There’s a shortage of special-ed teachers in the US. Advocates say the system isn’t set up to support disabled educators when schools need them most.

Special Needs Education
  • About 6 million students in the US are under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
  • The US doesn’t just have a shortage of teachers – it has a shortage of disabled teachers.
  • Teachers’ conditions are students’ conditions, and advocates say the support systems aren’t there.
  • This article is part of a series called “The Cost of Inequity,” examining the hurdles that marginalized and disenfranchised groups face across a range of sectors.

There’s a substantial shortage of special-education teachers in the US, according to a 2020 report by the Office of Special Education, a branch of the US Department of Education.

In 2017, approximately 6 million students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were being served by just 389,456 teachers, 7% of which weren’t fully certified or otherwise trained to work in special education.

Beyond the lack of teachers equipped to teach disabled students, there’s also concern on the side of disabled educators and policymakers who say the school system doesn’t meet their needs.

Cole Sorenson is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota. He told Insider he chose to train as a special-education teacher to give people with his experience as a mostly non-speaking autistic and multiply disabled Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) user a view of what could be possible in the future.

Cole Sorenson: A young, white, transmasculine person with short brown hair, tinted glasses, and a septum piercing. He is wearing a shirt with a space print.
. Cole Sorenson

He said it was extremely difficult to always be on display.

“My degree burned me out immensely,” he said. “I had a small group of disabled classmates who I consider friends, but even so, four-and-a-half years of almost exclusively abled classmates, abled instructors, looking at me like a curiosity while they casually downplayed the humanity of people like me, took its toll.”

An inaccessible and stressful landscape

The lack of support for disabled teachers as well as students, particularly in terms of physical access, is part of the issue.

A 2020 report by the US Government Accountability Office found that two out of every three public schools may be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These violations include steep ramps, tight door vestibules, inoperable door handles, and bathrooms that could only be accessed by stairs.

The over-representation of non-disabled teachers comes despite a distinct shortage of qualified educators. A 2020 report by the Learning Policy Institute, for example, found that only one in three California special-education teachers had an appropriate teaching credential in the period from 2015 to 2017. The state, meanwhile, witnessed a 5.8% increase in disabled students over that time.

Similar reports have repeatedly highlighted staff stress, low pay, and a need for increased training as the issues at hand.

These are issues Elijah Armstrong, a 2020 graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education – himself an epileptic – said are persistent in part because of ignorance when it comes to legislation surrounding accessibility.

Elijah Armstrong: A young man of color in a suit smiling at the camera.
. Elijah Armstrong

“Not just in education, but broadly speaking, there’s a nationwide misunderstanding on disability rights, specifically, the ADA – that a lot of people don’t seem to understand that the ADA isn’t or that accommodations aren’t just a nice-to-have or a thing that you’re doing out of kindness, but they’re a legislated civil right,” he told Insider.

Armstrong, who was a recent winner of an American Association of People with Disabilities’ Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leader Award, said that there needs to be a better approach to codifying data that represents those with disabilities and their needs in order to advance the system. Armstrong noted the link between disabled students and disabled teachers is tied to the often-held belief that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.

“I very much believe in that,” he said. “And it’s really difficult to get one without the other,” he added. “And these are two groups that really should and often do work in tandem in order to help boost accessibility for education as a whole.”

A system that puts the disabled at a disadvantage

Sorenson said that the system is one that needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

“The further along in my degree I got, the more I realized that the issues in special education are not just due to the attitudes of some professionals – they are fundamentally built into the way the system is set up, the legislation, the documentation, the way that resources are allocated,” he said.

Sorenson pointed to the current educational approach of recording and modifying behaviour, in particular, as an area of concern, alongside the distinct lack of self-identifying disabled teachers in the space.

“The field of special education is currently overwhelmingly dominated by nondisabled professionals,” he added. “If there were more disabled teachers in the special-education system, then maybe there would be more of a chance of making change. It’s not an easy prospect, though, and will require a lot of advocacy from a lot of different angles.”

Research published in 2019 by Frontiers in Education points to a complicated view of the landscape when it comes to how much of an impact being in special-education programming can have for students in its current form. The academics involved found that students who worked within a special-education environment didn’t fare better than those with a similar level of need who didn’t receive special-education programming.

However, the research also highlights that the more likely a student is to get special-education services, the less positive their outcomes when it comes to later educational attainment and income levels. This points to disabled students having a harder time achieveing educational and career success later in life regardless of whether they get special-education support. The report recommends that school systems tackle other contextual factors, like poverty, in order “to successfully promote positive outcomes.”

The isolation of disabled students caused by the special-education system is something that Armstrong – who himself was denied accommodations at his Florida high school when flickering lights caused a seizure in his classroom – said can have “sinister” impacts, including the removal of disabled students from higher performing schools and increase in the school-to-prison pipeline that so often disproportionately affects BIPOC students.

School systems, he said, “funnel students away from things they could have been doing, that they were capable of doing, and into lower tracks where they have lower expectations and lower capabilities, just because the system isn’t giving them nearly as many options.”

Sorenson said he was forced out of the licensing track during his university experience and denied disability accommodations at each turn. He now works as a writer, advocate, and consultant.

“Maybe one day I’ll try again for a teaching license, if I want to get a master’s degree, but for now I think I’d rather do my advocacy work outside the system,” he said.