Wong, A. L. (n.d.). Keuze [Digital]. Retrieved from http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=165400&picture=&jazyk=NL

“Who Is Excluded From Inclusion?” by Maria Cioè-Peña

Points of union and division in bilingual and special education

In our current political climate, inclusion is a term that is most often used to describe a programmatic phenomenon within special education. In this setting, inclusion refers to the integration of people with dis/abilities into mainstream academic settings on the basis of social demographics or qualifiers such as age and grade level regardless of academic capacities. However, on a more pragmatic level inclusion refers to the strides or measures that are put in place in order to ensure that all minoritized people are included in the overall academic realm. For students with disabilities this means being welcomed into spaces that are occupied by their typically developing peers and being provided with the necessary accommodations. For bilingual students this means having access to spaces that allow them to use all of their linguistic resources. However, for a student who is both dis/abled and bilingual, the way the system frames inclusion means students and families must choose one academic identity over another, tending to the needs of one aspect of identity rather than both. These experiences of exclusion are even more pronounced for students of color.

As Flores (2016 and also reprinted in this issue) states:

Black students are welcome to participate in [bilingual] programs in the same way that everybody else is welcome to participate in these programs. Yet, this logic parallels the #AllLivesMatter counter to #BlackLivesMatter that refuses to engage with the specific manifestations of anti-Blackness that #BlackLivesMatter seeks to bring attention to. In a society that was founded on anti-Blackness and continues to perpetuate anti-Blackness through its institutions, bilingual education is by default anti-Black regardless of how inclusive it prides itself on being.

This anti-blackness is even more pronounced when we begin to discuss issues of inclusion relating to dis/ability and bilingual education. Given the overrepresentation of African-American[1] students in special education and the underrepresentation of special education students in bilingual education it is critical for educators to identify the ways in which the exclusion of students with disabilities from bilingual spaces also contributes to the ongoing discrimination of Black students. By continuing to maintain bilingual spaces as primarily spaces of privilege – reflective of longstanding hegemonic views about class, race and/or ability ­we contribute to the pervasiveness of White supremacy by denying all students access to interactions with peers of diverse abilities as well as ethnic and racial backgrounds. Additionally, by maintaining special education programs as monolingual spaces we continue to deny the cultural and social possibilities for African-American students as well as the cultural and social identities and experiences of ethnic students with African phenotypes. In our current political climate, all educators should actively seek to make visible the narratives of Black people and blackness in the United States. For the bilingual education specialist this means considering these narratives in relation to discourses and national policies about and within immigrant, ethnic and/or multilingual communities.

National policies like Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Bilingual Education Act (BEA) and the more recent policies, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RttT), were designed to be safeguards for special education students and bilingual students respectively. They also play a role in shaping the academic performance and lived experiences of Black children. IDEA and the BEA were established long before the Black Lives Matter movement, during periods of US history during which segregation under Jim Crow or de facto social practices such as white flight persisted. NCLB and RttT were policies established by separate administrations but both sought to close the oft-cited achievement gap between White, middle class students and minoritized students such as students of color, “English language learners” and “students with disabilities”. These policies were designed to bring attention to the academic needs of particular marginalized groups but years later several salient questions remain:

What space has each of these policies (IDEA, BEA, NCLB, and RttT) created for Bilingual Special Education students[2]? How were they inclusive? How were they exclusive? What signs of structural violence can one ascertain? What seeds of radical possibilities can we plant in an effort to develop more just and equitable learning environments for all children, regardless of the complexity of their intersecting identities?

In order to answer these questions, this paper will explore the ways in which past and present policies relating to bilingual education, special education and national education standards have countered the production of truly inclusive spaces. As such I will outline the ways in which IDEA has minimized the particular needs of bilingual students, the ways in which bilingual education has ignored the needs of students with dis/ability labels as well as the ways in which national education policies have failed to address the holistic needs of students who are minoritized as a result of their membership in multiple disenfranchised communities. I will demonstrate how in an effort to protect one minoritized group, those niche policies actually end up hurting those who fall into multiple minoritized group identities and further contribute to an educational system that is already heavily segregated across racial and socioeconomic lines.

