Awareness and Education

  • Putting the Person First
  • Disability Education Over Time
  • ​The Education System in Connection with Disability
  • The Importance of Special Education
  • Coronavirus vs. SPED Curriculums

Exhibition Thematic Section: Awareness and Education

Disability Simulations

Putting the Person First

Madison Stidham, Student, Fitchburg State University

There are many ways people over the years have viewed those with disabilities. Some of those perceptions include looking at people with disabilities as sub-human, in need of charity, with pity, and many more. Over the years these perceptions have changed and fluctuated. In more recent years, there have been many discussions about looking at people with disabilities as people first and disability second. People should be educated about disabilities because disabilities are very prevalent in the world, and those with disabilities are people too.  

People often did not and do not know much about disabilities: “As societies isolated and institutionalized people, people with disabilities became less familiar. With this shift, misunderstanding, fear, and other negative reactions to people with disabilities arose” (Covey 5). People with disabilities started to be put in institutions, and they were hidden away from the public eye. Without this interaction, people began to fear those with disabilities. There was a mystery surrounding them because they were hidden away. People were made to feel that people with disabilities were not "normal," which is not the case. When this institutionalization stopped being the answer, people were unsure how to interact with people who had disabilities because they hadn’t done so. Gradually, people are coming to realize they are just like everyone else. These perceptions and interactions have changed because of inclusion and integration. Without this education about disabilities, these ideas may not have changed. 

Another problem is the lack of education on how to talk about those with disabilities. Many people might not understand that the words they use can be hurtful. When people speak about people with disabilities, they might not be using person-first language. This is very important because it places an emphasis on the person rather than the disability. When people mention the disability first, it dehumanizes the person they are talking about and defines them by their disability. It is also important that the correct words are chosen. There are certain words that were used in the past that are no longer acceptable today, as they are hurtful to people with disabilities. It is important that people are conscious about the words they use and are informed of the correct terminology. Person-first language is an attempt made to educate people about disabilities. However, a study noted that, “The use of person-first language may not have a dramatic or immediate effect on changing attitudes towards people with disabilities” (Lynch). Even if this is the case, it could mean the difference for one person. Person-first language also helps change the perceptions held by people. People will start looking at others for who they are and what they are like, rather than looking at somebody for their disability. Person-first language helps focus attention on the person. 

A survey was done about public perception of people with learning disabilities. A 2012 survey involved 2,000 Americans, and it was found that “43 percent incorrectly think that learning disabilities are correlated with IQ; 22 percent mistakenly believe learning disabilities can be caused by too much screen time; 31 percent believe a cause is poor diet; and 24 percent believe childhood vaccinations can be blamed” (Zubryzycki 5). Although this survey involves a very small portion of the United States, it gives an idea to what the rest of the population may also perceive. This survey shows just how much people’s perceptions are wrong. Many Americans still don’t have the right perceptions about people with disabilities. This shows just how much people need to be educated about disabilities and their perceptions need to be changed. I think people also underestimate the number of people living with a disability. Experts have estimated “that between 2 to 10 percent of all of humanity is disabled to some degree” (Covey 4). Chances are that everyone knows at least one person with a disability. Disabilities are overall a common aspect of life that people encounter every day. This means that it is imperative that people are properly educated about disabilities. 

There has been a lot done to limit the stigma around disability. In Fitchburg they had something called disability simulations held on Disability Awareness Day. People were given a disability that they had to live with for the day. This included being blindfolded, having to show compulsions, or having restrictions in using a body part. This was an event held to help educate people about what living with a disability is like. The goal was for people to understand people with disabilities in order to limit the negative stigma around disability. It was met with a lot of appreciation, but there were those who didn’t like it as much. Some people felt that it wasn’t enough time to actually know and understand what it was like. Eventually these simulations would be cancelled. I think this shows how people are trying to spread awareness about disabilities. These simulations were also not completely fair because the person who tested having the disability did not have to live with it again. It was only temporary for them, when for people with disabilities it is a constant in their life. Despite these feelings, these simulations were successful in giving people a taste of what living with a disability is like. 

