The E Word

Over its history TASH has been concerned about the language used to describe and label people with disabilities. Terms that inadvertently reveal unspoken attitudes are particularly insidious and ought to be pointed out when they circulate. Locally a few years ago I noted that the previous Superintendent of our local public schools was complaining in public forums about the “special education encroachment,’ meaning the local costs of special education born by the district. I was reminded of this term from reading a new report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office in California noting an upswing in complaints from public school administrators about “special education encroachment” on their school budgets. The word encroachment according to the Encarta Dictionary means “ To trespass. To intrude gradually or stealthily, often taking away somebody’s authority, rights or property.” The word is also used to describe incidents in which military forces violate the territorial integrity of a nation.

You get the picture. By framing special education expenditures in this way the implication is that these students are intruders who are taking resources away from the majority of children. People who encroach are not welcome and are viewed as costs in a zero sum game. The term implies that somehow the children and youth who need special education are not our children.  From its inception the IDEA has been based on commitments of funding from federal, state, and local resources. At a time of economic down turn the federal and state resources shrink and in some states local districts must take up the expenditures. To view this as trespass, an encroachment, somehow assumes that the children who need extra supports are not the responsibility of the local community—they are other rather than us. Support for some children inevitably costs more than the average, this is simply a way of recognizing human differences and meeting diverse needs. Some activities cost more than the average, plain and simple. School administrators rarely complain, for example, about the extra costs of supporting a football team.  In a civilized nation the education and care for all children is a necessary civic responsibility, not for some children but for all. Our children do not encroach on public budgets. They are deserving of the support needed to allow them to benefit from the same experiences as the rest of our children. Inclusion requires a commitment of resources, which in turn benefits everyone by sustaining a rich and varied polity in a nation which values unity in diversity. So if you read or hear of public officials complaining about encroachment, please call them out on it. Ask what part of all of us they do not understand.


George HS Singer is a TASH board member and a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara.