Back to school time! Most families are thick in conversation about supply lists, back to school haircuts, and anticipating the latest backpack trend, but back to school can be extremely stressful for one particular group of families—families of students with disabilities.
The stresses of what classroom and teacher has been assigned, the schedule of the day, transition from elementary to middle, etc. are all magnified when you have a child with a learning difference. So, in the spirit of back to school, I’d love to “debunk” some myths with you about Special Education in our schools so that YOU can approach the year with new knowledge about this topic because there are a lot of misunderstandings and misperceptions out there.
I believe it is critical as a society that we understand what disabilities are, how they might affect individuals we see and interact with every day, and our legal and moral obligations when it comes to education and students with disabilities. And, perhaps most importantly, we must recognize the value and opportunity we have to know, serve, and learn from young people and adults with disabilities. In the spirit of going back to school, here are 10 myths about Special Education so you can be a more informed member of the community!
1) Myth #1: Students in Special Education have a lower IQ than other students.
Fact: Most students with disabilities are not cognitively impacted (meaning they have average range IQ scores). Everyone knows “the short bus” reference and the potential stigma that can come along with being identified as requiring Special Education services, but most students with disabilities are in the average cognitive range. A disability may be present, but it impacts “how they learn” rather than “what they are capable of learning.” Students with learning and other types of disabilities are perfectly capable of high achievement, going to college, etc. There are lots of reasons that students can fall behind—access to high quality education (if a school is not serving any students well, the impact will be greater on students in Special Education because of the specialized instruction they need), lack of expertise in how to best address the impact of the disability and leverage student strengths, and, unfortunately, adjusted expectations from adults.
2) Myth #2: If my child has a disability diagnosed from a medical professional, they need an IEP or a 504.
Fact: Not all students with disabilities require a 504 or an IEP. Just because a student has a disability, doesn’t mean he/she should have a 504 or an IEP. The disability has to be impacting the access to general education in order to warrant one of these plans. For example, a student with mild dyslexia or ADHD that is managed well with medication MAY not require a specific plan for support in school. The great thing is that if that changes and the disability does become impactful, one can always be initiated.
3) Myth #3: An IEP and a 504 are the same thing.
Fact: Students with disabilities are protected by IDEA and Section 504—both federal laws. With IDEA, students are protected at school with an IEP and with Section 504, students are protected using a 504 Plan. What’s the difference? If the disability impacts the student in such a way that requires specialized instruction from a Special Education teacher in order to give the student access to the general education curriculum, the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is the way to go. If the student’s disability does not require specialized instruction but requires accommodation (wheelchair access or extended time on a test) then the student will get a 504. Students headed off to college can bring their IEP or 504 to college, but IEPs will transition to 504s in college because IDEA does not apply at the collegiate level.
4) Myth #3: Students with more significant needs are not served in the public school system.
Fact: There are students that are significantly impacted by their disabilities served in public schools across the nation and here in Stapleton. These students may have intellectual disabilities, autism, or emotional disabilities. While these students may need significant services or even modifications to the curriculum, they deserve the same caliber education as any other student—these students have tons of potential for college, the work force, and more! Often the skills necessary for the best outcomes for these students include supporting with social skills and functional living skills, which is what Center-based programs should provide.
5) Myth #5: Autism is the most prevalent disability.
Fact: Specific Learning Disability is the most prevalent. Despite the population of students with Autism growing, the largest population of students with disabilities is a Specific Learning Disability, a disability that impacts a student in a specific subject or subjects. Approximately 35% of students with disabilities fall in this category.
6) Myth #6: Most students with disabilities are served in special classrooms.
Fact: Students with disabilities are served mostly right alongside their peers in general education. Service hours from a Special Education teacher can take place inside the general education classroom or students can be served outside the general education classroom, depending on the types of service they need. The IEP is written to meet the individual needs of each student and is a legal document that the school is bound to serve. Therefore, all public schools adhere to the IEP, regardless of their individual school program or what programming for general education students looks like.
7) Myth #7: Some schools don’t serve students in Special Education.
Fact: All public schools serve a mild to moderate population of students with disabilities. The only real exception is that not all schools have a center-based program or every type of center-based program (these programs are small group classrooms—in other areas of the country these are called “self-contained” programs) so students with needs best served through those programs are placed in programs either at their neighborhood school or close to it. The good news is that DPS is working on giving students with significant needs more access to a variety of programs by working on offering choice as well as expanding center programs to different types of schools. Students with significant needs in Stapleton have access to different programs at places like McAuliffe, Westerly Creek, High Tech, and DSST: Stapleton MS and HS.
8) Myth #8: Students with disabilities will not be successful in college and beyond.
Fact: The current reality for students with disabilities is not great but that is not because of the disabilities students have but because of lack of access to excellent programs. There is so much hope! Students with disabilities ARE at this time more likely to be in prison, not graduate from high school, not persist through college, and wind up under or unemployed. A staggering 90% of adults on the Autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed. But, it definitely does not have to be that way! Excellent college programs exist to support students with disabilities (including a great one here in Denver at DU) and colleges are even expanding services to students with significant needs in new and exciting ways. The best thing we can do as responsible citizens is know and care about the Special Education programs at our local schools, support them, and advocate for quality Special Education programs that lead to better, more appropriate outcomes for students with disabilities.
I could throw a lot more acronyms out there at you—FAPE, LRE, etc. that hail from the important Special Education law that guides the work, but I might save that for another day. Thank you for taking some time to learn about this important topic—and, as always, let me know if you have something to say back!