One common way to look at a person with a disability is as a source of inspiration. Stella Young explained just how much people need and should stop doing that. Stella recalls people coming up to her saying she was an inspiration and she did not know why. She thought, “They were just kind of congratulating me for managing to get up in the morning and remember my own name." This is incredibly objectifying and wrong. This had happened before Stella began any public work. These people were congratulating her for being able to live with a disability, not because she had done anything inspirational. This shows how society still has a far way to come to fully educate people.. 

Although some people’s perceptions are still problematic, there have been a lot of steps forward. Society has made an effort to educate people. Person-first language is a big part of this, learning to put the person first before the disability. 

Covey, Herbert C. Social Perceptions of People with Disabilities in History. Charles C Thomas, 1998. 

Lynch, Ruth Torkelson, et al. "Person-first disability language: a pilot analysis of public perceptions." The Journal of Rehabilitation, vol. 60, no. 2, 1994, p. 18+. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.fitchburgstate.edu:2443/apps/doc/A16514166/AONE?u=mlin_c_fitchcol&sid=AONE&xid=8bb3e432. 

Young, Stella, director. I'm Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much. TED, 2014, www.ted.com/talks/stella_young_i_m_not_your_inspiration_thank_you_very_much?language=en.

Zubrzycki, Jaclyn. "Learning Disabilities; 'Survey of Public Perception of Learning Disabilities'." Education Week, vol. 32, no. 03, 12 Sept. 2012, p. 5. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.fitchburgstate.edu:2443/apps/doc/A303208472/AONE?u=mlin_c_fitchcol&sid=AONE&xid=a3082e7f. 

Mary Caroline Greene, Educator

Disability Education Over Time

Miranda Gustin, Student, Fitchburg State University

The words we choose to use, whether positive or negative, change over time. For instance, while at one point it was politically correct to say the word “retarded” to use to describe anyone who had a mental or physical disability, in today’s standards people would say that word is extremely offensive and inaccurate. Or that those with disabilities who can “overcome their challenges” are seen as “inspirations,” which was discussed in a TedTalk presented by Stella Young, a public speaker who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta (Brown), she talks about how people are taught to see disabilities as a bad thing, and those who have them are often seen as an inspiration or an object. She explains how being taught this caused a rabbit whole of viewing it as an unfortunate circumstance, and creates the talk of “at least its not me” (Young)

As our dialog changes, the way we teach and address certain situations changes as well. For example, in Massachusetts, a little closer to home, there were a number of schools used as live-in homes for those who need assistance or get a semi-regular education when those in their family could/would not support them on their own. These schools progressed and the way they taught developed in order to make the students within them feel more like they were living an average everyday life. Eventually these schools grew outdated, and other ways of teaching began to be implemented. Where the student feels less like an outcast while their needs are focused on and attended to in a less offensive and obvious way that sets them apart from other students (Brillante).

Schools such as the Fernald State School for the Feeble Minded, located near Boston, Massachusetts in Waltham, built in 1848, and a number of other institutions stretching across the state were known to house those with severe mental disabilities and tend to have a reputation to take the place of an orphanage for those who are unwanted by their parents solely because of their disability. Unfortunately, in the early years of this form of education, some students spent their entire lives in the school system unable to leave and begin their own lives away from the institutions they were put in. Others are born into them, some not having names, but although these situations sound terrible, not all of these cases were as severe. Others towards the end of the school began to have a better quality of life, and the school’s name eventually was altered to “Fernald State School” in 1905 in order to place less focus on the fact that those students attending the school were less of an outcast and more of a regular school for those with disabilities (“Walter E. Fernald State School (U.S. National Park Service)”).

As history moves forward, and these schools continue to grow more and more outdated and are deemed “cruel and inhumane” they begin to shut down, and those with disabilities are seen less like a burden and treated more like human beings. Schools for “normal” children take these students in. The learning styles of teachers in the classrooms changed and were forced to become more adaptive to those who have needs different from others, placing them (the ones who learned differently) in what is usually called “special needs” classes. These courses were typically outside of the normal classroom setting, separating the students and honing in on their specific needs. They were taken out of their normal class setting and placed in a separate room with a specialist on their disability teaching them new ways to learn, focusing and adjusting in order to allow the student to keep up with those who remained in one classroom for the entire day (Brillante). Although the students were still separated for a portion of the day, this is much closer to what we see used in schools today. We find that during this time, these teachers who build connections with these students, such as Fitchburg native Caroline Greene, best known for her impact on her students, teaching them to read and write despite the fact that her students blind. She was able to take this position of power to nurture that she had and used it as a way to connect with these students who felt as if they had no business knowing these essential life skills solely because they had a disability that to them and the rest of the world was viewed as debilitating. Adapting to each student’s way of learning and their needs was important for Caroline, and she managed to change the way her students adapted to life.

