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by Dr. Melissa Martiros

Several years ago, I received a memorable email from a parent on a quest to find a piano teacher for her son, Adam.  Prior to reading the text of the email, I opened up the attached document and viewed a scanned image of her son’s school photo.  As I read through her message and scanned through the run-down of her son’s disability labels, I quickly understood the significance of the image as a strong representation of his humanness.  Asperger’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, Tourette Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—a palette of challenges mixed with a run-down of positive traits and a plea for open-mindedness. This continues to be the only time a parent has included a photograph with a lesson request and I believe it speaks to the vulnerabilities and challenges we all face when branded with a label.

In the field of special education, labels hold one important and dominant function—that is, to provide the documentation needed for a child to receive support services inside and outside of the classroom. IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, lists thirteen broad categories of disability that a child’s label must fall under to legally qualify for support services and accommodations.  These include Autism Spectrum Disorder, Visual Impairments, Hearing Impairments, Deaf-Blindness, Emotional Disturbances, Mental Retardation, Orthopedic Impairments, Traumatic Brain Injury, Specific Learning Disabilities, Speech or Language Impairments, Developmental Delays, Multiple Disabilities and Other Health Impairments. The category of Other Health Impairments includes diagnoses that do not fit neatly under the other twelve categories.  Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Tourrette Syndrome and Asthma are examples of labels that fall underneath the Other Health Impairment category.

Without a label, a child is not eligible to receive the accommodations necessary to enter the school arena on an equal playing field thus limiting his ability to reach his true potential. With a label, the child is subject to discrimination, bullying, and institutionally imposed limitations that could hold her back from reaching her truest potential. In this way, labels are a double-edged sword—necessary for services that aid with educational success but detrimental when they lead to unnecessary typecasting and limitations. As educators, we need to be extremely cautious with our approach to and treatment of labels.  We should always strive to honor and respect the humanness of each individual child we teach, regardless of how they have been labelled. And, under absolutely no circumstance should we ever take it upon ourselves to self-diagnose a child, regardless of the level of confidence in our all too often misguided assumptions. 

Upon completion of every “Pedagogical Strategies for Children with Special Needs” workshop, I am always asked following question: “what do I do when a student obviously has a disability but the parent has not been forthcoming with the label?” Here is my response: Do Nothing. It is simply not necessary.  While a label can sometimes serve as a guide for expected outcomes and accommodations, more often than not the most effective instructional adaptations will be responses to the manifestation of symptoms, not the label. If our focus is on building rapport and establishing student centered-teaching, the labels are irrelevant. 

Which brings me back to Adam.  Sometimes labels can clue us in to how best accommodate a child. However, more often than not, disability labels are defined differently for each individual child.   Had I focused solely on Adam’s labels, I likely would not have agreed to work with him in which case I would not have learned that his Tourette-related tick’s stopped when he played music, his ADHD symptoms were well managed with medication, and his Aspergian brain allowed him to process music significantly faster than all of his same-aged peers.  He was smart and funny and a lot of fun to work with.  And now, nearly ten years later, he continues playing piano recreationally and has become quite an impressive musician.  

More information on IDEA – The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act  - may be found at: idea.ed.gov

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In addition, The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy will include workshop offerings on teaching students with special needs. The next conference is scheduled for July 26-29, 2017 in Lombard, IL (a suburb of Chicago). Information is available at http://keyboardpedagogy.org/national-conference-info2