Lastly, this paper will conclude with a discussion of possibilities for the future.

Inclusion (and Exclusion) Under IDEA

Prior to 1975, four out of five children with disabilities were excluded from partaking in a public school education (Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS), 2010, p. 8). Many of those children received a limited amount of services from live-in state institutions that provided basic care but no “education [or] rehabilitation” (OSERS, 2010). However, when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act – Public Law 94-142[3] was introduced, the education of children with dis/abilities was brought out from the shadows and into the national spotlight. In short, Public Law 94-142 had four purposes:

  • “to assure that all children with disabilities have available to them … a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs
  • to assure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents … are protected
  • to assist States and localities to provide for the education of all children with disabilities
  • to assess and assure the effectiveness of efforts to educate all children with disabilities”

(Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 1975 as cited in OSERS, 2010, p. 10)

Although P.L. 94-142, had an incredibly positive impact on the lives of millions of children with dis/abilities and aimed to be socially responsive, it inadvertently created pockets of exclusion, particularly for children from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. As the nation has become more aware of its diverse citizens, changes have been made to IDEA. For example, in 2004 modifications to IDEA were made that required that English language learners (ELLs) be evaluated in their “native” [4] language in order to adequately determine if the child’s learning deficits were a result of a learning dis/ability rather than a lack of English competency. However, there have been no mandated changes that require that children who speak a language other than English and are qualified to receive special education services be educated in their “native” language. Although research shows that “unless children with disabilities develop native language competence, they will most likely have problems learning a second language and will experience difficulty with cognitive development as well,” most multilingual students are still labeled as ELLs rather than bilingual[5] and are placed in settings that cater to their English language learning needs rather than their developmental needs and multilingual potential (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002, p. 4). Additionally, even students who are primarily receiving services meant to address their English language learning needs “(in general) do not receive the type of instruction they need (due to the lack of ESL instructional methodology and other professional development for special education professionals)” (Artiles & Ortiz, 2002, p. 1). The lack of training for special education teachers as well as lack of initiative to teach in languages other than English are examples of how exclusion as a form of structural violence is embedded in IDEA. IDEA, as it stands and as it is enacted by most states, aims to create inclusive spaces only for students who are identified as primarily or exclusively English speakers. Although the ideology of assimilation has been removed from mainstream public education, special education, for the most part, remains an English-only space. This space then goes on not only to uphold monolingual inclusive spaces but also racially segregated learning spaces given that a large portion of students of color within special education are also categorized as linguistically and culturally diverse.

Spaces of Exclusion Within The Bilingual Education Act

Multilingual spaces within public education also have been and continue to be a highly politicized issue. For some, an American public school education should be taught exclusively in English otherwise we, as a nation, risk losing our national identity to the myriad of immigrant groups that take up residence here.[6] Others recognize that in teaching our children to navigate through the world in multiple languages we are preparing them to be citizens of the world, otherwise we risk excluding them and ourselves from being part of the global economy.[7] For the most part, the federal government has enacted policies that are in keeping with monolinguistic ideologies rather than a polylinguistic worldview. However, in the passing of the Bilingual Education Act (BEA) of 1968, also known as Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government recognized that minoritized children who came from households that spoke languages other than English (LOTE) had diverse learning needs that needed to be addressed. It is important to note that most policies regarding children who speak LOTE are a direct result of legal action rather than national altruism. Additionally, since it came about on the heels of the civil rights movements and the Brown V. Board of Education decision, the BEA “was seen largely as a remedy for civil rights violations [as] it also began the process of formally recognizing that ethnic minorities could seek differentiated services for reasons other than segregation or racial discrimination” (Stewner-Manzanares, 1988, p. 1). Nonetheless, because the Act was designed to address the needs of “ethnic minorities” it, too, created pockets of exclusion within its “inclusive” world. Since “[t]he Act did not explicitly require bilingual instruction or the use of the students’ native language for educational purposes” it automatically became an educational policy that only applied to ELLs with a focus that was less about linguistic expansion and more about English acquisition (Stewner-Manzanares, 1988, p. 1). As a result students who spoke English as their first language were often left out of multilingual learning opportunities, including but not limited to first- and second-generation ethnic and linguistic minorities, and Black[8]-American students. In addition, it never addressed the academic needs of language minorities that may extend beyond language and into learning. In this way it inadvertently excluded students who had learning disabilities, forcing those students and their families to choose between partially addressing their academic needs or maintaining their linguistic identity. The BEA formally continued to exclude special education students, even as the law underwent several “reauthorizations with amendments, reflecting the changing needs of these students and of society as a whole” (Stewner-Manzanares, 1988, p. 1). It is possible that the exclusion of special education students from bilingual spaces may have been done intentionally in order to guarantee the success of bilingual education programs as measured by test scores.

