What’s Working: Two Approaches that Help Students with Disabilities Succeed
February 07, 2018
This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.
Here’s a troubling fact: students with disabilities are 50 percent more likely to be chronically absent—and research shows that chronic absenteeism is a better predictor of whether a student will drop out than test scores.
The panelists discussed how students with disabilities often face extreme barriers to education. Although each student’s needs may vary, impediments are nearly universal: a lack of structural supports and necessary health services, insufficient access to extra-curricular activities or after school programs, inadequate transportation services, and disability and race bias.
For a personal perspective on self-advocacy, panelist Mary Roberts recommended this video, “It All Comes Down to Me.”
To overcome these barriers, panelists suggested that educators focus on two fundamental approaches: intersectionality and inclusivity.
Defining Intersectionality and Inclusivity
An intersectional approach seeks to integrate all aspects of a student’s life in building an effective learning environment. As Shields put it, students should believe that they can bring their whole selves to school or work.
An inclusive approach starts with the belief that every student can and should participate meaningfully in their learning environment. All students—regardless of ability or background—learn differently. Inclusive practices seek to foster an open, flexible learning environment that meets the needs of every student.
While some disabilities are clearly visible (like a student in a wheelchair), others are less apparent. Educators and mentors may not be aware of the challenges for that student. In these cases, an inclusive environment can help students who might otherwise slip through the cracks.
Here are a few ideas the panelists gave on how to implement these two principles in everyday routines:
Create Opportunities for Self-Advocacy
Too often, the panelists said, an intervention aimed at helping an individual with a disability will overlook the person whose input matters most: that student. Roberts suggested that mentors, educators, and parents include the student when they meet to establish strategies for better learning.
Roberts explained that youth are more motivated, more proactive, and more empowered to meet their goals when they have an active role in formulating the plan. Including a student’s voice in the conversation is more likely to place and keep that student on a pathway to success.
Be Deliberate About Language Use
Panelists stressed how much language matters when working with students with disabilities. In every communication, mentors should demonstrate respect and dignity for their students. To that end, multiple panelists discussed using person-first language rather than identity-first language.
For example, people should use “student with disabilities” rather than “disabled student.” The change may seem subtle, but person-first language puts the student before the disability and recognizes that student’s humanity more fully.
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Other tips offered included talking directly to the student, using the same formality and tone with all people present, and asking for an affirmative response before providing assistance.
Keep the Full Picture in Mind
The discussion also touched on how educators should consider the different types of burdens that affect students at school and the ways in which these burdens overlap. In particular, Thomas highlighted the ways in which trauma negatively impacts learning.
Students with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their peers. When working with these students, Thomas explained, educators should be mindful of this experience and the ways that bullying and harassment impact students’ abilities to fully engage, learn and live.
Thomas said that the goal isn’t just to have kids at school, it’s to have them eager and proactive about their learning. Or, as she explained it through a quote from activist Verna Myers, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
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The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below: