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Why Supporting Students With Special Needs Benefits Us All

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Hemera Technologies via Getty Images
Hemera Technologies via Getty Images

Did you know that the B.C. government now considers learning supports for students with special needs in public education a "wage benefit" for teachers that is "too expensive" for taxpayers to afford?

Better read that again, I know it's a bit of a mind twist. It would make sense though if you remember that this is the same group of people who have redefined what "essential" means -- but I digress.

Back to benefits. Now you and I may expect employee wage benefits to be about medical coverage or a dental plan or a car or travel expenses. We'd be wrong, according to Premier Christy Clark.

Benefits now include having other workers around you to do the work that must be done. By this definition, a nurse is a wage benefit to a doctor; a secretary is a wage benefit to an executive, and a dental assistant is a wage benefit to a dentist.

The B.C. teachers' union has proposed a wage increase to offset the blow our salaries have taken over the past eight years due to the hike in the cost of living. But according to the framing above, if an education assistant helps a student in our classrooms, or if our school has learning specialist teachers, their work in the school is costed as a benefit to our salaries.

I wonder if the premier counts the cost of her assistants in the same way, or are they just considered the perks of the job like dining out and iTunes purchases?

But what if we looked at the whole concept of benefits in a different way. Who actually benefits when we support students whose brains work differently?

We all do.

In fact, people who "think differently" have completely changed the world in the past and present. If we give the students in our classrooms the support they need now, they will change the world of the future.

Take Michael Faraday, for example. As a child he stuttered and struggled in school at a time when the very concept of support for students with special needs was unheard of.

Luckily for us, his mother took him out of school and provided what she could in spite of their poverty. When he grew up, even with an incomplete formal education, he discovered electromagnetism.

Now I'm not a scientist, but this much I know (thanks to the TV series "Cosmos) -- that without Faraday's discovery the very act of reading this blog post via the Internet would not be possible.

Imagine what more Faraday might have given us if he had had support at school?

Here's another example: I'd never heard of Dean Kamen, the inventor of the iBot wheelchair and the Segway, before I watched an interview. In it, he explained how he struggled in school, because as soon as the teacher opened her mouth he felt like a fire hose was coming at him.

His mind would be still processing the first thing the teacher said while she kept moving on, and he felt flooded with information. I imagine that this is how the mind of an incredible inventor works -- taking a tiny bit of information and seeing infinite possibilities.

Thomas Edison's inventions provide another example of how much we have gained from creative thinkers. The way Edison learned in school was so different to what other students did that his teacher said his mind was "addled." Despite only three months of formal schooling, he gave us the light bulb, the phonograph and the moving picture camera.

We're very lucky when people who think differently have mentors or people who support them. How much poorer in ideas would our world have been without the mind of Helen Keller, who although deaf and blind, contributed so much through her writing and talks. Her success due in no small way to the support she received from her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

Temple Grandin is another example of someone who has contributed much to the world after having lots of support as a child for her autism and speech difficulties. What she's done is so amazing that Hollywood made a movie of her life.

In fact Hollywood seems to have more interest than politicians do in special thinkers, given movies such as "Radio", "A Beautiful Mind," "Little Man Tate," Rain Man"....

In this century, we are going to need out-of-the-box kinds of thinking that students with special needs do naturally, all the time. We are going to need special solutions to the special challenges we all face. Students with special needs may grow up to be the very people who will help us solve our most intractable problems.

So I guess in some sense, the B.C. government is right when they say that support for students with special needs is a benefit.

The part they got wrong however is that it's a benefit for us all, not just to teachers. Supporting students with special needs will benefit humankind in ways we can't even imagine yet.

Since 2002, the number of learning specialists in B.C. schools has been cut by 20 per cent and the cuts will increase again in 2014/15, a direct result of chronic underfunding. I'm not sure how much our premier believes she is saving and for what purpose when she continues to cut approximately $250 million per year from the education budget.

A valid question may be to ask where that money went, where is it now being spent?

Supporting all our students in all ways possible in public schools should not be considered a wasteful cost. Providing support for students with special needs is an investment in benefits that we will all share.

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