Different Exceptionalities


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Every student has areas of relative strength – something they can do better than other activities; however not all students are gifted. Every student has areas of relative weakness – something they don't do as well as other activities; however not every student has a disability.  The use of the terms 'gifted' and 'disability' indicate a significant degree of difference from the norm; a level of development that exists outside the range of abilities and skills usually expected of a youth at a particular chronological age.  Professor Françoys Gagné, Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Quebec, explains a gifted individual has advanced abilities that exist within the top ten percent of the population. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a student with a disability experiences impairments in one or more of the intellectual, cognitive, neurological, psychiatric, sensory, or physical areas and around ten percent of the world's population live with a disability. 

There are gradations of giftedness, with individuals identified as mildly, moderately, highly or exceptionally gifted, depending upon their level of ability.  Likewise, there are gradations of disabilities, with individuals diagnosed as mildly, moderately, severely or profoundly disabled, depending upon the level of impairment.  In both these areas, the numbers of student within each level reduce as each level is located further from the average range of abilities; however, a student's needs increase according to greater levels of giftedness or disability.  Provision for students with special educational support needs is a matter of equity and social justice within our society.

One of my favourite quotes, “There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequal individuals" (Thomas Jefferson), highlights the importance of providing appropriate supports for these students, whether their needs are related to heightened abilities, impairments – or both.  It is incontrovertible that Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, who suffered from the debilitating motor neuron disease, had extraordinary, exceptional needs.

It is obvious that Hawking had an extreme physical disability coupled with a brilliant mind. If the focus had exclusively been on what he was not able to do, he would never have become a widely acclaimed scientist.   There are, however, numerous students who have concurrent advanced abilities and disabilities but their needs, although complex, are not as extreme nor as apparent as Hawking's.

In a society that has a largely deficit orientation, high ability student's disabilities are more likely to be identified than are their advanced abilities. These students' abilities can mask their disabilities while their disabilities can mask their abilities; resulting in a student whose needs are not obvious, therefore not easily identified or adequately supported during their education. Such students are sometimes seen as average students or (depending upon the level of ability and disability) perceived as underachieving, high ability students. To achieve, it is critical that both needs are identified and appropriately supported.

​© Michele Juratowitch

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Last reviewed 25 February 2022
Last updated 25 February 2022