As much as learning for the students is important and has developed over time, the way they are taught comes from teachers who have to learn themselves proper ways to treat their students. Stepping back on the education portion, specifically towards those who have disabilities, it is important to focus on those who do not understand why people are different. Children often stare at those who are different, and do not quite understand why people have such disabilities. In present day teacher’s education classes such as the one offered at Fitchburg State University by Education Professor Dr. Nichols, they begin to focus on language such as people-first language. Similar to that, some countries such as Italy, use what is called “special rights” as a term to describe someone who has a disability. This type of schooling can be known as the Reggio-Emelia schooling, focusing on the people as a whole, and then addressing the disability. This type of schooling has been around for centuries and is still used in Italy to this day, even implementing their views in other countries' education system like the United States (Stoudt).

Not only does Nichols focus on language, but she discussed how her students who are future elementary teachers, are currently taking dolls who show signs of a physical disability, give it a background story, and show children who are old enough to understand what differences are but not quite understand why they have them or how to go about them. These dolls help normalize disability so that kids who come across someone with one know not to stare, they know that it is normal, and they know what to say and do to make the student more comfortable without overly attending to the student, which could make them feel more like an outcast. This normalization allows for that stigma of constantly staring at someone with a disability, or feeling the need to help them in an excessive manner. Children are the most impressionable people there is, and breaking down this stigma of disability creates a sense that future generations will make strides towards actual equality in the sense that those who have a disability feel like a “normal” human being and not as a science project (Brillante).

Addressing these disabilities in the classroom became a big focus for teachers finding new ways to make learning more comfortable and natural to those who need it most.  One of the ways schools currently try to aid students who have a hard time learning is through trained and certified dogs known as therapy dogs. Many tend to mix up the purpose of a therapy dog with the purpose of a service dog. Service dogs are meant for a certain medical purpose such as seizures, those who are blind, etc. whereas therapy dogs are ones who are more interactive with students, used to make learning comfortable and make the children happy and excited to learn (“About Dog B.O.N.E.S. History”). Closer to home, Fitchburg State has their own therapy dog named Beauty. Beauty is a golden retriever who works in both elementary classes and college-level classes. There is a program that these types of dogs are put through known as Dog B.O.N.E.S., which is a program that certifies and teaches dogs capable of being therapy dogs so that they are able to be placed into classrooms. As someone who has witnessed these classes and been a part of one and as someone who deals with a lot of anxiety on a daily basis, I can personally say that this works. It makes everything feel more natural, similar to a home-like setting. I am not someone who likes to speak in class unless I am completely comfortable, and petting Beauty while speaking makes it easier to do so which is amazing for me because I could think clearly instead of stuttering and hearing only my heart beat.

The way we talk, and address those who are different changes over time. It is easy to assume that the words we use today in ten years could be the most offensive word choice and taboo to say to another human who has a disability. Language and education are both two constantly-evolving subjects and today will always be much different from yesterday and tomorrow. What is important is that we acknowledge the change and understand why it is important that we change. We have managed to go from separation and exclusion, such as the schools for the feeble-minded which evolved into state schools who centered around similar ideals to the ones of rehabilitation, to people-first language, and addressing the idea of disability without waiting for children to experience it first hand, and ask questions out loud that could be offensive to some people. We are having the conversation with them now so that when they witness someone who has a disability, they know that it is normal and the proper ways to go about it, such as asking questions but in a way that is not offensive. It is important and crucial to keep up with evolution over time to help further your knowledge and acceptance of those who are “different” than the rest.

