Every interview, every story opens our eyes to the world around us, and some open our eyes more widely than others. Many of us have been ignorant about special education. Even in a series of five articles (including this one), we have only a glimpse at how federal law ensures that children with disabilities have access to education. Since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) became law 40 years ago, schools have been required to evaluate students suspected of having a disability. To qualify for special education services, children must have not only a disability but a disability that impacts their ability to learn.
Special education serves many students with many diverse needs, and it’s not the same as it was years ago. About the time Americans wore “slacks” and sat on “davenports,” they used the R word. Today referring to someone with “an intellectual disability” is preferred over “mentally retarded.”
When parents of school-aged children were themselves in school, one or two students left the classroom during the school day to receive special help. Today, it’s more commonplace to see students leave the classroom to get help with reading or math, or go to speech therapy.
One student, seeing his classmate leave for speech therapy, asked a speech/language pathologist, “Why can’t you take me with you?”
Word has gotten out that special education is fun. As 4-year-old Blake Long was working to improve his speech, he played The Very Busy Spider Game. Who knew making spider webs could help improve speech? While observing Blake and his speech pathologist during a 20-minute session, I wondered if I had ever seen a child so energetic, yet so focused and eager to learn.
Some special education services such as speech therapy are done outside the classroom in “pullout” programming. Others take place in the classroom. What services a student will receive and how are addressed in a student’s individualized education program, or IEP.
In the Milton school district, about 60 percent of the students with IEPs (ages 6 through 21) were served inside the regular class 80 percent or more of the day, according to the 2013-2014 enrollment count. In the same timeframe, statewide about 63.5 percent were served inside the regular class 80 percent. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction on its website lists the target as being at or above 62 percent. About 1 percent of the district’s students with IEPs were served in separate schools (which can include schools for the blind and deaf), residential facilities or homebound/hospital placements.
Teachers, paraeducators and technology help students overcome barriers. In recent weeks, I was able to observe and record how this happens in the Milton school district.
I saw many positive interactions. Teachers and paraeducators were kind, compassionate, caring and in some instances so patient, I wondered if they might be angels.
The job of special education paraeducator Jennifer Petersen is to keep up with ten-year-old Owen McNally, who was diagnosed with autism. She stays with him to help him stay focused throughout the school day. When Owen saw her arrive at school, his face lit up, so did hers.
Nicole Kan, a special education teacher at West Elementary, helped Kayli Willett move from her wheelchair to the floor. The transfer seemed to be more so an act of handling with care than a learned technique.
Though each day is different, the approach teachers and paraeducators take to special education is generally the same.
CHANGES WITHIN SPECIAL EDUCATION
That said, throughout the years, there have been changes within the special education field.
Prior to 1992, children with autism were identified and served under the disabilities that existed at that time: cognitive disabilities (CD), emotional behavioral disabilities (EBD), other health impairment (OHI), specific learning disabilities (SLD), and/or speech language disability (S/L).
In the school district of Milton, there are 30 students with autism and 56 with EBD.
Before doing this series of articles, IEP and EBD were basically terms I had heard teachers use.
I really didn’t quite know what they meant, nor did I realize there were so many categories of disabilities. Over time, some of these categories have changed.
Today students who are cognitively disabled are referred to as students with intellectual disabilities, or ID. An intellectual disability defined by DPI is a disability with significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills. Sixteen students in the Milton school district have an intellectual disability.
More commonly, students have a learning disability. That’s the case with 101 students in the district. According to DPI, a specific learning disability manifests itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or perform mathematical calculations.
Assistive technology is used to help in these areas.
At Milton High School, freshman McKenna Bresnan and sophomore Becky Ambrose showed me the tools they use to increase their language skills.
Kris Sundlin, a speech/language pathologist at MHS, points out oral language skills often impact reading and writing.
McKenna and Becky both use an online library of copyrighted content for people with print and reading disabilities. The library known as Bookshare helps with reading fluency and comprehension.
With text-to-speech reading tools, the voice and rate of speech can be adjusted to meet individual needs.
Becky also uses her MacBook Accessibility features and Read & Write for Google to help her with reading. Becky highlights a line (or passage) she wants to read. The program then uses another color to highlight the word it reads aloud.
Programs like these give students independence, Sundlin said.
Sundlin, instead of having to focus on giving students access to reading material, is freed up to work with students on higher level thinking skills.
Assistive tech also can be used to help with writing. By reading aloud what students write, programs such as Read & Write Gold, used by Becky, help students proofread.
Other programs such as ixl Language, which McKenna uses, help build writing skills such as vocabulary, word analysis and grammar.
At Northside Intermediate School, Stevie Hulburt showed how the Boardmaker Plus, a symbol-based communication tool, helps him read aloud.
The demonstration revealed his sense of humor and his enthusiasm for learning. As he touched the SMARTBoard to read a sentence, I tried to take a photo. After each sentence, he smiled and looked to see if I was able to catch him on camera.
His teacher, Nancy Arndt, who specializes in intellectual disabilities, said the technology motivates Stevie to learn.
To interact with others the social fifth-grader uses a communication app on his iPad.
Not all assistive tools are high tech or electronic. Examples given by Sundlin include a wheelchair ramp and a pencil grip. Whether it’s high tech or low tech, she said, “The tools provide access to get around in your environment or access curriculum.”
“Disability” does not come to mind when you see first-grader Kayli Willett move throughout the classroom in her wheelchair. She even knows how to parallel park.
Sometimes Kayli is in her wheelchair, sometimes she’s not. Kayli has an orthopedic impairment known as brittle bone disease.
During physical therapy, when she was sitting on a roller racer, she almost ran me over. Not really, but she goes quite fast on a roller racer, too.
Kan said Kayli is an enthusiastic first-grader who wants to be active in everything that’s going on in the classroom.
Susan Probst, director of student services for the Milton school district, when talking about students with disabilities told me: “We learn so much from students with disabilities.”
I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that. Now having witnessed some of their smiles, their enthusiasm, their determination, their zeal for learning, I see what she means and I realize we have so much more to learn.