Monday, February 9, 2009

Interview on

By Dora Raymaker
I posted what I thought was mostly a fluff piece on teachers arguing that accommodations are not part of the "real world", and got such interesting discussion from y'all that I was inspired to learn more. Since I'm no expert on the special education system in the U.S., I pinged Clay Burrell over at the Education blog. Clay in turn introduced me to his special education expert, Jennifer Parker. I got pretty excited about Jennifer who not only has specific expertise working with students with invisible disabilities (including autism), but is also a special education attorney. So I hit Jennifer up for more than one interview. Here's the first, continuing the themes that were explored in the "real world" post--why can it be so hard to get seemingly simple accommodations from teachers? Is this a problem with individual teachers, with teacher education, with the educational system, with--with what?

Dora: People often report high variability in their experiences with teachers. What reasons do you think there may be for this variability?

Jennifer : I think the main reason for this variability is in the training of the teachers. Generally, most "regular education" teachers report having little to no preparation for working with students who have special needs. Another reason for variability is comfort level with making accommodations and perhaps experience with working with children with disabilities. Unfortunately, schools do not usually have school-wide policies for IEPs or any uniformity in this area.

Dora: Do you think that current emphasis on standardized testing and curriculum-based structures makes it harder to meet the needs of students who don't learn in conventional ways?

Jennifer: Absolutely. I have become a strong advocate for progressive reform in education away from high-stakes standardized testing towards individualized instruction because I have personally seen the negative impact that testing and scripted curriculum has had upon our students, especially those students in poorer districts. The current emphasis is a one-size-fits all system that does not meet the needs of any of our students and makes school a very un-engaging, stressful environment for everyone. Currently schools are so afraid of being labeled a "failing" school by not meeting AYP under No Child Left Behind that every resource goes toward teaching to the test. I have been appalled by how many IEP meetings I've gone to where the special education teacher has told me that we could not create our own learning goals or accommodations, but rather, had to use the standards-based goals used for every other child in that grade. No Child Left Behind has created a system that is in direct opposition to students who don't learn in conventional ways.

Dora: Do you think there are problems getting accommodations [like working on green paper or extra time on tests] for students on the autistic spectrum that students with other disabilities don't have? Of so, what are they?

Jennifer: Well, that's a good question, since working with green paper instead of white is not a costly accommodation. Also, more time on tests is free! I think parents who run into difficulties getting these types of accommodations are running into one of two things. Either the IEP team needs more education regarding the disability and need for those accommodations or - and this seems silly since, as I just stated, these are easy accommodations - this is a school district that is very rigid. I run into this now as an advocate. I serve three states. The city school system where I live is great about accommodations, but some of the suburban school districts are very rigid and refuse to make even small accommodations. These are school districts that have good reputations and good "report cards", and feel that they know best how to educate students and they do not waiver from their way. As I mentioned earlier, they have their own customs and culture. Also, they have a school attorney who tells them not to budge an inch.

Dora: What general advice would you give to parents and students on the autistic spectrum for better getting academic accommodations with minimal fuss?

Jennifer: In general, I would take advantage of any local workshops on advocacy and learn to become a strong advocate for yourself or your child. These may be hosted by protection and advocacy organizations, education attorneys/advocates, hospitals, or autism organizations. If parents and students do not have a copy of "From Emotions to Advocacy" by attorney Pete Wright, they need to get a copy right away. This book's title is dead on: it teaches parents and students to move from an emotional state regarding their educational and developmental needs to a strong advocate state.

Dora: I've heard a lot of good things about too, do you recommend that site?

Jennifer: Yes, it is Pete Wright's site. You can order any of his publications from the site, write in questions, peruse a library of articles on all kinds of topics, and see a listing of workshop locations. The only negative that I've found is that it's a very "crowded" site and a little difficult to navigate, but it is a wealth of information and support.

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