Although “[r]esearchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development” recent findings have proved that “being bilingual [actually] makes you smarter” (Bhattacharjee, 2012, para. 2,1). In recent years, bilingual education programs have promoted these benefits in order to fight off opposition and increase enrollment. Many districts consider bilingual education to be a Gifted and Talented program which have been historically accessible primarily to White, Middle class students (Bowern, 2014; Mathewson, 2016). For this, the racial and ethnic backgrounds of students within bilingual education have shifted, with many bilingual education programs around the country now enrolling few students of color, and higher rates of White, middle class students (Cervantes-Soon, 2014). Some researchers even posit that teaching students of color to be bilingual is detrimental to their education (Bowern, 2014). In this context, students of color with disabilities are even less likely to have access to a bilingual learning environment. For many, educating children with disabilities — who have historically been viewed as incompetent — within bilingual settings would do nothing but hurt the cause that is so dependent on academic success (Genesee & Fortune, 2014; Palmer & Henderson, 2016; Pesco et al., 2016). It is also worth nothing that although there has been a shift in how bilingualism is viewed amongst mainstream America, many educators, both inside and outside the field of special education, continue to be under the impression that learning in multiple languages is “just too confusing” for children with disabilities (Holmes, 2014).  The consensus is that “[t]hey need to focus on one [language] to get grasp of whatever they’re missing [academically]” (Holmes, 2014). Given these factors, it seems fair to say that children with cognitive and learning disabilities have been excluded from multilingual learning spaces through both policy-based actions and social misconceptions.

National Policies and the Continued Culture of Exclusion

Although IDEA and the BEA have failed at being inclusive of one another, it is important to note that it is especially difficult to consider others when advocates of the spirit of those laws are constantly fighting for those policies’ own survival. In recent years, IDEA, the BEA and the students they serve have faced attacks from national policies such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) under the Bush administration and Race to the Top (RttT) which was enacted by President Obama. Under NCLB, IDEA and the BEA saw their students placed under increasing scrutiny by way of high stakes testing, and both suffered at the hands of severe budget cuts.  NCLB’s focus on accountability, which was primarily measured through high stakes testing, meant that those who were already the most vulnerable faced even greater challenges. Schools that would cater to the needs of ELLs and/or Special Education students often performed lowest on high stakes tests and, as a result, would be the first to have their budgets cut and, ultimately, have their doors shuttered. Although some would argue that special education students benefited from NCLB because it required schools to have high expectations applied to all students, few could say that bilingual students experienced comparable gains (Menken, 2010; Menken & Kleyn, 2010). Under NCLB, the BEA was ultimately abolished and replaced with the English Language Acquisition Act. This shift was reflective of trends that had been established “in the late 1990s and early 2000s, [when] a few states restricted or outlawed bilingual education programs with native-language instructions, providing English-language learners only with some form of English instruction” (Garcia, 2009, para. 3). NCLB ensured that English would be the primary language of instruction by introducing an additional measure that required that the English proficiency of all ELLs be annually assessed—this assessment, like all the others, was also used to determine how funding was allocated.

