Sorting Trash Is Not A ‘Life Skill’ Special Ed Students Need To Learn

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School makes special ed kids sort trashSouthern California parents were rightly outraged when they found out what was really going on in their children’s special education program, and you will be too. Once parents learned that special education students were sorting through campus trash for recyclables as part of a functional skills program, shit hit the fan.

According to ABC News:

Angry parents sounded off over the program that had special education students sort through campus trash bins for recyclables. They said it was humiliating and exposed the children to germs.

“It is disgusting,” said Carmen Wells, who complained after learning her autistic son was digging through trash on his first day as a high school freshman.

Duchon said the district is reviewing the functional skills program. He said no complaints had been received about the activity, which is a standard part of the curriculum, until last week.

This is just wrong on so many levels. After parents brought the problem to the school superintendent, they received the apology that was due to them. The superintendent also planned to suspend the “functional skills” activity of sorting trash, which made up the general life skills lesson plan, along with budgeting and buying groceries.

General life skills for all students, including those with special needs, I can understand. I don’t currently have a child in a special needs program, but I assume parents would appreciate their children learning skills that facilitate independence, like those described above.

Sorting trash is not one of them. Though the superintendent claims that the activity was a standard part of the curriculum, other school board members spoke out in disagreement. School board member Brian Schafer, who also happens to be the parent of a former special ed student, agreed that digging through trash was “unhealthy” and not a valuable life skill.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that trash-sorting as part of a special ed program blatantly implies that these students are second-class citizens. From what I have read and heard from friends and family members of special needs children, advocating for a child with special needs in the educational system is a full-time job.

Special needs students need special attention and educational support, hence the name of the program. What they don’t need are ridiculous chores and “dirty jobs” that no one else at the school wants to do, just to fill time.

(Image: MOSO IMAGE/Shutterstock)


  1. WhoremonalCrazyLotusSlugalo

    August 21, 2014 at 8:15 am

    Thanks, Bethany, for starting off my morning with a little “OOooh FFS! What is wrong with people!?!”

    This story reminds me of a piece I saw on an evening news program about how Goodwill employs exploits people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

    • Shelly Lloyd

      August 21, 2014 at 8:59 am

      Yeah, I like shopping at Goodwill, but I will never entrust my son with them.

    • Spongeworthy

      August 21, 2014 at 9:29 am

      I was so disgusted when I read about that.

    • JenH1986

      August 21, 2014 at 9:38 am

      We have a company locally who works with the blind. They actually created an office supply business to employ those who are blind and to provide funding to help train them in newer computer skills, customer service training and help place them in job. That’s how Goodwill is supposed to work. But they suck at life.

    • WhoremonalCrazyLotusSlugalo

      August 21, 2014 at 9:41 am

      God, they so do. What was most depressing was that for some of the employees, they were just grateful for the bone they were being thrown and just didn’t want to lose what little they were getting.

    • sup!teach

      August 21, 2014 at 11:41 am

      I heard about a cafe that hires people with developmental and intellectual disabilities
      They are valued members of the team who contribute much to the business and the friendly atmosphere of the cafe. They are paid a regular wage – the same as anyone else. And they get a share of the tips.
      The food isn’t any more expensive than a “regular” cafe. The business is booming and they are looking to open a second cafe.

    • Dirty Old Lady Phillips

      August 21, 2014 at 12:00 pm

      Are you talking about Tim’s Place in Albuquerque? I want to go there so badly.

    • mediocrity511

      August 21, 2014 at 12:29 pm

      We have quite a few of these in the UK, they’re really good. I also know of a couple of lads with learning disabilities who are employed as gardeners with the local hospital trust. It’s great, they get the dignity and experience of a job and really being part of society.

    • coffeeandshoes

      August 21, 2014 at 8:24 pm

      We have one of those in Richmond! It’s called Positive Vibe Café and it’s awesome 🙂

  2. Kheldarson

    August 21, 2014 at 8:18 am

    The only thing I can say/ask is what’s the end goal here? Were they trying to teach a housekeeping skill (trash here, glass here, cans, etc for the trash run every week) or the more offensive implication of “well, you’ll be on the street anyway….” One’s acceptable (if dubious), the other isn’t.

