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March 4, 2014

I have taught in a special education setting since 1999. However, I don’t see myself as a Special Education teacher – I just see my self as a teacher. Yes, I work with very complex learners but the same could be said about so many teachers. I don’t think I need a label attached to the work I do. I ensure that I utilize an array of instructional design principles and work hard to promote universal design for learning. I try to assess in a variety of ways and often take my lead from the needs of my students. All of these are foundational principles of special education but are also foundational principles for good teaching practice. So, why do we need a label?

Will my Life Change if I’m ’tistic?

Last night, my wife and I began watching the Netflix series Derek, starring Ricky Gervais. In the show, Gervais plays a character, Derek Noakes,  who is described as “special.” One could argue that Derek is autistic. The response to the show is quite varied. Many people appreciate the warmth and kindness of Gervais’ character. Conversely, many people argue that Gervais’ portrayal of Derek Noakes is demeaning and cruel. Whether you like the show or not, the message that comes through is one that we should all pay attention to.

Derek Noakes is as a care worker in a retirement home. The show revolves around his life, the life of his friends, and the residents at the home. In one episode, government officials inspect the home to ensure it meets with standards and to assess budgetary concerns. At one point, the chief inspector asks Derek if he has ever been “tested.” Derek’s response is “I don’t take tests.” The inspector follows up with the question: “Derek are you autistic.” What follows is a humorous exchange between Derek and the inspector. It culminates with Derek saying: “will it change my life if the test says I’m ’tistic?” The inspector responds “no.” Then Derek says: “then don’t worry about it.”

Don’t Worry About It

I don’t know if Gervais intended the exchange between Derek and the inspector to be profound. However, it has stuck with me all day. I cannot stop thinking about the message behind the simple words. So often society works to place labels on students and learning. We focus on special education supports, response to intervention, gifted education, learning disabled education, inclusive education and 21st Century Learning. Why can we not just talk about learning? Why do we need to label it? I understand the political and policy ramifications of the labels. But, do we need them? Will the label change a student’s life?  I don’t think so. I do think the approach we take to meet every students’ individual learning needs will change their lives. Teachers, schools, and communities that care will change their lives. But labeling them will not. Of course, those are my thoughts and would welcome to hear yours.

All the best,


  1. Here is what Ricky Gervais has to say about the character Derek:

    Week two hundred and sixty-one – September 2013

    I have never had a reaction like the one I’m currently having to Derek. It’s genuinely heartwarming. The most touching comments I’ve received are from autistic people, parents of autistic people and carers of autistic people who identify with my latest and, incidentally, my favourite character I’ve ever created.

    However, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. I give you “The Derek dilemma.”

    Is Derek disabled?

    The short answer is, “no.” The longer answer is, “no, but what difference would it make if he was?”

    There would be no actual change in the fictional character or the programme in which he exists. The only possible change would be in people’s judgement of the show. Or rather, let’s be honest, in their judgement of me.

    Many made up their own mind about Derek’s “condition”. Most made their decision before they’d even seen the series. I even had time to explore that question in the show itself because of all the assumptions flying around months before it had been written. Not once had I suggested that Derek had any disability. In fact I have explained hundreds of times in various interviews that he does not.

    Still the assumption persists. Often through malice, sometimes through ignorance; but often, and here’s the really tricky bit, as praise.

    Derek, because of his positive message, sweetness, honesty, and inner beauty, has become a pin-up boy for autism. Initially this gave me a dilemma. I couldn’t suddenly pretend he was always meant to be autistic and embrace the flattery. However I was really touched by the fact that people identified with him on a personal level.

    But here’s the thing; Derek was meant to be different. He was meant to be marginalised by society. He was meant to draw assumptions by uncaring, thoughtless people who needed to label and pigeonhole individuals for their own peace of mind. He was meant to surprise and undermine stereotypes. And he was meant to look odd, speak funny, have bad hair and no fashion sense and not give a fuck about such things because he knew they weren’t important. He knew what was really important. Kindness.

    He is a hero. He is a hero of mine and I welcome him to be a hero to anyone else. Disabled or otherwise. Popular or ostracised. Derek is not meant to be autistic, but if anyone sees traits that they identify with then so be it. However different you are it’s nice to know there’s someone a bit like you.

  2. Just added the link to the episode. Thanks to Dean Shareski for the link!

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