We have heard it time and time again. These are unprecedented times…uncharted territory. As parents of school-aged kids or business owners, we anxiously await the next mandate to come down from local or state government, outlining what the future will look like. The same has been true for our local education systems as they navigate how to best educate our students while also remaining safe. And while decisions like delaying the start of school and moving to a virtual learning environment have been made, has every student been considered? 

As the executive director of a nonprofit organization that serves individuals with intellectual disabilities, I wholeheartedly believe we have come so far in awareness and activism for those with disabilities. But I don’t want to see this pandemic set us back, especially when it comes to education.

Special education is the practice of educating students in a way that addresses their individual differences and special needs. Ideally, this involves individually prepared and systematically monitored plans of teaching procedures, adapted equipment and materials, and accessible settings.  These interventions are designed to help individuals with special needs achieve a higher level of personal self-sufficiency and success in school and in their community, which may not be available if the student were only given access to a typical classroom education. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are about seven million students ages 3 to 21 receiving special education services in the U.S, a national average of 14 percent of all students receiving special education services. Kentucky, falls just under the national average, as we have 13.6 percent of all students receiving special education services.

Under both federal and state law, school districts must provide each student with a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE), regardless of disabilities. This is one of the most important legal rights children with disabilities have, which was amended under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990. In fact, those with disabilities are the only population of students in which a law was enacted to protect their rights, as a result of those who don’t understand or value their education. The last 30 years of advancement took advocates, parents, and teachers fighting for more so those with disabilities would not be left behind.  

My brother, who has a rare chromosome disability, was in the education system prior to the 1990 legislation. My parents have told me stories of him being isolated in classrooms with black out curtains over windows and being placed in a refrigerator box as punishment. There was nothing protecting him from this type of “education.” This was deemed appropriate until the IDEA movement of 1990. Can you imagine this happening to a child in school right here in our hometown? This is one of the reasons I became a special education teacher. My brother and many like him deserved more.  

While our current situation isn’t as extreme as pre-1990 special education, I do believe that we are in the midst of another pivotal moment for special needs learning. Will educators take a reactive approach or will they be proactive and invite disability professionals and experts around the table to determine how best to move forward with special education amid this pandemic? While virtual learning may work for a “typical” student, it may not be appropriate for a student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). We need to be creative and innovative for those students and not use the pandemic as an excuse. Students who receive special services are not an afterthought.

We have not come this far — 30 years after my brother was put in a box for punishment while in school — after national special education legislation, to have a pandemic set us back decades. My expectations as an advocate for those with disabilities is not to demand answers, point fingers, or provide examples of best or worst practices. My goal is to advocate for the families I serve, who are not sure that virtual learning is appropriate for their child. Their fears are real. Regression in their child’s education is likely and I want to advocate in a way that facilitates movement and collaboration during this decision-making time. Parents are already facing an immeasurable amount of stress and fear raising their children with disabilities. They just need to feel reassured their children will not be forgotten and given an appropriate education, because in some cases the impact will be monumental for their child’s development.   I want to empower those who are shaping the educational model we never thought we would witness in our lifetime and encourage them to use this time as an opportunity to pivot. 

Educators, you have the opportunity to get it right. If we wait to see how others act, how they fail or how they succeed, we are missing our own opportunity to pave the way. Let’s set a new tone.

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