• Therese

A story of special education

Updated: Jan 7

A critical analysis of issues relating to ethics, society, culture and professional environments when students with special needs share story online.

Korerotia To Korero

Where we come from and who we are is an important part of how we connect. Our story speaks to our identity and having an audience is essential to creating connections. So what happens when our students at our school are exposed to the world of social media, sharing their story online? How can they stay safe when looking for online connections?

The 21st century education experience raises issues when providing students access to a global community. These include issues of equality, empowerment, safety, inclusivity and isolation. These issues are magnified when students with high and complex needs have access to the online community.

Online interactions through social media are an ordinary part of the computer culture. Although it would have seemed like science fiction not that long ago, human connection can be found online. Finally schools are refraining from confiscating devices and beginning to encourage their use at school, embracing them as tools to access environments in which to teach and learn.

Within the online environment, stories are exchanged in still and moving images and words. It is the responsibility of educators and whanau to ensure school graduates are prepared when sharing their story and making online connections in life beyond school.


Safety must be the foundation for decision making in online interactions. Schools, teachers and parents hid behind “safety” as a reason to avoid the online landscape that students were familiar with, and in doing so, exposed children to the dangers that may have been lurking in those online connections. Adults pretended that the computer culture didn’t exist for their children. Rather than co-constructing the curriculum with students ... teachers and parents became the “digital technology police”. The learning process was delayed in the name of safety.

The Statement of National Education and Learning Priorities (NELP) and the Tertiary Education Strategy (TES) 2020 goes some way to addressing this. However, the statement suggests that “With learners at the centre” our first objective is to “ensure places of learning are safe, inclusive and free from racism, discrimination and bullying.” Keeping people free from something suggests they won't experience it. Because of the global and uncensored nature of the internet, human condition is inherent in the fibre of social media. Racism, discrimination and bullying are unavoidable. The statement still allows teachers to avoid learning opportunities in the name of safety. Are we to keep our students FREE from, or SAFE from harm as students navigate the internet? Keeping people safe, insists people experience it, then learn from it. We teach water safety in water!


It is the human element that creates the digital landscape. The digital landscape can often mirror or magnify social issues. Even when digital technology provides tools that can modify and transform the ability for people with difference to tell their story, if the values and beliefs of society are exclusive, these stories will not be heard. Conversely, the online world can expose story, providing opportunities for change. Society needs to adopt an inclusive approach to allow for story to be shared. My experience of education is that students with difference will be invited with the proviso that they behave in an ordinary way, in a way that is convenient. We have a long way to go before we can boast inclusivity in schools.

Patricia McGee considers storytelling “ a common human thread, regardless of the medium, the age of the teller or listener, culture and social setting, we all know and tell stories”.

The story of special education is marred with sadness.

Deirdre Coleman says claims “we have a responsibility to capture and maintain our stories. They’re more than just content or data – they are taonga (treasures).”

The stories of the marginalised are taonga, they tell of hardship, inequality, courage and resilience. It would be irresponsible to not capture these and yet most are censored, diluted or Disneyfied, if written at all.

While sharing stories online can leave people vulnerable to exploitation, discrimination and abuse, it can also open worlds for students with special needs. Teaching safe use must be taught to provide an avenue for students to connect their stories with others. Sharing stories online can increase empowerment, self determination and connection


Education can be the bridge from vulnerability to empowerment and connection. It’s not what the internet can do to us, it’s what it can do for us! It is our responsibility as educators to insist our students experience and learn within the digital landscape.


McGee, P. (2015). The Instructional Value Of Digital Storytelling (1st ed.). New York Routledge.

Bottery, M. (2006). Education and globalization: redefining the role of the educational professional. Educational Review, 58(1), 95–113.

Joyce, P., & Kinnarney, P. (2014). Leading change as a professional: working across boundaries. Action Learning: Research and Practice 11:2, 167-178.

Zealand, E. I. N. (2020). The Statement of National Education and Learning Priorities (NELP) and the Tertiary Education Strategy (TES). Education in New Zealand.

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