Applying Intersectionality to Special Education

Reading Time: 6 minutes
School Friends
“School Friends” by Flickr user woodleywonderworks, used under Creative Commons License.

“OK, explain to me why someone might say that gifted kids are discriminated against.”

It was 6:30pm on a Friday night while I sat at the dog park watching my two children (one with fur, one not) get their energy out.

“Wait until I get home and have a keyboard.”

I paused, then said, “But…” And spent the next 25 minutes glued to my screen trying to thumb type an answer. For the records, thumb typing a dissertation on the societal discrimination towards gifted individuals is a feat about which I am quite proud.

It all started with a post about Michel Phelps. Annoying clickbait-ey headline though it may have, the article in and of itself makes a lot of great points about the problems with the education system and the societal attitude towards gifted kids. (Or, as GeekMom noted recently, sparky kids. In fact, for the remainder of this article, please note that I plan to use the term “sparky” unless referring to term of art “gifted” to align with policy.)

The problem is that sparky kids do not have legal protection despite their issues falling under the special education laws. In many states, identification of “gifted and talented” falls under the legal definition of special education needs while simultaneously leaving any accommodation of those needs up to the budget and the judgement of the individual school districts. In my home state, education law requires identification under special education, requires the calling of a PPT, and then…

Nothing. That is all. “Hey look! Dude! You’re gifted! Way to go! Now go back to your regularly scheduled day.”

This is the starting point when asked to explain how/why many parents of sparky kids feel society discriminates against their children. This legal issue is the foundation of many misconceptions about sparky kids.

1) Sparky is not the same as “just really really really bright.” Most of the laws conflate IQ scores as “gifted.” Identification in schools generally revolves around “here, take an IQ test and look at the number” but “gifted” involves a lot more than just an intelligence score.

2) Sparky kids will have what Dabrowski termed “overexcitabilities.” Overexcitabilities are physical, sensual, and intellectual overstimulations that make it hard for sparky kids to interact the same way in the classroom as other kids.

3) Twice exceptional kids are totally “a Thing.” Twice exceptional means that even “gifted” kids can have other learning disabilities ranging from autism spectrum disorder to attention deficit hyper disorder to dysgraphia to dyslexia to anxiety to sensory processing disorder. All twice exceptional means is that the kids have all the qualities of being “gifted” with also something else that fall under the protection (or in the case of SPD not protection) of special education laws.

So, where do parents see discrimination against their children? Because I like lists and they make reading easier, I’m going to give another easy-to-skim list of talking points (but if you want to skip that, please feel free to just scroll until the first non-numbered paragraph).

1) The lack of ongoing protection. Once a kid has been identified as “legally gifted” they meet the definition of “special education.” However,  there are no legal provisions requiring schools to provide resources to “gifted” kids. If we argue that laws set social norms, the fact that many laws ignore the ongoing needs of “gifted” kids conditions people to assume that these kids don’t need help and/or don’t deserve help.

2) The conflation of IQ with “giftedness.” Looking at “giftedness” as defined by law, the majority of assessments that make a child “gifted” are more indicative of things that make a child “bright.” This conflation ignores that the sparky qualities are what make the children difficult in the classroom.

3) The social belief that “gifted” equates to high performance. When sparky kids do not perform well in the classroom (as many do not compared to traditionally bright kids), their skill sets are ignored. If sparky kids are not performing to a high academic standard like people expect, they are assumed to just be troublemakers or below average.

4) The language used to describe sparky kids. At the outset the terms create a societal bias against “giftedness” having challenges. “Gifted” implies a benefit. Everyone loves gifts and presents. “Overexcitabilities” undermines the difficulties associated with them since excited is generally considered a positive state of being. So while overexcitabilities describes a lot of the challenges sparky kids face, they are considered side benefits, not challenges. Compare, for example, the term “psychomotor overexcitability” with “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” Both involve an inability to control the body in meaningful ways. Both have been linked to the same area of the brain. One is just a “quirk” of being “smart.” The other is a “disorder” that qualifies for legal protection as a special education disability.

5) The societal belief that sparky kids can “do it themselves because they’re smart.” Society has been conditioned to believe that there is no real difference between “smart” and “gifted.”  Therefore, these kids’ problems are ignored while arguing that lack of high achievement proves lack of “gifted.” Thus the struggles are undermined by saying, “well, she’s a bright kid, she can do it herself.” Adults are functionally asking little kids to manage coping skills without providing them guidance.

This is the crux of the issue that the parents of sparky kids have. Few people would suggest that an ASD kid should learn coping skills on their own. Resources would be provided, and are legally required to be provided, once the assessment process is complete. Many people argue that “gifted” kids can “do it on their own.”

Education is not a zero-sum game despite being treated as such. Education policy has evolved in a way that overextends educational resources thus pitting various parental groups against one another. Every good parent wants the best for their kid. No parent should be dismissed for wanting to fight for their child’s basic educational rights. Yet, this is what happens to the parents of sparky kids regularly.

The answer lies in intersectionality. Originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in a different context, intersectionality can also be used to describe the overlaps between other marginalized groups. Intersectionality builds coalitions. It allows for people to see the Venn diagram overlaps of needs to come to a place where everyone can obtain the best results possible. Looking at the resources provided and how extension of them can help all children in the most minimal but meaningful ways can give all children the best access to an education that allows them to reach their full potential.

A kid with ADHD is required, by law, to have a standing desk. The child with the psychomotor overexcitability is only offered that if the teachers or schools think the child can benefit and care about the child benefiting. What if, however, all children have the option of a standing desk regardless of disability, disorder, or just being really antsy? In that case, no one is harmed. No one loses a resource. Everyone wins.

The kids reading below grade level are offered reading resources and pull-outs that push them to achieving their full potential. Kids reading above grade level are handed books and told to read them but not taught the cognitive skills to help them advance to their full potential. What if all kids had rotating pull-outs to offer them the required resources and skills to reach all their full potential? In that case, not only do kids have cohorts which would help reduce peer group social stigmas, but they would all be working to their full potential. No one is harmed. No one loses a resource. Everyone wins.

A child with ASD is offered a quiet lunch space in order to be successful. A child with a sensory overexcitability sits in a loud, echoing lunchroom that causes them to be overstimulated and unable to cope thus leading to behavioral problems. What if, regardless of the reason, all children had the option of having somewhere quiet to have lunch? The kids who can’t handle the noise would all be comfortable. No one is harmed. No one loses a resource. Everyone wins.

Intersectionality between various types of special education issues is where parents are failing their children. As parents, we want the best for our kids. This means that the parents of special needs kids end up in a death match for resources. By putting down other special needs in an attempt to grasp the resources our kids need, we engage in a real life Hunger Games. These resources are life or death to our children. These resources are often the only way we can stave off the educational starvation that public policy has created. We run towards those cornucopias, hands grasping, arms pushing, feet kicking, and try to take what we can for our own kids. Intersectionality can allow us to work together for the best outcome for all children regardless of needs and diagnoses. In the desperate grab for the limited resources available, parents are ultimately reinforcing the status quo which leads to infighting amongst all of us and the constant competition over whose kid is most deserving.

The answer is: All kids are most deserving. United we stand; divided our children fall. Intersectionality of special needs is the answer. With intersectionality, the odds WILL be ever in our favor.