I became interested in anthropology as an undergraduate student at Eastern Kentucky University where I focused my undergraduate research, entitled Deaf Studies through the Eyes of Anthropology, on deaf children and on the Deaf Culture due to my previous experience learning American Sign Language. This research experience piqued my interest in public schools and how they provide services for students with disabilities, and it led me to pursue a Master’s degree at Teachers College of Columbia University.
In my Master’s thesis research, I consider how public school systems implement special education policies through a qualitative research project interviewing general education and special education teachers in the public and charter school system in Manhattan. To understand how the school system establishes policies to educate all students equally, I analyze the national education policies like ‘No Child Left Behind’ and take an in-depth look into several scholarly works on disabilities and education. These works examine special education and disabilities from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, such as through the lenses of anthropology, sociology, and disability studies that I have been exposed to through my coursework at TC. I use theoretical approaches from each of these disciplines in order to understand the accommodations provided to each child with a disability.
As I started writing my thesis, I found that existing research states that there are few universals to learning, as each child processes information differently.There is no quick fix, especially for children with disabilities. Each child is affected differently by the disability. For my field research, I am interviewing twenty educators from across the public and charter school system with a fifteen-question interview on their classroom setting. My research pushes work on students with disabilities in mainstream settings to consider the transition from school age to high school. Previous research looks at students with a medical diagnosis and records the academic outcome. These works also record the point of view of the instructors, but they do not ask the students who have a disability their personal education experience. Therefore, I use my personal experience of being diagnosed with Dyslexia to further this point and consider how identity can intersect with having a disability and the stigma surrounding that disability. In addition to the personal experiences that I want to document, I found in my current research that policies are not static and change often over time. In the future, I envision intervening to develop better practices based on my research, and I have been asking the educators about what they think should be changed or needs to be addressed in future reforms.
I have interviewed fifteen educators so far, all of whom have different experiences educating children. Some have educated children for several years while others only have two or three years experience. Additionally, these educators work within different environments, like mainstream general education and self-contained special education classrooms. They all have expressed their positivity towards the current inclusion policy, which has been an enlightening part of my research. Alongside this I am also asking each of them their opinion on what they think should be addressed in the special education program. My goal is to determine what is still needed to provide the best educational opportunities for all students, and I plan to use my masters research to develop a future study on recording the personal experience of students in the special education system, focusing on children in mainstream settings and students with learning disabilities.
*Emily Skanes is a second year Master’s student in the Anthropology and Education M.A. program at Teachers College. She will graduate in Spring 2016.