“About Dog B.O.N.E.S. History.” Dog B.O.N.E.S., www.therapydog.info/history.htm?fbclid=IwAR3jbnfBZjg22ljkqH-ObAclJXWnawW9frz0J0dkPuYLE2uDmRyi7FoQMrM.

Brillante, Pamela. “Teaching Young Children.” NAEYC, 2017, www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/tyc/sep2017/every-child-belongs.

Brown, Kayla. “Disability in the Media: Stella Young.” University of Washington DO-IT, 2014, www.washington.edu/doit/disability-media-stella-young.

Stoudt, Alisa. “The Reggio Emilia Approach.” Scholastic, www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/reggio-emilia-approach/.

“Walter E. Fernald State School (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/places/walter-fernald-state-school.htm.

Young, Stella. “I'm Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much.” TED, Apr. 2014, www.ted.com/talks/stella_young_i_m_not_your_inspiration_thank_you_very_much?language=en#t-258247.

 

​The Education System in Connection with Disability

Amanda Calderon, Student, Fitchburg State University

Disability is an important topic in our society because there has been a stigma around people with disabilities that have been created by biases and prejudices. These biases have put people with disabilities in a questionable position compared to people who do not have a disability. Prejudices have contributed to the discrimination against people with disabilites. The Civil Rights movement fought against the discrimination of people with color and offered them full legal rights. Laws created as a result the Civil Rights movement paved the way for laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act. The American Disabilities Act of 1990 prevents the discrimination of any person with a disability. Even with civil rights laws, the problem of people with disabilities regarding discrimination still remain because biases and prejudices are strong.

The modern education system allows for equal opportunity for all students, but the process is not smooth: “Attitudes toward children with disabilities, as well as lack of resources to accommodate them, compound the challenges they face in accessing education" (“Education”). Public schools have tried to eliminate the discrimination of students with disabiliteis. The education system of today faces a problem of students with potentally more than one disability integrating into the classroom environments and developing positive relationships with their peers. The concept of disability/ability is a failed structure in the education system. Students need to think about how the way their interactions with each other could eliminate discriminations of others based on their abilities and disabilities.

The stigmatization of disability has limited opportunities and special needs of people, but it does not mean the individual has a lower status compared to those who do not have any disabilities. At the same time, the definition of "ability" is the capability to do something or to complete a task. Ability can pertain to a set of skills, knowledge, and opportunities to exercise them to perform specific tasks. There is a gap between individuals with disabilities and those who do not have them because disability can limit opportunities for individuals to exercise their knowledge, skills, and opportunities to their own desire, while those who do not have disabilities can take full advantage of their skills: “The literature on disability has suggested that an educated individual with a disability is more likely to better cope with her/his disability than those without education" (Bengsston). Social environment to people with disabilities is pivotal for their social standing and opportunities to stand on equal ground with others. Educators and teachers should be more aware of the special care and needs of students with disabilities. Educators should understand that students with disabilities are no different from other students, but they have accommodation needs that educators should provide to help them to succeed in their learning.

Places of education have not always been accessible to students with disabilities. Bathrooms often were not wheelchair accessible. If the bathrooms were accessible, other factors came into account for a student with a disability. Stairs can limit a wheelchair user from getting from place to place; if an elevator was not set in place then it was extremely difficult for a wheelchair user to get from each floor or bathroom if it was on a different level of the education center: “​Students with disabilities continue to encounter physical barriers to educational services, such as a lack of ramps and/or elevators in multi-level school buildings, heavy doors, inaccessible washrooms" (“Main Barriers to Education for Students with Disabilities (Fact Sheet).”). ​Busy education centers can be very stressful to students of special needs so hallways accessible to them is helpful. 

It is essential for educators to treat students with disabilities with empathy; indeed, all educators should treat all of their students with the same empathy and be equal to all. It is essential for all educators to develop a personal approach to each of their students regardless of their abilities and disabilities. There is a level of social commitment for educators to equally treat their students with disabilities in order to include those with a disability into their school community. Social commitment means that educators will help to integrate the interests of the community and help students with disabilities to feel included with the community as well as to help communities to accept the students with disabilities as equal members of the community.

