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What’s Working: Two Approaches that Help Students with Disabilities Succeed

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

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.

A panel of educators, program directors, and mentors provided this information and examined the challenges students with disabilities face in a webinar last week by Attendance Works and the National Student Attendance, Engagement, and Success Center. Panelists included Derek Shields, co-chair of the National Disability Mentoring Coalition; Mary Roberts, a program coordinator at Urban Alliance; Genelle Thomas, Director of National Initiatives of Partners for Youth with Disabilities; and Delia Hagan, a program director at MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.

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.”

Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative

The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.

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To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to [email protected] with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation