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Bilingual special education and this special issue.

Bilingual Special Education and This Special Issue

ABSTRACT: Bilingual special education is a new discipline that has emerged because of the

problems faced by linguistic minorities with the conduct of special education. As current research

studies indicate, the progress and innovations ushered in by P.L. 94-142 have not been extended

to linguistic minorities, particularly Hispanic children. This special issue suggests that the

medical-model, reductionistic paradigm underpinning special education is inimical to bilingual

pupils. It proposes a paradigm shift and a redefinition of bilingual special education. * In 1974, a benchmark publication in the field of bilingual special education appeared in Exceptional Children, entitled "Special Issue: Cultural Diversity" (Bransford, Baca, & Lane, 1974). This issue was published 5 years after the President's Commission on Mental Retardation (1969, 1970) had identified the "Six Hour Retarded Child"; 4 years after Diana v. California (1970) was filed in federal court, ushering in a decade of strong judicial scrutiny and intervention in the misdiagnosis of minority children in special education; and 1 year after the publication of one of the most important empirical studies on the misdiagnosis of ethnic pupils in special education, Mercer's (1973) classic, Labeling the Mentally Retarded.

The seven articles in that special issue touched on the educational needs of every major ethnic group in the United States (Black, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian). The topics essentially comprised an introduction for special educators to a then prevalent literature on ethnic children and the American education system. This genre focused on the inequities of an historical emphasis on assimilation and on the prevalence of academic chauvinism in downplaying the historical contributions of ethnic groups. It protested against both the inferior and segregated educational experiences offered non-Anglo pupils, and against the paucity of ethnic training or ethnic models in teacher preparation programs. The principle that minorities are not linguistically deprived because all languages are equally good and equally important for education was underscored. So were the unique learning styles and needs of minority children and of minority gifted children. This literature also highlighted the importance of culture and parent participation in attenuating cultural conflict in the classroom.

This special issue included little information on special education, minority children with disabilities, or bilingual education; but its publication was extremely important in helping to initiate what subsequently has become a discipline in its own right--bilingual special education. Coincidentally, several prescient observations were articulated. Bernal, cited in Baca and Lane (1974), for example, emphasized even then the importance of building on children's "repertoire of knowledge" and changing curricula to accommodate cultural differences rather than doing the opposite. Gonzalez (1974) warned that in testing ethnic children, problems emerge because of testing not only in the wrong language but also with the unfamiliar language of standardized tests. Bryen (1974) noted that the poor practices seen in programs for children with mild disabilities often became exacerbated when these were carried out in classes that were overrepresented with ethnic children.


The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975) did little to acknowledge the unique status or needs of Hispanic or language-minority children in special education. Even the rallying point for most of the ethnic literature on special education, overrepresentation, failed to attract any direct attention or consideration in P.L. 94-142. Indirectly, the issue may have been broached in the requirement for nondiscriminatory testing, assuming that this undefined proviso refers to impact on incidence rates (an interpretation that has not gained much support).

P.L. 94-142 touches on the needs of Hispanic children in two ways. First, it requires that cultural or linguistic variables not contaminate eligibility criteria, a directive that is wholly without technique or technology. And second, it calls for the use of the primary language in all facets of parental due process and informed consent as well as in testing bilingual children "if it is at all feasible to do so."

Regrettably, the flaws of P.L. 94-142 go beyond what the law fails to do. A curious and perhaps vicious anomaly exists between the law and its regulations. Whereas the actual legislation defines "native language" as the language of the home, a directive with a powerful potential for at least recognizing the mediating and intractable impact of the home language on all aspects of schooling, the regulations degenerate the intent of the law by defining "native language" as the language normally used by the child in school. Most bilingual children quickly acquire a conversational English that may not support academic development in English. For them, the regulations in P.L. 94-142 preclude any primary language support. As it has turned out, the act's brand of special education for Hispanic children from native language homes has perpetuated preexisting problems. What has gone unnoted in the ensuing litigation and state policies related to implementation of P.L. 94-142 on the assessment of students from non-English-language backgrounds is the requirement that states give the federal government assurances that the students' native language is being used. To receive federal funds under the act, states are required to provide assurances that students are being assessed in their native language.


