions that report a sole reliance on individual strengths and needs without an additional layer of school-based identification that leads to a formal, written Individual Education Plan.

Just as education is a jurisdictional responsibility in Canada without consistent federal responsibility and direction for special education, many of our Christian schools are also independent or part of smaller systems, finding their own way through varied processes and practices that make up their special education strategies. Without these systemic identification processes already in place, we are poised at an exciting moment of influence to consider how—and more importantly, IF—we will delineate the line that separates our students into the “special.”

Returning to Volf (1996), whose theological concerns can also be applied to this notion of what is the “special in special education,” we can wonder if we should be or already are “satisfied,” as Volf suggests, “to assign ‘others’ the status of inferior beings.” Perhaps, we exclude through what he terms abandonment: “If others neither have goods we want [the high IQ?] nor can perform services we need [teacher-pleasing classroom behaviors?], we make sure that they are at a safe distance and close ourselves off from them” (75).

Special education itself is as difficult to define as terms “exceptionality,” “disability,” or “special needs,” which have similarly proven themselves elusive. The department of education in Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, defines special education this way in the Special Education Policy Manual (Draft) (1999): “Special education is neither a place, a subject, nor a product. Special education can take place in any learning environment, or be part of, or alternate to any curriculum area using any and all resources required to meet individual needs” (1.6). In comparison, the Ontario ministry of education in An Introduction to Special Education in Ontario describes that “line” delineating special education as this: “All students require support from teachers, classmates, family, and friends in order to thrive and to gain full benefit from their school experience. Some students have special needs that require additional supports beyond those ordinarily received in the school setting.” What will we, collectively or individually, decide is “special education”? Just one part of education, or is it something quite different? Will we draw that line? If so, where will it be?

Finally, we cannot ignore the pragmatics of how to make a step sideways into the serious logistics of a deliberate decision to support the complete range of diversity that encompasses our whole interdependent body of Christ. Recalling the discussion again at our 2009 OCSTA convention, some of the important questions asked were:

  • Do we accept students with special needs?
  • Do we deliberately seek students with special needs?
  • How do we ensure that the search for an education that fits with our school’s mission is the top priority for families, rather than a search for an environment that meets their child’s special educational needs (e.g., a lower student-teacher ratio)?
  • Who is responsible for the necessitated financial cost of human resource supports (e.g., additional educational assistants)?
  • Who is responsible for related accommodations (e.g., specialized software) for these students with special needs? Is it the responsibility of one family or shared between the whole community of learners?
  • How do we respond to students who are diagnosed with an issue that we do not feel we have the means or duty to support and educate?
  • Are our staff members prepared? Are they ready and willing with open hearts convicted by Christ with a passionate calling to not only education, but in this specialized area?

After thoughtfully reviewing these questions, considerations, and plans, perhaps we have decided that special education is an inevitable, expected, and natural extension of the full spectrum of education in our Christian schools. As Mary Guldemond’s Special Education Handbook for Christian Schools (2006) notes in its Special Education Essentials, we can have “’special education mindsets’ … where fair isn’t always equal, and where one size does not fit all” (1.3).

That being said, how is an authentic program of special education indeed accomplished from the ground up? One of the immediate responses is that leadership in special education needs to be developed from within the community of Christian education leadership itself. Within the population of educators already working and supporting a full range of learners, there are indeed those who are passionate, dedicated, and already proficient in the field. Through professional development opportunities and role practice (e.g., emerging and growing roles of learning resource teachers), as well as growing professional opportunities created by community groups (e.g., OCSTA’s “Educators Helping Educators”), these passionate educators raising their hands within the midst of uncertainty are already beginning to accomplish the task.

From my past initial experience as an emerging special educator, passionate about the field in Christian education who was actively discouraged from this specialty area, to the exciting conversations, plans, passion, and leadership development I see all around me, I am prayerfully hopeful about the future of special education as an integral part of our schools. Perhaps we cannot even imagine the positive and life-changing events that will shape the future of special needs and special education in our Christian school communities if we allow God to mold our hearts, minds, policies, and practices as we rise up to meet this important and timely challenge.

Works Cited

  • Department of Education. Special Education Policy Manual (Draft) (St. John’s, NF: Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, 1999).
  • Dworet, Don, and Kimberly Maich. “Canadian School Programs for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders: An Updated Look.” Behavioral Disorders 33 (2007): 33–42.
  • Ferguson, Philip. “A Place in the Family: An historical interpretation of research on parental reactions to having a child with a disability” Journal of Special Education  36 (Fall 2002): 124–30.
  • Guldemond, Mary. Special Education Handbook for Christian Schools (Ancaster, ON: OACS, 2006).
  • Langford, Rachel, ed. Checklist for Quality Inclusive Education (Barrie, ON: Early Childhood Resource Teacher Network of Ontario, 1997).
  • Ontario Ontario Ministry of Education. An introduction to Special Education in Ontario. Retrieved 17/09/10 from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/speced/ontario.html
  • Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).