    • WhoremonalCrazyLotusSlugalo

      August 21, 2014 at 8:24 am

      In kindergarten, we teach children those sorting skills by example and in a classroom setting without exposing them to bacteria & disease. Why would we teach children with disabilities in a way that completely disregards basic safety and hygiene?

    • Kheldarson

      August 21, 2014 at 10:11 am

      Not disagreeing that this was horrendously handled. Just wondering what the end goal was; why the teacher felt this was a skill to learn to begin with.

    • WhoremonalCrazyLotusSlugalo

      August 21, 2014 at 11:12 am

      I don’t really know. I get the idea of teaching children responsibility for their environment, the importance of keeping recyclables out of the landfill and all that. Public trash bins (even school bins) have rotting food, gum, broken glass, sharp aluminum cans, even needles (I’d like to think kids don’t do drugs at school, but that would be naive). Maybe this was the school’s way of killing 2 or 3 birds with one, vulnerable stone.

    • K.

      August 21, 2014 at 11:23 am

      I’m not the teacher, so I’m kind of spitballing here, but my
      husband tends to think of things very procedurally and also problem-solving.
      So, if you were going to have kids sort through trash, you might think of
      things like, “Okay, so they need gloves, but not the surgery gloves they use
      for cooking; they need the heavy duty ones. We’ll have to teach them how to
      reliably put things away after use so that they can find them out of habit. We’ll
      also have to teach them how to understand objects that are the same ‘genus’ but
      different make and feel and how those differences relate to different uses. We’ll
      need to teach them how to recognize what is recyclable and what isn’t. We’ll
      have to teach them how to use a picker and what a hazard is. We’ll have to
      teach them how to control their emotions and that safety trumps desire—so if a
      kid sees a Coke can, but it’s underneath something sharp or dangerous, we have
      to teach him how to handle that situation so he doesn’t get fixated and so that
      he also doesn’t get angry when we tell him he can’t get that last Coke can, or if someone comes by and tosses a recyclable in the trashcan while he’s working (because some kids might be inclined to think the person has stolen from their separate pile or to think it’s appropriate to chastise that person for not realizing whatever they tossed is recyclable). They
      have to learn the different routes from different parts of the school to the
      recycling bin, which can also encourage the development of their spatial
      awareness. When they come back in, we’ll have to teach them how to keep things
      sanitary—how to take off the gloves, wash the gloves, wash the countertops,

      That’s kind of how I notice he works through his lesson plans (which are similar in style–how to ride the bus, shop for food, cook, garden, etc.)

  3. ronrsargen

    August 21, 2014 at 8:19 am

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  4. Megan

    August 21, 2014 at 8:24 am

    In my high school the special needs kids ran a cookie business, they baked them, sold them, handled it all. The cookies were delicious and I’m sure they learned a lot, but even back then the operation felt vaguely exploitative to me. Sorting trash? You can’t even pretend that’s a useful life skill.

    • Shelly Lloyd

      August 21, 2014 at 8:58 am

      I think something like that is ok as long as the money the students earn was being used for them and that they had some decision in how the money is spent. Like with Girl Scout cookies–long before the cookie sale starts the leader is suppose to sit down with the girls and discuss what their goals are have the girls figure out how much money they will need to reach those goals. Then work out how many boxes of cookies they will need to sell to reach those goals. Then during the cookie sale they are suppose to help the girls keep track of how much money they are earning and then when the sale is over they use the money they raised on the goal they talked about.
      If the school was doing something along that line then I do not think it is exploitative.

    • sup!teach

      August 21, 2014 at 11:47 am

      In my school, they ran/run a “snack shack”
      Once a week, they go grocery shopping for what they need.
      So they make a list of what was popular this week, what they need to buy more of, etc.
      Then they walk or drive to the store (depending on what they need and if it needs refrigeration).
      Then they come back, sort everything, put everything away.
      When the snack shack is open, each of the students has a job that needs to be completed. Some of them handle the money and make change, some of them stock the shelves, some of them clean up after, etc.
      Then, during class time, they have electives with the electives teachers, if they cannot, then they stay in the classroom and receive one on one assistance.