The concept of ability/disability can turn out to be pivotal for the modern education system and society at large because it influences the development of students, s well as the position of individuals with disabilities and excessive abilities. While it can be difficult, students with disability need the integration into their classroom environment and development of positive relationships with their peers.

Bengtsson, Steen, and Nabanita Datta Gupta. “Identifying the Effects of Education on the Ability to Cope with a Disability among Individuals with Disabilities.” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, 29 Mar. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5371281/.

“Education.” UNICEF, 11 July 2012, www.unicef.org/disabilities/index_65316.html.

“Improving Educational Outcomes for Students with Disabilities.” National Council on Disability,23 June 2016, ncd.gov/publications/2004/Mar172004.

“Main Barriers to Education for Students with Disabilities (Fact Sheet).” Ontario Human Rights Commission, www.ohrc.on.ca/en/main-barriers-education-students-disabilities-fact-sheet.

Fitchburg State College Disability Services

The Importance of Special Education

Kayla Mathews, Student, Fitchburg State University

Everyone learns differently. No two minds think exactly alike. When it comes to schooling students are expected to be able to follow the teaching styles presented to them in the classroom, but how can this be done when all children learn best through the use of different teaching techniques, different pacing, and different assignment types? This is when special education classes, learning techniques, and adaptations come into play. The way special education is incorporated into classrooms today is extremely important to look at as it grants all students an equal chance to a successful education.

When thinking of the phrase "special education" one immediately tends to think of students with physical or mental disabilities that are placed in a separate classroom, with separate teachers and a separate curriculum, in order to learn their best. Some of these accusations may be true, but not all of them are completely true. When thinking about Special Education it is important to understand the exact definition, rather than only understand one’s accusations or assumptions. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA, “Special education means specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including—

(i)Instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings; and
(ii)
Instruction in physical education." ("Sec. 300.39 Special education")

Under this term are many specifications that help ensure every student with a disability success. These specifications may include the use of substantially separate classrooms, but it may include other techniques such as inclusive learning, therapy dogs, or even a disability services program. The way disability and special education are implemented in the classroom today grants everyone an equal education.

Today, one way that students with disability are granted an equal and successful education is through a tactic called Inclusive Education. Inclusive Education is “an education system that includes all students, and welcomes and supports them to learn, whoever they are and whatever their abilities or requirements” ("Inclusive Education"). Inclusive education does not just apply to equal teaching and classroom curriculum, but it applies to the school in its entirety, making sure even facilities such as playgrounds and bathrooms are accessible to all students. By being included into a general education classroom setting, all students are helped with their social skills as they are encouraged to work together on class projects and worksheets no matter if they have a disability or not. These social skills will ultimately help students later on in life limit stereotypes and prejudices as all students are encouraged to interact and learn with one another whether they have a disability or not. This interaction between all students ultimately will help to reduce prejudices in everyday life as students learn that everyone is different in their own way, but that is okay. It is what makes you who you are. Inclusive education is an extremely important tactic to granting all students equal education. It is being seen more and more throughout schools.

Because of inclusive education, advancements in teaching techniques for students with disabilities have been made at the elementary education level. One specific artifact from our exhibition provides a unique tactic being used to encourage and help students with their reading. This technique is Beauty the reading therapy dog. Dr. Nichols is currently a Professor of Education at Fitchburg State University. Her dog, Beauty, is a therapy dog. Therapy dogs are different from service dogs in the aspect that they deal more with understanding humans emotions. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs aren’t necessarily trained to complete certain tasks for a person with disability. The main purpose of a therapy dog is to interact with people in order to make them feel better. One of the main differences between the two types of support dogs, is that therapy dogs don’t have as many public access rights as service dogs do: “Therapy dogs are only allowed into places like hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and libraries by prior agreement (again, not by service dog laws)” ("Service Dog FAQ"). Beauty has many of the aspects that typical therapy dogs have, but her main purpose serves as a reading therapy dog in an elementary school classroom. Dr. Nichols’ main goal in introducing Beauty to the classroom was to see if Beauty would boost students’ literacy skills. Beauty’s job would be to sit by the children as they read aloud so the students could feel comfort. Beauty is unlike any other therapy dog in the sense that she understands the children’s expression when they are reading. If the children read a sentence with an exclamation point at the end Beauty will smile and wag her tail. Not all of the students in this classroom have the same demographics or home life, so Beauty is used to implement a joy for reading in students’ lives where reading skills are not encouraged or worked on. Along with demographic differences, some students in the classroom suffer from learning disabilities. With Beauty by their side students with learning disabilities who may struggle more with skills such as reading fluency, are calmed of their anxiety and encouraged to try to reread a sentence if they made a mistake (Nichols). The tactic of a therapy dog within the classroom, like Beauty is one that allows all students to have an equal chance at gaining success in their education, no matter if they have a disability or not.

