Callahan: COVID-19 Crisis Is an Opportunity to Flip the Script on Special Education

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As a former teacher and coach of children with special needs, as a sister to someone with Down syndrome, and as an education policy wonk, I am bewildered by our government’s inadequate response to accommodating students with disabilities during COVID-19.

Betsy DeVos released last month a Q&A document and a supplemental fact sheet that make it clear that districts will not be held accountable for their inability to serve special education students during extended school closures due to COVID-19.

These documents merely state districts’ obligations to special education students from a legal standpoint: “To the greatest extent possible,” the guidance says, the school must provide students with disabilities the services identified in their Individualized Education Plans.

The federal government should have gone further in clarifying best practices to support students with disabilities so they, too, can receive robust learning opportunities remotely — much like their general education peers.

While compliance is necessary, it is not sufficient for the roughly 6.7 million students who receive special education services. We cannot lose the human element in all of this. All children, and particularly children with disabilities, thrive on routines and clear expectations. This sudden switch to no school for an extended period of time puts students with disabilities in a more vulnerable position than ever before, especially those facing intersectional disadvantages — like students with disabilities who are also economically disadvantaged and/or English learners.

Rather than focusing on compliance, there’s an incredible and potentially game-changing opportunity right now to disrupt the status quo of special education.

In our current system, adaptive technology (enhancements to existing technology that allow users to interact differently with that technology — such as screen magnifiers) and assistive technology (devices made to improve the functions of people with disabilities — such as software that converts electronic text to spoken word) are underused tools that many students with special needs cannot access. Now is the time to change that. Rather than talking about compliance, let’s discuss how we can finally provide all students with disabilities the technology they need and deserve.

Among students with disabilities, there’s an extremely wide range of learning styles, as well as an extremely wide range of physical and cognitive abilities. Although there will never be a one-size-fits-all approach, there are numerous assistive and adaptive technology solutions to choose from in order to fit the diverse needs of students with disabilities.

For students with moderate to severe disabilities, assistive technology provides opportunities to perform tasks with greater ease and independence. A few assistive technology examples include screen readers, text-to-speech synthesizers, sip-and-puff systems, trackballs and braille embossers. These sorts of solutions can be life-changing. For example, my sister’s friend recently started using Proloquo, an augmentative and alternative communication app, which has greatly enhanced her ability to communicate with others — life-changing, to say the least.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates that public school systems are responsible for providing appropriate assistive technology devices and services to all students with disabilities. Given that IDEA has never been fully funded, school districts have typically not been able to afford the wide range of technology devices needed to accommodate all students with disabilities.

This is the opportunity.

In response to COVID-19, Congress last month passed the CARES Act, which provides $13.5 billion to public school budgets through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Although none of this money is earmarked for special education, states and districts can — and should — allocate a significant portion of this money to special education — and adaptive technology, specifically — to ensure that all students have the technology they need to fully participate in distance-learning opportunities.

Teachers and school leaders can also employ simple solutions to ensure that their online lessons are accessible to a wider range of learners. Students with disabilities can benefit from simple enhancements, such as word prediction software, video captions, computers with voice output and/or visual output, large print, clear color contrasts, and simple and predictable graphic design layouts. Some of these enhancements are free, like creating lessons with larger print, but other higher-tech solutions, such as screen readers, will cost money. Once again, states and districts need to prioritize funding for accessible technology immediately.

The best part of all of this is that when we focus on meeting the needs of our most diverse learners, we — by default — create material that is more accessible and engaging to all students. When a teacher creates a lesson with clear contrast to meet the needs of his visually impaired student, for example, another student with poor lighting in their home, yet another student who has yet to be diagnosed with a visual impairment, and another student who chooses to do their lesson outside in the sun also benefit from the lesson with clear contrast.

This sort of thinking is consistent with Universal Design for Learning — an approach to curriculum that minimizes barriers and maximizes learning for all students. As teachers shift to online classrooms due to COVID-19, there’s a unique opportunity to implement UDL principles, which will ensure that online lessons are accessible to a wider range of learners.

“UDL aims to change the design of the environment rather than to change the learning,” according to nonprofit education research and development firm CAST. “When environments are intentionally designed to reduce barriers, all learners can engage in rigorous, meaningful learning.”

When it comes to special education during COVID-19, we need to flip the script and talk about opportunity, not compliance. Let’s work together to pool resources — federal and state funding, resources from big tech companies and grants from foundations — to provide all special education students with accessible technology and, while we’re at it, disrupt the status quo of special education in America.

To get the ball rolling, share your online resources for special education students using #SPEDCOVID19.

Kathleen Callahan is a senior analyst at Education First, working on bridging the gap between research, policy and practice in order to alleviate systemic inequities in education. Her personal and professional passion is advocating for students with disabilities.

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