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The importance of special education, according to BYU–Hawaii faculty and a student

Graphic by Lynne Hardy

Special education carries many connotations when spoken, according to According to the website, “You might picture children with disabilities spending the day tucked away in a different kind of classroom, separated from most of the kids their age.” Federal law has changed to where children who have disabilities are required to learn in a classroom with general education students. BYU–Hawaii faculty and students with experience in special education were asked their opinion on its importance.

Dr. Barbara Hong, the professor and program coordinator of special education, said she prepares teachers how to work with children with special needs. “From mild to moderate disabilities. These include conditions such as autism, Down syndrome, attention deficit, and dyslexia.”

According to Hong, “People with intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome or autism may seem different from each of us, but they go on to do great things, in their own way, just like we do.”

Hong added the importance of putting the individual before their condition. “In special ed, we never say ‘disabled child,’ or ‘autistic child,’ We say ‘child with disabilities,’ or ‘child with autism.’ It’s wrong and dehumanizing to refer to someone by their disability. Everyone has a disability whether they know it or not.”

Hong believes the difficulties of special education do not come from the children themselves, but the instructors.  “A lot of the time the problem is not the kids being incapable of learning. It’s the teachers who are not prepared for teaching special needs. Those children end up being classified as ‘disabled.’ There has been a trend in the special ed world, saying ‘there is more of a teaching disability than a learning disability.’”

Hong elaborated about her faith in other children to help others who were a little different. “Kids don’t necessarily see disabilities clear as day. They don’t look at a kid with one leg and immediately exclude him or her. Kids love working together. They will tell me how happy they are to have a child with special needs in their group. What some people might see as a weakness becomes a strength.

“I would pose the question ‘what can we embrace by having people who are different, and how can we use it to grow our society?’ They are all up there, they are visible. If you are not learning to interact and work and socialize with people who have disabilities, you are being shortchanged.”

Hong graduated from BYUH with her bachelor’s degree in special education, eventually earning her Ph.D. from Columbia University in the same field. She said, “As a program coordinator I feel sometimes special educators don’t think our job plays a huge role, but the effectiveness of a program is dependent on the structure of that program. The job helps me as a special educator to help discover my passion and what it is I might not consider about others.

“I teach the teachers, not the kids themselves. Essentially, I teach teachers how to teach kids with disabilities. We work with children with special needs, not specifically severe disabilities. Mild-moderate disability means something more like attention deficit, behavioral problems, and autism. Particularly my area is on learning disabilities like dyslexia.”

Hong said educators and staff do not prepare teachers very well and send them out to teach unprepared. She continued, “My job is not to increase the number of special ed kids, but to improve the quality of the teaching. The goal is to have fewer kids out of the classroom and more being included with their classmates.”

In 1975, the United States Congress enacted the Education For All Handicapped Children Act. It introduced inclusion to the public school system, requiring schools to provide equal access to education for students with physical and mental disabilities.

According to Hong, “When [the Act] was first introduced into public schools, parents were worried teachers would not have time to work with their children if they had to teach children with disabilities. There was a lot of argument and controversy, which is rightly so, because the teachers were not prepared.”

Although 1975 was almost 45 years ago, Hong felt special education still had room for improvement. “Looking back at 1975 to now,” she explained, “I still see teachers who are not prepared. In every classroom these days, there is no such thing as a pure classroom. You will always find someone who is advanced, someone who is behind, somebody who cannot pay attention, or someone who comes with emotional issues. It’s almost difficult to teach a class like that.

“If special ed kids were excluded, it would be like the 1950s all over again. As Brown v. Board of Education proved, separate is not equal. We want to go beyond our normal mandate and teach the teachers how to teach a diverse classroom.”

“There are many studies now in the business sector about hiring people with autism and dyslexia. They have all the skills they need,” Hong said. “Many people in the business sector have OCD or another learning disability. If we try to fit everybody into a structure they do not excel. But if we give them a better environment, they can excel. So why is it education is the last group to recognize this? If we allow them to innovate and be themselves, I think we’ll all be surprised what we can see in these kids.”

Tavia Thompson, Hong’s teaching assistant and a senior from Texas majoring in elementary education, shared her personal connection with special education. Thompson has worked with Hong for almost three years.

She said, “One thing that has become especially personal to me is seeing how individuals in this program are able to help people in our community. I have helped organize two annual events with a program founded by Dr. Hong called PACE (Parents as Advocates for Children in Education).

“Students from her classes are able to volunteer and familiarize themselves with how members of our community can be benefitted by teachers who are knowledgeable and determined to find ways to best educate students with disabilities. Seeing the different problems that come up on the education of a child with disabilities can be frustrating, but opportunities like this have allowed me and other students to be aware of what we can do with our knowledge and experiences.”

Just like Hong, Thompson said she had no intention of being apart of the special education program when she came to BYUH. “But I was inspired by the passion and determination of Dr. Hong to continue taking classes and become qualified.

“I have an older sister with autism, so special education has always been a part of my life. Growing up I was able to see how teachers who sacrificed their time and efforts to helping her in every way they could were able to assist in her educational progression. This helped me in my decision to learn more about the profession of special educators.”

Caryn Houghton, a special instructor (not to be confused with special education instructor) in art, explained how well-known artists created even with disabilities. She said, “Studying the lives of artists in history gives one a deeper appreciation of individual artists–their abilities, struggles, and their strengths and weaknesses. Many artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Michelangelo, while extremely gifted, struggled socially. Other artists like Chuck Close and Frida Kahlo didn't let physical challenges stand in the way of their art.”

When asked how art played a role in the lives of students with special needs, Houghton explained how her daughter, who has high functioning autism, needed support. “I have appreciated the instructors that have been supportive of her artistic abilities. She loves to draw and is passionate about certain topics.

When she was a child, her counselor at Laie Elementary, Michelle Lamone, encouraged her artistic skills.

“She would provide clay and they would sculpt horses together. Later on, Mrs. Lamone gave my daughter a wonderful colorful drawing of a mermaid she had created. It is still one of my daughter's favorite possessions because I know she feels her counselor's love and support when she looks at it.”

Houghton said each person learns differently, regardless if they have a disability or not. “Some of my students are more visual, while others are more auditory. I try to create lessons that help all learners. My students sketch various images in my class. I think this helps those that like hands-on learning. I use plenty of images to keep my visual learners engaged.

“We all have special needs. Some students suffer from anxiety, some have visa problems here at BYUH, some have financial difficulties. Working with people, all people, increases my faith and testimony as we seek the Lord's guidance in knowing how to work with them. In the Book of Mormon, we read that "blessed are the poor in spirit who come unto me" (3 Nephi 12:3).

“Working with people can be challenging but as we come unto the Lord in our worries, concerns, and issues, we can receive answers to how to help those we teach and work with.”

Writer: Elijah Hadley