      It’s a very good program that way.

    • SCIENCE!!

      August 21, 2014 at 2:09 pm

      When we moved when I was in H.S, I was placed in the special ed program for 3 horrific months until my dad finally got the school board to listen (I’m autistic, and they decided to place in program after reading that I occasionally would go non-verbal on my IEP from my old school). It was awful for me, because I don’t have any developmental or learning difficulties and was bored out of my f-ing mind. But one thing I liked was they had the kids in the program run a school store. It was open daily, 1st and last period and while supervised by teachers and aides was pretty much run solely by the students. They sold basic school supplies, like pencils and notebooks as well as little trinkets, for like emergency birthday gifts.

      It helped a lot of the learn math and writing skills, and by reinforcing with real world applications, helped to ensure that they wouldn’t lose the skill after high school. But if anyone had told me that sorting thru gross nasty trash would be a useful skill for anyone I’d have walked out right then.

    • NotTakenNotAvailableWTFDisqus

      August 21, 2014 at 8:35 pm

      What high school was this?!? My behavior was never odd enough to get diagnosed, let alone put on the district’s radar (though I’m sure I would have been immediately flagged for preferring to play independently if I were in kindergarten these days), and I’m pretty sure I went through whole semesters in my school days where I didn’t say a single word in class. That must’ve been awful.

  5. Great Hall Academy

    August 21, 2014 at 8:39 am

    It’s almost unbelievable that the school board could let this happen.

  6. Shannon

    August 21, 2014 at 8:45 am

    I actually used to teach at a school for special needs, and helped run the school recycling program for two years. I would never DREAM of asking kids to go through the trash. Sometimes the adults had to go through the funky recycling bins, but the kids stuck to sorting, crushing cans and shredding paper, and they always wore gloves and washed their hands frequently. In addition, their parents got letters at the beginning of each semester stating which job site they’d chosen and what the job entailed. I can’t imagine thinking my kid was spending time doing something else and finding out they were rooting around in the garbage.

    • Bethany Ramos

      August 21, 2014 at 8:53 am

      Also, on the first day of school!!

    • Shannon

      August 21, 2014 at 9:21 am

      Yeah, no. “Hey kid, welcome to high school, now dig around in that trash can and see if you find any Coke cans!” WTF.

  7. Wicked Prophet Kay Sue

    August 21, 2014 at 8:47 am

    I could totally see including sorting trash *as it is made*. I.e., you’re in the classroom, you sort your recyclables and your trash into the appropriate containers. That’s a functional skill for anybody.

    But digging through the trash? EW…no.

    • tk88

      August 21, 2014 at 7:50 pm

      I was going to say this too. Hell, everyone could use that to promote recycling! But the way they did this is insanely offensive.

  8. Shelly Lloyd

    August 21, 2014 at 8:54 am

    WTF!?!?!?! As a parent of a special needs child this just hits close to home. I would be furious if this was happening at my son’s school.

    • simoneutecht

      August 21, 2014 at 7:41 pm

      You read my mind I thought the exact same thing.

  9. keelhaulrose

    August 21, 2014 at 9:05 am

    If I found out they were doing this with my daughter, I don’t care how good her autism program is, I’d be homeschooling, because the staff, from the aides up, all seem to be lacking common sense.

  10. Katherine Handcock

    August 21, 2014 at 9:08 am

    See, I could see the argument about this being a “life skill” – if all the kids were doing it. But if it’s not enough of a “life skill” that the whole school is doing it, I don’t buy the reasoning.

    In our area, if garbage and recycling are mixed, the bags won’t be picked up. I’ve pointed out to my son the consequence of that: if he throws garbage into the recycling bin at a fast-food place, someone has to go in and sort it out. I could see instituting this kind of sorting (with gloves etc. because otherwise ew) for the whole school if kids were just tossing stuff wherever – that could be a good lesson in group responsibility. But as it was instituted, I think it communicates a lot about what those school officials think of their special education classes.