In the early 1980s, two research institutes were funded by the federal government to study the special education offered to Hispanic children. One of these institutes was at the University of Texas at Austin, with Dr. Alba Ortiz as its director. The other was at the Southwest Regional Center at Los Alamitos in Southern California, with Dr. Robert Rueda as its director. In an extended series of reports, both institutes defined the empirical state of special education for Hispanic children in classes for children with mild disabilities (Garcia, 1985; Ortiz, 1986; Ortiz & Maldonado-Colon, 1986; Ortiz & Polyzoi, 1986; Ortiz & Yates, 1987; Rueda, Cardoza, Mercer, & Carpenter, 1984; Rueda, Figueroa, Mercado, & Cardoza, 1984; Swedo, 1987; Wilkinson & Holtzman, undated; Wilkinson & Ortiz, 1986; Willig & Swedo, 1987). Table 1 summarizes their findings on assessment and instructional services.

As Table 1 suggests, the legacy of P.L. 94-142's silence on Hispanic pupils, who are now over 15% of the U. S. K-12 population, is everything but benign. Misplacements continue; and as the evidence would suggest, miseducation of many bilingual children with disabilities may well be the norm. Congress and professionals involved in special education have yet to determine that linguistically appropriate assessment and instruction is really a national priority.


In the 1980s, much literature has appeared on bilingual special education. Baca and Cervantes' (1984, 1989) The Bilingual Special Education Interface is generally recognized as the most widely used text in the field. Most published material has focused on the perennial issues of overrepresentation, testing abuses, court cases, and the specialized needs of specific disabled populations, for example, Delgado's (1984) The Hispanic Deaf. Most of this literature operates from within the parameters of existing special education programs and procedures. This special issue breaks with that tradition.

The articles included in this issue repeatedly underscore the complexity engendered by the bilingual learner and his or her counterpart in special education. From a demographic (Fradd & Correa), linguistic (Cummins, Langdon), cognitive (Duran, Figueroa), and educational (Baca & Amato, Ruiz, Rueda) perspective, the U. S. Hispanic exceptional child constitutes a unique challenge. As the authors suggest, this challenge may well require the diminution, if not elimination, of existing psychometric testing practices, extant eligibility criteria, the primacy of English as the best language for instruction for all children, legitimization of learned student and parent powerlessness, and the medical model assumptions that drive special education.

The exceptional Hispanic child may best be served under conditions of high context. This means, first, moving away from interventions that are decontextualized, acultural, and asocial and moving toward interventions embedded in linguistic and educational experiences rich in meaning, authenticity, and social interaction. Juxtaposing the concept of high context against the behavioristic, drill-driven, process training practices in much of special education for children with disabilities shift--a reconceptualization of how best to educate the Hispanic handicapped student--is in order. As Rueda notes, this concept does not represent a novel proposal for special education (e.g., Poplin, 1988). It is, however, a different perspective on what bilingual special education should become.


This special issue addresses neither the needs of Hispanic children with severe disabilities nor the impact of P.L. 99-457 on early intervention with at-risk young children and those with disabilities. Neither does this issue include a substantive body of empirical data on actual, well-controlled interventions with exceptional Hispanic pupils. Bilingual special education does not yet have this body of knowledge. The present issue sets forth a set of possible principles for such interventions. As Ruiz notes, these constitute much of the underpinnings of California's Optimal Learning Environment (OLE) research project (Figueroa, Ruiz, & Rueda, 1988) as well as Ortiz's (1988) "Effective Practices in Assessment and Instruction for Language Minority Students: An Intervention Model." When these research projects and other similar controlled studies in bilingual special education produce published results, this critical element in the field will provide an empirical basis for policy and legislative agendas. Such publications should not preclude other initiatives, particularly as P.L. 94-142 is reexamined or amended. Also, professional organizations involved with exceptional students should acknowledge the discipline called "bilingual special education." This discipline, indeed, can be accorded the status of having divisions or special interest groups. As the literature cited in this issue attests, the knowledge base concerning bilingual special education is robust, compelling, and available.

RICHARD A. FIGUEROA is Professor, Division of Education, University of California, Davis. SANDRA H. FRADD is Associate Research Scientist, Institute of Advanced Studies in Communication Processes; and VIVIAN I. CORREA is Associate Professor, The College of Education, University of Florida, Gainesville.
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Author:Figueroa, Richard A.; Fradd, Sandra H.; Correa, Vivian I.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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