When the Obama administration took office, many had hoped that the failings of NCLB would be remediated. However, Race to the Top (RttT) seemed to be more of the same. Not only did RttT continue the legacy of high stakes testing, it also introduced new (unattainable) measures of success through the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and increased social exclusion through the expansion of charter schools.  The CCSS aimed to create a unified education system that would ensure that every child who graduates from a public school, regardless of geography, receives the same education (National Governors Association Center & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2015). However, RttT failed to recognize that children are individuals with individual needs.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once argued that the CCSS were a “set of learning standards aligned to the demands of the real world—to the kind of deep learning that your children and my children will need to thrive in a globally competitive economy” (U.S. Department of Education, 2013, para. 19). Even though Duncan used the need to be competitive in international markets as a basis to support the development and implementation of the CCSS, the original standards did not contain a second language learning component[9]. As a result of this oversight, a child who graduated from high school having met all of the benchmarks set forth by the CCSS would only be able to compete in international forums that were conducted in English – a language that, although still powerful, is quickly losing traction with the increased financial prowess of the Asian markets.  Aside from depriving multilingual children of fully developing their linguistic competencies, the CCSS also widened the gap between typically developing students and students with disabilities. With its “one-size-fits-all approach” the Common Core “severely straightjacketed America’s special-needs students,” greatly limiting their academic development and social learning experiences (Beals, 2014, para. 3). Although none of the Common Core architects had any special education expertise, teachers with degrees in special education and years of experience within the field were then required to “adhere to the standards and give all their students the designated grade-level assignments” (Beals, 2014, para. 4). Rather than use their training, special education teachers were being expected to follow a set curriculum in order to prepare their students for arbitrary evaluations, even though this new mandate greatly contradicted many of the goals put forth in a child’s Individual Education Plans (IEP), a requirement of IDEA[10]. As a result of these new standards students who exhibited any kind of linguistic or cognitive variance were automatically and systemically othered.

Although teachers have always had some set of standards in place to guide their practice, the Common Core standards along with the accompanying assessments greatly hinder flexibility and creativity. In addition, because test scores are being used to measure teacher effectiveness, there is an increased pressure to teach to the test rather than to student need. While the Common Core State Standards have fallen in favor with many states around the country, high stakes testing still remains a large part of the accountability measures for schools and individual teachers. This is particularly problematic in schools that function within traditionally underserved communities of poor children of color.  Even in states where the CCSS no longer guide curriculum development, the ramifications are still evident in many communities of color: the CCSS and high stakes testing led to a decrease in bilingual education – second language education was considered to be counterproductive by some and counterintuitive by many – and a special education teacher shortage – very few people are willing to put their livelihood in the hands of students who, at baseline, have already been identified as being below average[11] (Menken & Solorza, 2014a, 2014b).

As dramatic as the impact has been on the way that public schools function, the effects of these policies can be felt even more profoundly within charter schools. Charter schools not only increase the pressure to perform for teachers, but also for children and their families. Charter schools were another part of the Obama administration’s tools to reform public education and are likely to remain en vogue and expand with the new administration in office. Privately managed charter schools are viewed by many as the panacea that our education system needs even though they “don’t enroll any English language learners” and  “exclude children with disabilities” (Ravitch, 2014, para. 1). In NYC, charter schools enroll significantly lower rates of special education students and/or ELLs than traditional public schools (Winters, 2013, 2014).  While some charter schools have been designed with the intention of serving primarily low income students of color, ELLs and students with disabilities these schools often have their doors shuttered as a result of not meeting the same benchmarks as schools who serve fewer at risk students/populations (Darville, 2016). The few English language learners and special education students who do squeak their way into traditional charter schools are under great pressure to perform or risk being expelled. “City charter schools are not subject to the same disciplinary regulations as public schools” which has resulted in charters expelling students who traditionally exhibit poor academic performance –Black, Latino and disabled, at an alarming rate [12] (Knefel, 2015, para. 7). This kind of physical segregation between public and charter school students leads to social segregation and, as such, deprives many students of the opportunity to participate in a diverse learning environment. Further contributing to the educational and social oppression of students who are racially, culturally and linguistically diverse.

Reimagining Inclusion

Although past and present educational policies seem intent on creating a culture of divisiveness between bilingual education, special education and general education, the fact that there continue to be children who are in need of bilingual special education services means that the need for collaboration continues. Rather than wait for policies to be enacted that legitimize the need for integrated bilingual special education spaces, many schools and educators have begun to enact their own kinds of radical possibilities through research and practice.

