Monday, June 8, 2015

Who speaks for children with special needs?

Who speaks for autism? This was the question I raised a couple of years ago in an earlier post, noting the tensions between what is advocated for by certain high functioning individuals with autism vs. the parents of their lower functioning counterparts.

Current events inspire me to ask a much broader question: who speaks for children with special needs?

The special needs category, obviously, is several orders of magnitude greater both in terms of numbers, and in terms of diversity, than autism alone is. It includes a large number of individuals who are cognitively neurotypical, but have sensory or motor impairments (e.g., visual impairments or mobility impairments). Even among those with cognitive differences, it includes a large number of very high functioning individuals whose impairments don’t significantly affect, say, their comprehension of written language or of algebraic equations.

Despite all this diversity, a large consortium called the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, a consortium of approximately 100 organizations ranging from the American Association of People with Disabilities to the World Institute on Disability, has spoken out with a single voice on one particularly controversial issue. That issue has to do with America’s new Common Core-aligned tests.

For some time now, I’ve been arguing that the Common Core Standards are tough on kids with special needs. The big problem, I argue, is that they impose a one-size-fits-all, calendar-age based sequence on nearly everyone.

Currently only the most severely cognitively impaired 1 percent of the student population (about 10 percent of students with disabilities) is exempted from Common Core-aligned testing. But that 1 percent does not come close to including all the children who are reading, writing, or computing well below grade level.

Given this, you would think that disability advocates would crying out more exemptions, both from the tests, and from the calendar-aged-based, Common Core-aligned curricula that are proliferating around the country. After all, the more these curricula raise standards for neurotypical students, the more they deprive those with cognitive impairments and learning disabilities of access to appropriate instruction at their Zones of Proximal Development.

But nope. As it turns out, the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (again, approximately 100 organizations ranging from the American Association of People with Disabilities to the World Institute on Disability) has spoken out with a single voice to denounce a provision that would allow an additional 2 percent of students (or about 20 percent of students with disabilities) to be tested on “modified academic achievement standards” and measured for proficiency on these.

This provision, they argue, is a way to get around teaching students with disabilities on the same academic standards as their typically-developing peers .

And, yes, so it will. These anti-exemption advocates are exactly right about that.

But, given everything we know about optimized learning environments, not teaching students with disabilities on the same academic standards as their typically-developing peers is a good thing. No matter who you are, starting at just above your current level of mastering results in faster long term progress than starting beyond your current level does.

So I ask, who are these anti-exemption advocates who claim to be speaking for all people with disabilities? Who are the real spokespeople here, and what do they have in the way of standing, and/or expertise, and/or experience? Their website doesn’t say.

So I can only guess. Perhaps these anti-exemption advocates include self-advocates whose only challenges are sensory or motor impairments or other non-intellectual impairments: impairments that can and should be straightforwardly accommodated to provide access to calendar-aged based curricula and testing. Perhaps these anti-exemptions advocates include other self-advocates whose learning disabilities are at the mild end of the spectrum: people with ADHD or dyslexia or high functioning autism who have largely overcome the various impediments to academic success. And perhaps these anti-exemption advocates include hopeful parents and other caregivers that are in some state of denial (a denial perhaps facilitated by “facilitated communication”) about the current and future academic readiness of those closest to them.

But there’s one thing I’m pretty sure of, and that’s that these anti-exemption advocates don’t include those who actually struggle to teach math, reading, and writing to students with significant learning difficulties--many of whom are extremely frustrated by the requirement that they teach the students calendar-aged-based material instead of material they can actually handle. Nor, or so I’d venture to guess, do they include the students themselves—for example, the language-impaired 11th grader forced to “Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact” (CCSS literacy goal RL.11-12.5) or the dyscalculic 11th grader forced to “graph polynomial functions, identifying zeros when suitable factorizations are available, and showing end behavior"(CCSS math goal HSF.IF.C.7.C)

The special needs of these populations need to be heard by many more people. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of the scores of disability rights organizations would break ranks from the Consortium and help make this happen? Now more than ever, in our Procrustean Age of one of one-size-fits-all Standards and Universal Design for all, where those who don’t span what needs to be spanned are stretched till they snap, the help of those who would be disability advocates is sorely needed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very true. An older member of my family with Down syndrome became a fluent reader and pretty decent writer, by taking 2 years for each grade until he was 16. This was not, of course, ideal but he lived in a tiny rural town and the school had no special ed resources at all. He became used to the fact that he would be exposed to material and start to master some of it in his first year in a grade, and would master the rest of it during the second year. The important part, to me, is that he was never being expected to master material that was more than a few months (in grade level) beyond what he had already mastered.