Recently we analyzed the 30 articles with the highest impact in North America and Europe respectively, i.e. altogether 60 articles. It was only in one of these that the language of special needs was reflected upon and critized. It was Len Barton who in an article suggested that an inclusive school needs a new language. The special educational language is according to Barton impregnated with meanings that are not really compatible with the idea of inclusive education. This is not a new idea which made it even more surprising to find out that so many influential papers were silent on this issue.
The language of special needs
The whole concept of special needs is built upon the distinction between an education for children with special needs, i.e. special education, and an education for other pupils. I would like to suggest that the whole language of special needs rests on similar distinctions.
Educator goes through special educational training in order to teach the special children and, at least in Sweden, a special agency cater for these pupil´s special needs. In schooling the distinction manifests itself in two partly parallel systems, on for “normal” children and one for children with special needs. These systems are underpinned by partly different languages.
Children with special needs have to be identified from the viewpoint of the type and degree of their problems. In the special needs system we meet linguistic labels denoting different kinds of differences/disabilities such as learning disabilities, neuropsychiatric disorders, Aspergers syndrome, high-functioning autism, dyslexia, reading- and writing disabilities, behavioral problems and so on. The labels are dependent on the professions that have the power to interpret and define the behaviors.
Sociologists today speak of the “medicalization” of difference which implies that the medical profession has gained increased influence in the definition of behaviors. Emergent labels such as language disorder can probably partly be traced to the increased influence from speech therapists. Exactly what language that dominates special needs education varies with time and place, but it is always a language that rests firmly on the distinction between the normal and the deviant. To put it shortly, there is a special educational language which in some ways can be viewed as a discourse, i.e. a specific way to think and talk about differences.
During the years I have been amazed by how several of my colleagues in Sweden argue for a more inclusive educational system without reflecting over the special educational language. Thus we will get a more inclusive schools system, the argument goes, by e.g. educating more special educators, give more courses in special needs and write more educational plans for children in need of extra support. I agree with Barton that this kind of language might instead reproduce the dual systems. Thus, a new language is needed in order to make schools and classrooms more inclusive.
It should of course be pointed out that inclusion is not about language only but also, and above all, about accessability and educational approaches. However, language plays an important part in how we view the world and a language that rests on such a fundamental distinction as normality/deviance tends to exaggerate and down-value difference.
Inclusion as a utopian idea
Peder Haug is according to me a researcher that has expressed some of the most interesting thoughts about what inclusive education amounts to. In a book from 1998 he spells out how he believes an inclusive environment should be structured in order to prepare the pupils to be part of the societal community:
Social training and the development of community is emphasized… . Differences between children are accepted. These differences are a part of the daily experiences in the school and they should be handled by individually adapted teaching for all children in the same school and the same classroom. Within this frame the children shall receive the teaching that take them as far as possible. This shall be done without making pupils stigmatized or excluded. In this way all appear principally as of equal worth in school, and the school has equal worth to all pupils. This upheaves the difference between special education and education and in this way the difference between pedagogics and special pedagogics is no longer of relevance. (p 24) (my translation)
What is expressed here i what could almost be labelled as a utopian condition. Such utopias are common in religious and political contexts and appears every now and then in research. The problem with utopias is to make the way towards the utopian condition concrete and realizable. Sometimes the utopia can legitimate actions that have negative consequences. When it comes to inclusion, given the meaning Haug has attached to the word, research provides too few answers about how to get there.
I have in other publications questioned this type of utopian thinking more generally but will in this context turn to the language issue. Unfortunately Haug does not approach the problem pertaining to how communication and language should be enacted in an inclusive environment. The point I wish to make can be illustrated by Haugs own formulation in the quotation above “education that take them as far as possible.” This is clearly an evaluative utterance which expresses that it is good to learn as much as possible. Our language, and not least the language of schooling, is crowded with this type of evaluative utterances:
“It is good that You make an effort”
“She has strength in math”
“You made a fantastic presentation”
“His language develops slowly”
When analyzing developmental talks and education plans it is clear that there is a, more or less explicit, message about what characterizes the ideal pupils in school. Ideals are part of all social contexts and language carries these typ of evaluations of humans and their actions. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu purportedly in some context said that we should not deny that we as humans behave in ways that may seem questionable but if we are clear about what we do and how we do it we have a possibility to change.
We could thus not expect that we can create an inclusive language that totally upheaves evaluations of individals and their acts but if we reflect upon our language usage we can become more inclusive in our use of words.
Dont let the perfect be the enemy of the good
The insight that we cannot create an inclusive language, in the sense that everyone will be evaluated as of equal worth, should not refrain us from the discussion about how we should talk about pupils and their difficulties. This is a classical dilemma. One the one hand, pupils who face difficulties in schools have to be identified, labelled and described in some way. On the other hand, everyone should be treated in similar way and no one should be deprecated.
The famous Swedish disability researcher Mårten Söder is said to have described this dilemma as if one is driving a car on a road and having to avoid two ditches. One has to avoid to make pupils in difficulties into something completely different, what sociologists refer to as “othering”. One also has to avoid that we do not notice these difficulties at all. Thus, we have to find a language which helps us to avoid both these ditches.
The answer to the question in the heading will thus be: “No, but we can create a more or a less including language.” I do think that one partly has succeeded in e.g. the Swedish legislation which to a large extent is built around the concept of “pupil in need of special support” and whose need of support is defined in relation to what pupils are expected to learn rather than in relation to some kind of normal distribution.
In the reality of Swedish schools, on the other hand, other languages are intruding. The reason for this might be good and the special educational language building on the distinction between normality and deviance is effective in signaling the need for help. In a situation where professionals and/or parents see that pupils in different kind of difficulties don’t receive the support they need it is easy to understand that one reaches for strong words such as e g “disturbance” and “disorder”.
A challenge to schools, according to my opinions, is to provide pupils with the support they need without using stigmatizing language.
Barton, L. (1997). Inclusive education: romantic, subversive or realistic? International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1, 231–242.
Haug, Peter. (1998) Pedagogiskt dilemma: Specialundervisningen. Stockholm: Skolverket. /Pedagogical dilemma: Special education/