  11. jane

    August 21, 2014 at 9:15 am

    I teach at a public HS and we contract out with a group that specifically hires people with severe intellectual disabilities to collect classroom recycling. They do “sort through the garbage” but what that means is that they go through the specific recycling bins and separate paper from plastic. Again, these are not students, this is someone’s job.

    So before the outrage hits high C, I would like to know a lot more about this. Where was the sorting happening (in the cafeteria or out by a large recycling bin – one is in front of students and one isn’t)? How intellectually disabled are these children (is this really the type of job that they will be capable of, or is it just free labor)? What precautions were taken against germs, etc (were they given gloves, was it classroom garbage)? How do the teachers feel about this as part of the curriculum (do they think it’s actually helping students get out and about? Does it facilitate conversations about shape, color, mass, etc)?

    I agree that on the surface this seems outrageous. But often things are more than what they seem.

    • Spongeworthy

      August 21, 2014 at 9:37 am

      I think part of the problem I have with it is that it started on the first day of school. Aren’t there better uses of classroom time on the first day than immediately sending kids to go through trash?
      I do think the level of disability should be taken into consideration, but if it were me, I’d be upset that my child was immediately sent to sort through trash on his first day. It’s a lot different to contract and pay people with disabilities to sort recycling as a job program, as opposed to making it part of the curriculum for all of the special ed kids. I think functional skills like grocery shopping, budgeting, even something like following a basic recipe should take precedence.

    • jane

      August 21, 2014 at 9:47 am

      agreed. I’m not saying that this is wonderful by any means. I just think we need to be careful about jumping to extreme conclusions.

    • Spongeworthy

      August 21, 2014 at 10:04 am

      I get you. I’m very hesitant to immediately trash teachers and their curriculum because I am not in education. But I can understand the parents being upset.

    • Lilly

      August 21, 2014 at 9:39 am

      I think the fact that they are paid for it changes the dynamic a lot. I can’t imagine paying if it is part of the curriculum as per the article.

    • JenH1986

      August 21, 2014 at 9:41 am

      According the ABC newslink the kids were digging through actual trash, wearing gloves and aprons. Which I’m out on. Sorting recyclables is different than digging through trash.

    • jane

      August 21, 2014 at 9:46 am


  12. pixie Ninja Tits

    August 21, 2014 at 9:42 am

    When I think back to my time at high school, I’m pretty certain that having the special ed students sort through the garbage would not have gone over very well. We had one or two different students collect the attendance during certain periods on certain days to bring down to the office, and a few of them had other odd-jobs around the school, but as far as I remember, none of it was custodial work for the general school, perhaps in their own classroom, but not the rest of the school. I know there was one boy who loved cleaning stuff and he would often clean up the garbage people left on the tables in the cafeteria, but I know it wasn’t his job when I would always see that his aide was trying to coax him back to the classroom for a lesson.
    We also had clubs that students could join, like the environmental club where students would pick up litter around the school grounds, put class recycling in the big bins, and plant flowers in the spring, but that was open to all students and it was quite mixed.

    • Dirty Old Lady Phillips

      August 21, 2014 at 12:06 pm

      When I was in high school, the “special ed” class started baking and selling muffins. Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11am, one or two students and their teacher would stand outside their classroom and sell these huge, fresh out of the oven muffin for $1. First of all, baking is a functional skill. So is receiving money and making change. Also, they got to interact with mainstream students, and us with them–which hadn’t really happened before then (I went to high school in the early 90’s, just to time-frame that for you.) It was honestly a wonderful experience, I think for everyone at the school. And I’m not shitting you when I say I still think about those muffins, because they were ah-MAZING. Especially the corn and the zucchini ones.

    • Fondue

      August 21, 2014 at 12:44 pm

      Corn muffins, yum… Baking is a functional skill I can definitely support. Sorting trash, not so much. In fact, that’s what I plan to make Baby Fondue do if she ever decides to break curfew.