Fitchburg State University has been offering an equal chance at a successful education for students with disabilities by creating their own group entitled Disability Services. This group has been assisting those with disability before Fitchburg State was even a university. One artifact in our exhibit contains the booklet written by Mary Catherine in 1997. This booklet helped assist students with disabilities, along with helping Fitchburg State College’s Disability Services assist the student body of the school. One main topic that this book helps to address is mental disabilities. Mental disabilities can be harder to find adaptations for because although two students may have the same mental disability, the way the disability affects them is extremely different. Two students may suffer from a learning disability such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but one may have more trouble focusing in class than the other. The booklet itself focuses on ways that Disability Services can help these students like providing separate testing in the Testing Center or providing different techniques on a student’s IEP or 504 Plan. The goal of this booklet is to inform Disability Services and anyone reading it on ways to help those with disability learn the best they possibly can. Disability Services at Fitchburg State University does not only focus on mental disability, but also helps students with physical disabilities as well. For example students who are in a wheelchair might need to have some of their classes moved around because not all of the buildings on campus are completely handicapped accessible. Although Thompson Hall has an elevator to the second floor, the second floor is a step up to get to the classrooms, so one with a wheelchair or other physical disability might not be able to access the classroom. Disability Services is on campus so that students can request to have their classes accessible to them, guaranteeing that every student is granted equal education (Maki). If a student has trouble with classroom materials because of a visual or hearing impairment, Disability Services can provide magnified texts and even Sign Language Interpreters to help students to learn ("Accommodations"). Fitchburg State University’s Disability Services is a great example of how education is improving to grant each student an equal education today.

Nowadays it is extremely important to look at granting all students an equal education whether they have a disability or not. Education advancements continue to improve as time goes on, in hopes that all students will be granted an equal and successful education based on their learning style and capabilities. It is important to note that each student learns different, but that does not mean that students’ education should be. What should be different is the unique pathways designed for each student’s own educational success.

When it comes to a student’s education equity is more important than equality. Equality ensures that all students are granted the same exact learning materials and same exact learning services. Equity means that each student is granted the specific materials and services needed for them to learn the same content as everyone else to the best of their ability. For example, one would not give every student in the classroom the same printed out passage or reading with size 11 font, if one student was visually impaired. This would be an example of equality and not ensure each student gets the support they need in order to be successful. Instead the teacher might hand the student with a visual impairment the same passage as the rest of the class, but the version would be magnified or an audio copy. This is an example of equity. Education adaptations and techniques are improving to ensure each student is granted a successful education today.

"Accommodations." Fitchburg State University, www.fitchburgstate.edu/offices-services-directory/disability-services/accommodations/.

"Inclusive Education." UNICEF, Sept. 2017, www.unicef.org/eca/sites/unicef.org.eca/files/IE_summary_accessible_220917_brief.pdf.

Maki, Julie. "Disability Services." Fitchburg State University, 30 Jan. 2020, Honors English II Class. Speech.

Nichols, Joann. "Beauty the Reading Therapy Dog." Fitchburg State University, 3 Mar. 2020, Honors English II Class. Speech.

"Sec. 300.39 Special education." IDEA,2 May 2017, sites.ed.gov/idea/regs/b/a/300.39.

"Service Dog FAQ." Psychiatric Service Dog Partners, www.psychdogpartners.org/resources/frequently-asked-questions/laws.

"Special Education Dictionary." Special Education Guide, www.specialeducationguide.com/special-education-dictionary/. 

