When I enrolled in my first college class as a special education major in the Fall semester of 1978, it was with both the excitement of a pioneering adventure and apprehension of the enormity of the task. Excitement because only a few years earlier (1975) the landmark Public Law 94-142 had been passed and the field of special education was growing in leaps and bounds.
Apprehension because—well, because there was so much to do. PL 94-142—now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—opened the school doors for literally thousands upon thousands of children and youth with disabilities who, prior to that Act, were denied a free public education in most places in the country. I began my teaching career in 1980 and throughout that decade can remember adolescents coming to school for the first time in their lives.
In 2015, I had the privilege of speaking at the U.S. Department of Education’s celebration of the 40th Anniversary of IDEA. It was a time to reflect, to admire the journey, to celebrate the progress, and to take stock of what remained to be done. In other words, it was a time of excitement to celebrate the impact of that landmark Act, and a time of apprehension about the enormity of the task that remained. Yes, there was much accomplished in that 40-year span, and we must not take for granted what has been achieved nor forget those who worked so hard to get us to this point. Yet, there is still much to be done. Students with disabilities are still too often segregated from their peers without disabilities. Special education remains, in the minds of too many, a place to which students are sent, rather than specially-designed instruction. Students with disabilities are held to low expectations and IEPs still too often reflect student deficits and not their strengths.
On July 1 of this year, I had the honor of becoming the chair of the KU Department of Special Education. I do so with a sense of both—well, you guessed it, excitement and anticipation. Excitement for the innovations that will result from the research, teaching, and service from our internationlly-renowned faculty. Excitement for the opportunity to interact with world-class doctoral and graduate students. Excitement for the growth of the highest quality online graduate programs in the country. Excitement for the opportunity to work with alumni who are changing the field and friends of the department who support our efforts. Excitement to work with teachers and administrators and students in schools across Kansas, the U.S. and, indeed, the world. We are uniquely positioned to lead the field into whatever is next. In fact, it is what we do… we lead the field in new directions. Dr. Elizabeth Kozleski has provided exceptional leadership to the department and we are stronger as a result. Anticipation? Well, we are not the same faculty I joined in 2001. Many of those pioneers have retired and started new adventures. We, as a faculty, need to create our own identity, forge our own path, and build on the legacy that we have inherited. The challenges are, in some way, more difficult. The easy problems in education have been solved, what are left require partnerships, creative thinking, and elbow grease. And yet… there are few, if any, departments better situated to take on these tasks: To generate the next big idea that changes how students with disabilities are educated; to train the next generation of leaders in research and practice; to influence policy that leads to full citizenship for all. It is what we do… we lead the field in new directions. I look forward to working with you in whatever role you have in our department as we start this part of the department’s journey.
Michael L. Wehmeyer, Ph.D., is the Ross and Marianna Beach Distinguished Professor in Special Education and the chairperson in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. He is also Director and Senior Scientist for the Beach Center on Disabilty at KU.