Traditionally, research that focused on the intersections of bilingualism and special education was primarily focused on the overrepresentation of ELLs in special education. Although that research was important and necessary, it also resulted in a swinging of the pendulum where placing an ELL student in special education was in many cases seen as at best lazy and irresponsible, and at worst oppressive and racist. While this type of research did result in a minor decrease of Latinx students being placed in special education, it did nothing to decrease the disproportional rates of African American and Native American students who continue to be placed within special education at alarmingly high rates (Zhang, Katsiyannis, Ju, & Roberts, 2014). As a result the students who remain in special education for valid reasons or not continue to be increasingly othered –either as a result of racism or ableism. Additionally, this focus on overrepresentation without any mention of alternative settings also resulted in children being denied entry into the supportive learning environments that they needed, as early as possible. As time went on, educators noticed that overrepresentation only addressed part of the issue and began to ask about the students who had both linguistic and learning needs. Recently, the field of bilingual special education has established itself and as a result there has been a great deal of progress within the development and application of bilingual special education programs. Other areas of bilingual research have also expanded their reach in order to include the needs of special education students. A very good example of this is Ofelia Garcia’s work on translanguaging. The CUNY-New York State Initiative on Bilingual Education, under Garcia’s direction, has taken her theoretical work on translanguaging and has used it to develop more multilingual spaces within public schools. Many of those spaces were inhabited by students with disabilities and, as a result, the theories of translanguaging are now being explored in relation to special education practices. From these explorations arise new understandings of how bilingual children with disabilities learn, and those new understandings lead to new possibilities for practice. This shift within the research community also contributes to some ideological shifts within school communities, which have resulted in an increase of multilingual and inclusive special education settings.

While inclusive classroom teaching has been used for many years as a way to integrate children with disabilities and typically developing children, recently there has been an increase in bilingual inclusive classrooms that integrate students not just based on academic ability but also on language and culture. Schools like PS 89K Cypress Hill Community School in Brooklyn and PS 75M Emily Dickinson in Manhattan have been pioneers in the integration of special education, bilingualism and inclusion. Both PS 89K and PS 75M have created programmatic structures that are reflective of the needs of their students and the communities they serve. Because both schools contain above average numbers of Latinx students, the need to create multilingual programs was rather organic. Likewise, the need to create special education spaces that were reflective of the students’ backgrounds also arose from the needs and demands of the schools’ student bodies. Although they have had different levels of success on standardized tests, which is reflective of their different locations and the relationship between socioeconomics and geography[13], both schools have very high rates of satisfaction amongst their students’ families (NYC Department of Education, 2014a, 2014b). Although monolingual special education programs are less costly, both of these schools have made an ideological and financial commitment to meeting the needs of their students through the creation of niche academic programs that support every part of a child’s development. Although bilingual inclusive classrooms are easier to find in elementary schools, many middle and high schools have also committed themselves to offering multilingual learning experiences for students with disabilities.  One such set of schools is the network of International High Schools (IHS).  The International High Schools are designed to meet the needs of some of the city’s most at risk students: newcomers who have limited English proficiency.  Although students need to be in the U.S. for more than two years before qualifying for a special education evaluation, IHS also enrolls students who have been identified as disabled prior to enrollment or who present as having a dis/ability during their tenure at the school. As a result, IHS makes sure to offer the necessary academic services to these students along with the linguistic support that they need. Although the primary focus of the IHS is to graduate students with a certain level of English proficiency, at least one of its schools, the IHS at Union Square has started to explore ways to use the students’ home languages to advance their academic development.  As more and more children with disabilities exit elementary school with a bilingual education, more middle schools and high schools will begin to develop instructional programs that continue to meet their academic, linguistic and cultural needs and, as such, will create more diverse learning opportunities for all students. It is important to note that while all of these possibilities have been presented for students who originate from households and families that speak languages other than English, there still remains a need for bilingual learning spaces that are open to students who have different ethnic backgrounds and differing linguistic experiences thus ensuring that all learning options are available to all students regardless of their demographic identity markers.

