What Mothers Say About Special Education: From the 1960s to the Present

August 27, 2009

It would be generous to describe books on special education as appealing to a niche market. If education is one of the least attractive of the academic disciplines, special education is merely a splinter group within it. Yet it is the one area where many disciplines are crammed - where sociology, medicine, politics, psychology, philosophy, law and literacy, among others, lie in waiting, in the hope that they may educate each other and others.

Valle has attempted to present it as such. That is a brave move, as What Mothers Say about Special Education is not a seductive title. Moreover, for the first two chapters, it reads like someone's terribly worthy Foucauldian PhD thesis, rather than starting where any good editor would have advised it to start: with the presentation of the taped and transcribed narratives of 15 women compelled to battle the system to obtain the right to a good education for their children with learning difficulties.

Their stories span four decades, from the 1960s to almost the present day, and several changes in US education law designed to protect and provide for their children. That these changes singularly fail to do so may come as something of a surprise to well-intentioned legislators and earnest educators, but there is little to distinguish the retold struggles of the mothers 40 years ago from the most recent accounts. Nor is there anything in their narrated experiences that we could dismiss as "Only in America!" It is a simple mathematical issue. If you are the parent of a child with special needs, whenever one of these useful collaborative conferences is called to determine your child's educational future, you will be outnumbered by professionals who are just doing their job in allocating resources.

When social workers, special needs teachers, head teachers, educational psychologists, doctors, therapists and local authority educational personnel gather together to discuss a child's education, they talk among themselves, because the ratio of paid experts to the amateur but real expert, the parent, can be 16:1. They may even use demeaning terms in describing their subject. There is evidence here of professionals describing much-loved children as "retarded" or "incapable of learning". Not good practice. Moreover, the parent may be omitted from the discourse because it's in a "foreign" language - jargon that the uninitiated parent may not be privy to. What are WISC and WIAT scores? Vineland? What is an IEP? How much does a parent have to learn to enable their child to learn?

A weakness, but also a strength, of these narratives is that they are largely confined, in 13 of the 15 cases, to mothers of higher socio-economic status. It's a weakness in that it does not express true variability. However, it is a strength in that it begs the question: if these well-supported and highly educated mothers cannot break through the barriers erected by the professional systemising that operates in education, what hope is there for those without their know-how or know-who? Collaboration cannot be achieved through organised confrontation, however helpfully this is presented, in legislative and administrative terms. I advise all academics to read this book, and learn from it, as it questions so much received wisdom. However, please begin at chapter three - it is listening to those whose lived experience challenges what we know that is crucial to academic research.

What Mothers Say About Special Education: From the 1960s to the Present

By Jan W. Valle. Palgrave Macmillan, 268pp, £42.50. ISBN 9780230606517. Published 19 May 2009

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