Are We Perpetuating Disabilities?

For many students and families, a brand spankin’ new IEP is their dream come true. I can imagine that getting a new IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is a feeling of relief after months or years of battling a perplexing learning struggle. But does that pile of paper confine them to eternally falling behind in school? Are our IEPs perpetuating disabilities?

During college, I cruised through my undergraduate degree no issues. I happily kept on trucking, soaking in the information about IEPs, IEP meetings, and accommodations like a sponge. When I got into my first student teaching placement, a 9th-12th grade self-contained classroom, I was slightly shell shocked. I remember thinking to myself, “gee, I know they have a disability but Lordy my student’s reading abilities are low”. By that time I had been very well versed in disabilities and had seen many students and many abilities, so it was rare that I got shocked by something. My time there came and passed, but I was never able to shake the feeling. I then transferred to my second student teaching placement in the fourth grade. Once again I was hit with, “wow these kids are on a seriously low reading level and have absolutely no word attack skills”. I started rifling through the IEP’s of the students in class and started noticing a trend: good gravy these kids have A LOT of accommodations. Almost all students with an IEP in the class had both read aloud accommodations (basically they get all assignments read out loud to them, every part of them, title questions and all) and calculator accommodations (they can use a calculator).

This isn’t to say all accommodations are bad. Some of my students so benefited from read aloud. We were able to discuss the question between the two of us and generally, once you got them to talk, they would end up answering multiple questions in their answer. The answers were so much more rich and meaningful when we were able to have a discussion rather than them being limited by their disability.

On the other hand, some of my students absolutely did not need it, yet the accommodations were piled on their plate. I felt so detrimental to their ability to learn grit and perseverance when I would read the assignment questions out to them.

Why aren’t we teaching them how to push past and cope with their disability?

Have you ever learned a sport? We never got better by continually watching someone else do what we needed to learn. I never got better at gymnastics by watching someone else do a back handspring. Granted, it helps to watch someone else do it, but I can only get better when I do it myself and practice over and over again.

I need my students to practice their reading so they can get better. They’re never going to get better if they don’t practice and keep practicing. They need to learn word attack skills and tips and tricks to use for those times when their disability rears their nasty little heads. That’s what I went to school for four and a half years to learn how to do. I know learning disabilities like the back of my hand and I absolutely love the challenge of creating coping techniques for learning disabilities. Sometimes your student just needs a popsicle stick to breakdown words or a silly finger to help with tracking. Why aren’t we teaching this and making them TRY to read their own assignments? I have a very vivid memory of sitting at my desk while the kids were working on a writing prompt, and all of my special education students kept coming up to me to ask how to spell a word; they were used to getting someone else to spell the words for them. I would  not spell the words for them and instead, asked them to sound it out with me. Granted in the beginning it was a little rough and it took us quite a while to sound out words together. They would guess a letter and then I would read the word out loud. Ex- They were trying to spell the word log. “What letter says /l/?” They would guess L. “Awesome! Write it down, what letter comes next? /l/ /o/ /g/ ” They would guess A. “Listen to me /l/ /a/ /g/. Does that sound right?” “Oh! I need an O! “Yes! What comes next? /l/ /o/ /g/”

After about a week or so, they didn’t need me to scaffold that conversation. They did it on their own.

When our students have all things handed to them due to their disability they sit through school without any challenges and end up like my students in high school who did not yet know how to read. Challenges help us grow and shape who we are. How are we preparing our students for the workplace or college by reading everything to them? They will crash and burn when they experience the “real world”.

I think the lack of remedial care like spoken of earlier is a combination of things. Lack of time, standardized testing, and lack of knowledge of coping mechanisms are a few. Once a student gets to a certain level, it is almost impossible to go back and re-learn how to read and how to use word attack skills. 

So here’s our challenge: Stop giving read aloud to the students who don’t need it. Stop piling on accommodations because they “might help“. Challenge your kids. The label of having a disability doesn’t change much, they can still be challenged just like every other child. Let’s together teach them to persevere through this as a team.

What are your thoughts on accommodations? Have you ever seen too many on an IEP?

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