If we truly aim to be an inclusive society then all of our spaces need to be reflective of that belief, not just the ones that are convenient. As we continue to work at dismantling systems of oppression while understanding the complexity of each child, we need to strive to develop learning environments that meet all learners’ needs and not just some of them. That means opening up bilingual learning spaces to students with disabilities and other minoritized students. This also means that as members and/or educators of oppressed communities we cannot ignore the call to engage with the BlackLivesMatter movement, not just because our students are represented in that movement but because choosing to opt out of the discourse is tantamount to our complicity in the oppression of another minoritized community as well as the promotion of anti-Blackness within our own communities. Each classroom does not need to be tailor made for each child it aims to educate, we just need to acknowledge that children are not all one and the same, and that teaching them to ignore social justice issues grounded in the oppression of others while asking them to choose language over learning or vice versa is more harmful to the individual and to our society than any dis/ability or cultural threat could ever be. As long as there are children who have diverse needs and educators who aim to best meet those needs, there will always be an endless supply of new possibilities but we must be willing to take part in difficult conversations – even when they seem to go beyond the purview of language, dis/ability and our classrooms. As we move towards an inclusive society we must ensure that our classrooms are reflective of the world we want children to inhabit. Otherwise, we will continue to uphold policies that allow for the ongoing delineation of Black lives across ethnic and national identities, and sustain practices that promote racism and ableism. These policies and practices will result in the continued production of citizens who engage in apathy and inaction beyond their own self-interest.

There will be many challenges in the years to come but we must not waiver in our hopes to create the most inclusive learning spaces possible. Even though inclusion has yet to be enacted to its greatest potential within public schools, the small shifts in research and practice as well as the growing disdain for the way that past and present educational policies have treated children – like cogs in the machine rather than creative and diverse individuals with complex histories and learning styles – all provide a sense of promise.


[1] It is important to note that while statistical data on overrepresentation organizes students by racial categorizations such as White, African-American and Native-American, it includes Latinxs under their ethnic identity possibly erasing the ways in which perceived racial identity also play a role in the placement of Latinx students in Special Education. Additionally, to date there has been no research on the racial make up of Latinx students within special education. Given the way that race and implicit bias function in this country, it is my belief that findings from such research would note a preponderance of Afro-Latinx students within special education.

[2] The term bilingual special education student is used here not only to describe students who already identify as bilingual but also students who have the potential to be bilingual if they were to be given access to those programs.

[3] as the  Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was formerly named

[4] “Native” is placed in quotations in order to highlight the problematic nature with this term. The use of the term “native” asserts that all children learn one language before any other/s, which dismisses the linguistic experiences of children who are born into, and raised within, multilingual households/communities.

[5] The distinction between an English language learner and bilingual label is in many ways as political as other inclusion/exclusion movements. While labeling a student as bilingual acknowledges their pre-established linguistic practices as well as their ongoing development of a second language, the label English language learner focuses solely on the fact that a student does not have English language competency. As such the label ELL centers on a deficit-based perspective rather than a strength-based perspective that acknowledges a student’s dynamic linguistic practices.

[6] This position toward is expected to take an even stronger hold as nationalist movements continue to grow in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.

[7] A shift in public opinion can also be seen in California’s reversal of Proposition 227 with the voting in of Proposition 58, which reinstates bilingual education within public schools.

[8] The demographic marker Black-American is used, rather than African-American, in recognition that not all Black-Americans are of African American descent such as Caribbean-Americans and Latin-Americans with African phenotypes.

[9] Some states, like NY, did adopt their own bilingual common core state initiatives. However, these were independently written, enacted and funded by individual states (“New York State Bilingual Common Core Initiative,” 2014)

[10] If a student has an IEP, it is because a team of experts have already determined that this child cannot follow the standard curriculum as is and is in need of individualized goals and standards.

[11] In reference to the 1-4 scale used in testing.

[12] Some public schools have attempted to expel special education and ELL students by citing absences or behavior, as was the case in thirteen school districts in Texas (Diament, 2015; Paulson, 2015).

[13] PS 75M is located in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in New York City while PS 89K is located in one of the poorest.


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