Coronavirus vs. SPED Curriculums

Erin Maida, Student, Fitchburg State University

During these trying times, life has only become more difficult due to the current pandemic called Coronavirus, or COVID-19. There have been millions of confirmed cases of the virus worldwide and that number increases daily. The United States, along with many other countries, is working hard to flatten the curve and get life back to “normal.” In the meantime, teachers of all levels are managing distance learning from home. Educators have been struggling to put together material for their students to complete at home while simultaneously trying to learn new methods of technology some have never used before to connect with students. This has especially been tough for Special Education teachers, as students with disabilities might not benefit from remote learning as much as some general education students would. COVID-19 has greatly impacted students worldwide, but the impact this virus has had on teaching students with disabilities has been distinctly challenging.

As if parents did not already have enough on their plate, parents of children with disabilities are now forced to add one more job to their list: teaching their children. Families have completely lost the physical support from their schools and now it is up to the parents or possibly the siblings to make sure students are continuing their education at home. Although there is no research on what students with a more unstable home life would do, hopefully they would receive any additional help needed from the school district. Some parents of a child with a disability are excellent about keeping up-to-date with their child’s progress during a regular school year, however, some are not. They might have a nanny or alternative primary caregiver at home that typically takes care of the child. It is important now more than ever that parents step in and be there for their child. Communication between the parent and educator is essential in order to ensure the student is improving with their provided work. Parents now have to take over that teacher role and find out what will work best for their child during this distance learning period. Although most families are experiencing this, it is particularly challenging for students with disabilities because parents are still needing to communicate with their child’s teacher on a daily basis virtually.

This transition has especially been difficult for Marla Murasko, parent of Jacob Murasko, a 14-year-old child with Down Syndrome. Jacob was placed in an inclusive classroom in the beginning of the school year and usually receives extra help on the side. However, his mother is frustrated because his teachers are not providing him the accommodations he was given in school. His teachers are sending out packets for each subject but, as Marla Murasko states, "he can't look at a five-page worksheet and learn. He needs it very simplified in order for him to learn it." Murasko needs to adjust the work for him, which is extremely challenging considering she has no experience in being an educator. It is unfair that families have to be so involved at this time, but as long as the schools are doing everything they can to accommodate their students, parents really have no other choice. This is an unfavorable situation for most parents and they wish for more assistance from the school district at this time.

One way students are getting by is through their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) which are essential to students with disabilities. An IEP is a legal document with specific goals for the student to accomplish as well as how they will get there throughout the year. An IEP “lays out the program of special education instruction, supports, and services kids need to make progress and thrive in school” (“Understanding IEPs.”). It is required that every student with a disability is provided with a personalized IEP, allowing them the assistance they need to be as successful as possible. Since distance learning has begun, revising IEPs for each student has been a major concern. For example, the state of Connecticut has constantly changed the requirements for IEPs during the first few weeks of online learning. Special Education teachers were asked to create weekly IEPs for each student. During the first few weeks the state claimed that IEP goals should be considered when the weekly IEPs were made. Special Educators as well as their students they work with were all tasked with new challenges as they try to get through together (Grenus).

Sam Grenus, a Special Education teacher at Cooperative Educational Services in Trumbull, Connecticut, shares her methods to this new approach to teaching. For each activity in the daily schedules she creates, Grenus attaches one or two IEP goals for them to improve on. She learned after many weeks that listing all five or six goals for one task was overwhelming for the parent to accomplish, so ended up simplifying this technique. However, Grenus still has to be extremely descriptive with her daily schedule so the parents fully understand what they should be doing. She explains that “Have [student] set the table for breakfast” on her original IEP changed to “You can have him set only his placemat by telling him, “Get fork,” “Get plate,” etc. and this will work on receptive vocabulary” on the updated version (Grenus). It is a daily challenge for Grenus to come up with fun activities for the students to complete at home without becoming bored or unmotivated. One of her students gets dysregulated at the sight of schoolwork so she has taken the time to create a new schedule for him that consists of tasks that don’t seem like “work.” It was difficult to get her students to want to do 15-minute work sessions while they are in school; she can’t imagine what goes on in these homes. Explaining the significance of these weekly IEPs to parents has been a challenge to Grenus since distance learning has started. Unfortunately, Grenus feels underappreciated and frustrated because she spends “all this time creating these documents and creating materials, but so little of it gets done” (Grenus). She is just one Special Education teacher that is struggling to continue to teach her students with disabilities during this troublesome time.