    • pixie Ninja Tits

      August 21, 2014 at 9:46 pm

      We had some classes with the special ed students, like religion and gym, so there was a lot of interaction and they weren’t hidden away. I can’t remember if they baked goodies to sell or not, but I know a number of them took “nutrition” where kids got to cook and bake things. A lot of them were really sweet kids and it was great that the school put them in the occasional “normal” classes because it helped both them and us.

  13. Guinevere

    August 21, 2014 at 10:22 am

    My older brother and first hero is disabled (Fragile-X Syndrome), and Special Ed programs need to be more consistent and beneficial. Watching my parents struggle with this his entire life has become even more heat-breaking now that I am a parent. He was born in ’81, and the fancy University community I grew up in had no programs when he entered school, so he was homeschooled for a time until my mother and some others petitioned for a program that wound up being woefully unhelpful once instituted. He did, once reaching high school, get to participate in many programs as demeaning as this trash sorting. I think our country could do better for these students. Consistency, life and job skills, and socializing with the more “average” student, are all crucially important.

  14. Beth

    August 21, 2014 at 10:24 am

    Bethany, you’re right on one point: nobody should be digging through trash. Nobody. I think this part of their program was in extremely poor taste, and even a bit cruel. However – sorting trash IS a life skill. They will need to do it no matter where they live, at home or in a group situation or on their own. I think that this was just a bad way of teaching them – I’m sure nobody was actually thinking “well, they have special needs, so who cares if they’re sorting through trash”.

    As an aside, there is a program in the office where I work where they hire people with various special needs to empty recycle bins and trash cans, water plants, dust the furniture etc. They all have lunch together, and coffee breaks, and the people in my office love them. Every Christmas we club together to buy them a gift each and throw them a party. It’s a great social and financial opportunity for people who might otherwise be marginalized or find it difficult to make money. They’d need to know how to sort trash to do this job. And if I were a parent of a child with special needs, I’d be happy to have them here.

  15. K.

    August 21, 2014 at 10:33 am

    So just to put this out there–NOT to defend this specific program, which sounds like a big mess in a lot of ways, but just to offer an alternative perspective regarding trash-recycling sorting programs for special ed students in general (and I’m not really ‘defending’ them, so much as just conveying the reason they might exist–I don’t really have a dog in this fight personally):

    My husband is a special ed teacher, moderate-to-severe. His school does not have one of these programs nor has he ever taken part in one as a teacher. However, when he worked as a teacher’s aid while earning his degree, one of the schools did have HS-aged special ed students separating trash from recyclables. These were not his students, so his knowledge of the program was limited, but he knew that one of the reasons why the school had the program is because the students who participated really and truly enjoyed it. They asked about doing it when they weren’t; they were sad to come in after doing “trash time.” (This was, however, a parent-sanctioned activity and I didn’t even to think about the safety issues, but he did mention that the students did it individually or in pairs with a para or teacher with them at all times. And they did wear and use special equipment–that I know).

    There are things that the students can and were learning through the trash/recycling program, among them how to identify and categorize materials, how to listen and apply instructions, how to avoid hazards, how to conduct a procedural task. In addition, I’m not kidding when I say that for the kids who participated in this program, it was literally the high point of their day. They enjoyed the repetitive physical work–it calmed them and focused them. They also liked that there was a tangible result for their work and were proud to make a contribution to the school in a visible way. It got them outside and moving, which for a lot of these kids is very important. These reasons are why the program existed–it was NOT there so that the school could get cheap labor or to capitalize on the special ed students or to fill time for teachers. The school couldn’t care less whether its recyclables were separated and it usually demands more of a teacher, not less; it was because the students enjoyed it and there were pedagogical reasons to do it. Are there equity and safety issues? Yes. Could they teach these things through other needs? Yes and no (no, depending on financial or union issues). And this may also not be the same situation as the school in question. But I am, as I said, just putting it out there as a general comment.

