Implicit Bias and special education

By Kari Kessler


When I was a child, my mom would talk about a dear friend who’s son had Down Syndrome.  At this time, the late 1970’s, many families were encouraged to institutionalize their children with disabilities and that was the case for my mom’s friend.  Her son had significant heart issues and intellectual delays.  My feelings of sadness that a child and parent were separated are still so vivid to me, even now. 

As a teenager, I worked in a small family run dairy store.  One of the grandchildren had intellectual delays. “Sam” always wanted to work in the store. One day after a few summers of working there and interacting with Sam, I asked if he could come and work in the store with me.  I must have been 15 or 16 years old and had no idea I was volunteering myself as a job coach.  The family was hesitant, Sam was thrilled, and much to my delight, I became a job coach.  In time, other employees, other kids my age, would also have Sam come work with them.  We taught him how to clock in, how to wait on customers, and more. Between Sam and my mom’s friend, my path to becoming a special education teacher was sealed.


Over the years my teaching experiences have been in learning support, multi-disabled support and autistic support.  Autistic support became my love and most of the last 20 years of my professional career has been spent working with kids, families and teachers in the teaching, learning and support of individuals with Autism.  My beliefs around people with disabilities was sealed by my experiences growing up- children with disabilities have the right to be home with their families and they deserve productive, fulfilling lives.

I have been exhilarated by the changes to education over my 25+ year career.  We have put systems level changes into place through the MTSS Framework and we have looked closely at our standards for education.  Conversely, I have felt absolutely confounded by the lack of change in special education.  Let me be clear, I am specifically referring to our most complex students.  Students who spend 80% of their day in a special education classroom.  The impact of MTSS and changes to standards feels almost negligible in some of these self-contained programs.  

As I think about my perception that there hasn’t been as much movement in our self-contained special education programs, I’m drawn to the definition and examples of implicit bias.  Implicit bias encompasses our attitudes and stereotypes that impact our decisions, actions, or what we understand to be true.  These implicit biases are not easy to control as they live in our unconscious.  As discussed in the article, “Implicit or Unconscious Bias” , unconscious or implicit bias live in the part of our brain that deals with emotions.  Information is processed really quickly here and without us thinking about it or unconsciously.   Our implicit biases may go against what we hold to be true about our own character.  We may believe that we do not have issues with groups of people and individuals, but the science is showing that both are true.

“These biases often arise as a result of trying to find patterns and navigate the overwhelming stimuli in this very complicated world. Culture, media, and upbringing can also contribute to the development of such biases.  Removing these biases is a challenge, especially because we often don’t even know they exist, but research reveals potential interventions and provides hope that levels of implicit biases in the United States are decreasing.”


Charlotte Ruhl (Implicit or Unconscious Bias)

My original premise for this piece was, Is Special Education too Special.  However, as I have written multiple iterations, my original premise seems to be an example of my own unconscious bias, which then revealed to me a systemic example of implicit bias.  Public Law 94-142 was about the right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education or FAPE for students with specialized learning needs.  It did not discuss the need for a special class, it was about equity.  We could no longer deny public education to students because they may not learn like the others. Yet, things quickly evolved into special education classes.  Was this an act of implicit bias?  Apparently, enough people agreed with the need to create FAPE, yet FAPE might be the finest example of implicit bias in education. On one hand, we want everyone to come to school, but on the other hand, we are going to separate based on merit, IQ, supposed ability, etc.?               

Some of you may be thinking that I am some kind of inclusion fanatic.  All means all, so all kids should be in general education and we should get rid of all the special education classes.  That is not what I am suggesting.  My goal has always been for students with disabilities to achieve socially significant life outcomes that include employment, independent or semi-independent living, and safe, loving relationships.  With this in mind, I struggle when I go into classes where kids are clearly loved, but the rigor of the learning environment could be turned up.  Each time I see kids learning to read and perform math tasks in some sequence that goes against what research tells us, my heart breaks a little for the students.  When we allow ourselves to think our kids are “too special” to be able to learn like their peers, we do them a grave disservice.  Everytime we say, “I teach functional skills,” I believe our implicit bias is shining through.

The world is changing and evolving, and yet, I get this sinking feeling that we are not moving with it in special education.  Where will these wonderfully complex, spirited and brave humans be when schooling for them is finished?  If you accept the premise that implicit bias is real, then is implicit bias keeping us from delivering the best education to these most complex learners?  Let’s also be real, we are preparing kids in general and in special education for jobs that don’t even exist.  Machines have taken over some of the more common jobs once done in sheltered workshops.  Not all families are interested in their child learning janitorial, clerical, or landscaping skills.  If we are not able to engage our most complex learners in the wide variety of skills and content all children receive in their K to 12 education, where are they going to be?

So, I challenge all of us in education with these questions. Do our implicit biases about children with complex disabilities drive our expectations and teaching or do the best educational practices for ALL learners drive our expectations and teaching?  Your answers play a significant role in determining the lifelong outcomes for your students.  Are you sure your perspective leads to the most fulfilling and socially significant outcomes for your students?