Additionally, Grenus shares that she is communicating with the school’s related services almost daily. Related services in a Special Education school include physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy. Such therapies are now required by schools as a result of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1975. Special needs physical therapists assist students with their sensory and motor disabilities (“Physical Therapy for Individuals with Disabilities: Practice in Educational Settings”). Occupational therapy looks at a student's everyday life and improves skills they have difficulty with such as brushing their teeth, writing, or toileting. Speech language pathologists or therapists work on communication difficulties and speech disorders. Unfortunately, all three of these free school services had to abruptly end due to coronavirus. It is rare that the student’s parents or guardians are qualified to continue these services at home so finding an alternative has been a challenge. However, allowing a therapist into the home comes with risk of infection if anyone in the household has a weakened immune system. Local educational agencies are doing their best to provide homebound services to students through “online or virtual instruction, instructional telephone calls, and other curriculum-based instructional activities” (“Questions and Answers on Providing Services to Children with Disabilities During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak (March 2020)”). Various organizations are offering free online services or videos to help others during quarantine. The American Occupational Therapy Association has been posting virtual webinars of occupational therapy ideas at home ("COVID-19 & OT: An Online CE Series"). Parents may watch these videos to learn more about what they could be doing for their child at home in hopes they continue therapy. It is essential that students do not throw away all they have worked on during the first half of the school year. Any online therapy they can continue to do during quarantine will be of extreme help in the future.

Fortunately, distance instruction has improved greatly within the last few weeks. Special Education teachers have finally found their groove and students are finding their own routine at home. The United States Department of Education (USDOE) has gone into further detail of what should be expected of these teachers. The USDOE suggests they utilize “large-group video or audio conference calls, 1:1 phone or video calls, email, work packets, projects, reading lists, online learning platforms, and other resources to effectively engage with students” (Gavin). Thanks to these recommendations, remote learning has become a lot more organized since schools closed in March. General Education classrooms are utilizing these methods too, but Special Education classrooms should especially be keeping these techniques in mind. Overall, Special Education teachers are gaining more confidence as well as the parents and students.

Students with disabilities need more support now than ever. Distance learning has especially been tough for everyone involved, but nothing compares to what is being done in remote Special Education classrooms. Teachers are doing the best they can to create updated and revised IEPs for their students. It is essentially up to the parents now to make sure their child is receiving the best education he or she can at this time. Methods of teaching students with disabilities is always a changing topic, so it is important that educators continue to focus on the students during this major adjustment.

“COVID-19 & OT: An Online CE Series.” AOTA, www.aota.org/Conference-Events/Coronavirus-COVID19.aspx.

Gavin, Jennifer. “Are Special Education Services Required in the Time of COVID-19?” American Bar Association,www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/childrens-rights/articles/2020/are-special-education-services-required-in-the-time-of-covid19/.

Grenus, Sam. “How Coronavirus Impacts CES Students.” 29 Apr. 2020.

Nadworny, Elissa. “With Schools Closed, Kids With Disabilities Are More Vulnerable Than Ever.” NPR​, 27 Mar. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/03/27/821926032/with-schools-closed-kids-with-disabilities-are-more -vulnerable-than-ever.

“Physical Therapy for Individuals with Disabilities: Practice in Educational Settings.” American Physical Therapy Association, www.apta.org/uploadedFiles/APTAorg/About_Us/Policies/HOD/Practice/ChildrenDisabi litiesEducation.pdf.

“Questions and Answers on Providing Services to Children with Disabilities During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak (March 2020).” Individuals with Disabilities Education Act​, 12 Mar. 2020, sites.ed.gov/idea/idea-files/q-and-a-providing-services-to-children-with-disabilities-durin g-the-coronavirus-disease-2019-outbreak/.

“Understanding IEPs.” Understood, 4 Oct. 2019, www.understood.org/en/school-learning/special-services/ieps/understanding-individualiz ed-education-programs.