    I’m also making this point because–and I suppose on this narrow bit, I may have a dog in the fight–one of the things that my husband has pointed out is that we have to be careful about how we apply our neurotypical understanding of the world when it comes to special ed kids. He does this as part of his job (how can you teach a kid to pay for things if they understand dollars but not coins, for example), but it’s perhaps worth considering–just worth considering–that whereas we see certain jobs and activities as socially degrading/stigmatizing (picking up trash, cleaning toilets, food service), these occupations bring a lot of pride and self-worth to the students and people who perform them. As they are connected to those emotional and self-esteem issues in the individual, it’s worth at least pausing to consider whether we want to upset that. That’s not to excuse THIS program (at the very least it appears they aren’t taking the individual student’s interest into account or parental consent and it doesn’t seem particularly well-managed), just to suggest one explanation to the (justifiable) knee jerk, “Ohmygod–special ed kids sorting through the general ed’s trash!”

    • ted3553

      August 21, 2014 at 11:24 am

      I’m sure I’ll get internet slapped for this but I understand your argument/point. I also first thought about a tour I took at University of our city’s recycling plant where the recyclables were sorted by hand on a conveyor (and I live in a city of 1 million). Most of the people employed there were special needs. I do not agree with having special needs kids sort recyclables at the school just for the sake of having it done. If they are actually being taught something, I understand that. If the school really was talking about it being a life skills program, then there are better ways to go about it like a tour of the recycling plant to see possible career options. And before anyone gets offended, it is a career option and I don’t look down on anyone for their job because they’re being a productive member of society.

    • K.

      August 21, 2014 at 11:44 am

      Thank you! I know of special needs adults who work in similar treatment
      facilities and they really are happy as clams (their actually in danger of being
      exploited in the sense that they would come in and work for free or for crazy
      hours if allowed).

  16. Rachel Sea

    August 21, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    This is pretty normal. My aunt is a special ed teacher, and she is forever being pushed to make other teachers’ chores part of her curriculum. For a while she had to teach the kids to cut squares of fabric because an administrator was a quilter and decided they would do her prep work. Meanwhile she’s not allowed to teach them things like how to cook because the administration doesn’t see the value.

    When I worked in a group home the “living concepts” were a joke. We taught them how to do things like “pay” for their desserts by handing back pieces of construction paper that we had just handed them, because that’s just like real life.

  17. Williwaw

    August 21, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    Teaching special ed students to sort their own recyclables into appropriate containers seems like a good life skill. Teaching them to pick recyclables out of the school trash sounds dangerous. What if someone tossed out pills, broken glass, a used needle, their dog’s scooped poop, or some other biohazard material? I thought special ed was supposed to teach children life skills that other children their age can do, like cooking and taking the bus and going to the store…but rummaging through other people’s garbage is not a normal activity for most children.

  18. CrazyFor Kate

    August 21, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    If they did it as part of a unit, or even an ongoing once-a-week thing (my high school had an “environment team”, some with special needs, some not, who got a page in the yearbook and were considered a club), that would be something else, but yeah, the “first day” stuff seems a bit sketch. Keep it limited to recycling, teach about proper glove use, and it should be fine. It’s a good concept that was terribly executed.

  19. G.S.

    August 21, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    Ugggh, I REALLY hate it when schools pull this kind of shit. It was the same thing back when my cousin was in a special ed program (she’s dyslexic), and Fridays were “Help the Janitor Day,” which, yeah, it’s supervised and all, but you shouldn’t take ANY kid away from learning for a whole day every week to have them pick up, sort through, and dispose of the other classroom’s disgusting trash.

    And then at one of the schools in the district (I can’t remember if this was the same school or at a different one), they had to clean the teacher’s lounge on a weekly basis. Wash all the dishes by hand, and vacuum, and make it spotless. Now, if this was their classroom or their own mess, fine, but it wasn’t, and that’s just abuse. My usually-chill uncle actually went down and yelled at people for it (and then my cousin got homeschooled until High School started the next year for her), it was great.

    Seriously, my childhood town SUCKED for that kind of thing.

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