Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Caste System

Any one who has looked at disability rights can see that people with disability are treated as, at best, second class citizens. And anyone familiar with Disability Creep knows that you too can be denigrated if you associate too closely with a person with a disability. (Note: Disability Creep has been used in different contexts to mean different things but this is the usage I find most...Useful.) Special education teachers, among many others, experience disability creep by being excluded in any number of ways from the goings-on in schools because we "got some on us". As advocates for those who are excluded and as those who are excluded ourselves, it seems to me that we should know better than to create hierarchies among school staff. Yet, in my experience, it's quite common to find special educators and other staff excluding educational assistants/paraprofessionals (EAs/paras).

My experience in New York City, which was limited to working with under 10 para-professionals in 6 years, was that the paras were more or less lousy which might excuse their treatment in some minds (though I'd be willing to bet that it was the treatment that caused the behavior and not the other way around). Where I am now in Oregon, it's been my experience that the educational assistants (same job, different name) are excellent and still they are treated badly. For instance, presence of EAs at IEP meetings is strongly discouraged at every level. But some of the EAs who work here have been working with students for 2 or more years whereas, in my case, I've been working with these students for two months. It makes sense no me to exclude those staff members who are most knowledgeable about a student when planning that student's individual educational program.

Unlike many other schools, teachers here are routinely recognized for excellent work. However, EAs are often excluded from recognition even when their part in a project or response to a situation was much greater than that of a teacher's. Also, the principal here is in most ways excellent. But he has a very clear negative disposition towards EAs...and the principal has a background in special ed and talks about special education as a civil rights issue.

I guess I'm surprised by this because I see such a clear link between imposing hierarchies on people with disabilities and hierarchies between staff members at school. I mean, it's right here in the same place! But it goes unseen or it's somehow justified. I would think it would induce cognitive dissonance but instead it's ignored. And we wonder why our student have cliques and mini-hierarchies amongst them.

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