Culture and Special Education

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Beverley Bailey
Brandon University
Paul Betts
University of Winnipeg

In this paper we concern ourselves with the ways in which schools in general and special education procedures in particular tend to not be successful for those of our students who are from a different culture. (While we focus on Canadian Aboriginals, we also extend our thinking to those children who come from different races, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, etc.) We outline the stories that have brought us to this place. We then go on to suggest that the adoption of different understandings and approaches could lead to the academic success of children from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds. We conclude with some direction for change.

In this paper we, two white educators, concern ourselves with the education of those students of Aboriginal descent who are seen by the school system as special. Our concerns are based on the stories we use to understand ourselves and our actions - stories of mistold history, socio-political issues, racism, the misuse of science - and the ways those stories disadvantage those who are different. Our hope is that we can begin to explore different more hopeful and empowering stories.

There are many reasons to be concerned about the existing state of special education, particularly with our Aboriginal students. Currently the following are common;

1. Our special education classes are top-heavy with Aboriginal and disadvantaged students.

2. We tend to focus on the deficits in other children rather than on the possibilities. We could embrace the position of William Glasser (1986): we choose to be whom and what we, and others, believe we are.[1]

3. We do not concern ourselves with the differences brought to school by children from other than the dominant culture.[2]

4. We are asking all small school children to do the pretty much the same thing at pretty much the same time and to meet some arbitrary standard of what they should or should not be able to do. We act despite current research concerning physiology and early childhood experience, which suggests that children are not ready for the same task at the same time.

5. The tests that we give children to determine the reasons for failure at school tasks are fallible and culturally insensitive and subjective.

6. A label tends to freeze a child in the definition attached to the label.

7. We have a tendency to blame the victim or to blame the social background rather than look at ways we can change.

Clearly we need to find another way of viewing children and their learning. We are hoping to uncover stories that currently mediate, impair and colonize our special education practices, thereby beginning a dialogue concerning alternative stories of strength, knowing and power.

Stories that Get in the Way

History Stories

Malia Kan'iaupuni (2005) tells us how archeologists and historians have accepted a theory of accidental migration from Polynesia to the Hawaiian Islands to explain a 2200-mile voyage on the open seas. This in spite of evidence to the contrary, which makes it clear that the early Polynesian explorers did indeed have the sophisticated system of navigation needed for a planned and successful voyage. Malia Kan'iaupuni’s point is that the assumption of a people with no learning, no culture, no anything but maybe good luck, made it possible for colonizers to take on - in their own minds - the mantle of rescuer.

Iseke-Barnes (2005) is also concerned about the misrepresentation of Indigenous history and science. She wants us to challenge those assumptions that the colonizers found a people in need of saving from their own ignorance.

Paulo Freire (1971, 1997) has spent many years studying the impact of oppression on the colonized. In the name of saving a backward people from themselves the colonizers were able to perpetuate acts of cultural...
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