BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER JANE CORDERO
Thirty years ago, I stepped out of my bachelor's program in special education ready to take on the world, but I landed in the basement. My first assignment was teaching students with significant intellectual and physical disabilities in a multiple disabilities support program. My room was the only classroom in the basement of the school. All I wanted to do for as long as I can remember was to help other people. I had some learning problems with spelling myself in school so I thought I had picked the perfect profession in teaching others with learning difficulties. Most of my coursework in special education was related to students with mild disabilities; it did not prepare me for teaching students with significant disabilities basic life skills. However, in a very short time, I knew teaching individuals with complex needs was my life’s path.
Despite being in the basement, I loved every minute of that first year. Teaching students with more severe physical and mental difficulties taught me so much as a teacher and person. I learned patience to accept students at their current levels and design accommodations and modifications to meet their needs. I had to get to know each of them and to begin where they were, which for some, meant just responding to something in the environment. A lot of work was done with hand over hand prompts and involved self-care like toileting and feeding. It was all new to me, but in the end, I was able to help them all achieve a higher level of independence such as holding a spoon and bringing it to their mouth instead of being fed. Other than a special education supervisor from the district’s special education department who taught me all about a life skills curriculum, no one else seemed to know much about educating students with severe disabilities. I learned about different pieces of equipment, augmentative devices, picture schedules, data collection methods and adapted learning materials.I spent a lot of time getting the students out and about in the school and the community outside of the school.This was so different than the education I had been taught in college but so rewarding. I have remained committed to students with more severe disabilities ever since.
During the last 30 years working in various roles as a special education teacher and district-level administrator, I was able to see students with significant disabilities through various lenses in elementary, middle and high school programs. I have witnessed how hard teachers work to educate youth, but many students are still not prepared for their lives as adults. My current position has brought me full circle from the basement to help prepare students with complex disabilities for competitive, integrated employment. Bridging the gap between a student’s final year in high school and living as an adult in the community has become my passion.
Since my first year in the basement, much has changed for individuals with disabilities based on federal and state laws; however, implementation of those laws differs greatly from school to school. On February 7, 2018 Clyde Terry, Chairperson for the National Council on Disability wrote a Letter of Transmittal to the President stating, “In enacting IDEA, Congress sought to end the long history of segregation and exclusion of children with disabilities from the American public school system. IDEA requires that students with disabilities be educated to the maximum extent possible with students without disabilities. However, many students with disabilities remain segregated in self-contained classrooms or in separate schools, with limited or no opportunities to participate academically and socially in general education classrooms and school activities. Many do not have access to the same academic and extracurricular activities and services provided to other students. Frequently, these students leave school unprepared for adult life in the community.”
Due to the changes in federal and state laws over the years, students with complex disabilities have better integrated into school communities, but there is still a long way to go in our educational systems in order for them to be included from the start as true members of the school environment. Laws dictate that students with disabilities be within the ebb and flow of the school environment leaving behind the days of special education classes in the basement of schools. Students with disabilities should be placed in the least restrictive environment to the greatest extent possible. Interpretation of laws can vary greatly and enforcement of a law often can take years to finally implement.
Educating students with significant needs does not typically get much attention in a school system. There is a lack of training in teaching students with significant needs from administrators to special education administrators to teachers who were like myself, brand new to teaching in autism, life skills or multiple disabilities support classrooms. So often my students with significant needs were left out of special school events such as assemblies or field day. Changes in the bell or lunch schedules occurred without notification or consideration of complex needs classes. Grade group trips were planned without inviting the grade-band special education classes. It felt as though the students with complex disabilities were often forgotten about or intentionally left out because it was easier.
In order to improve inclusionary measures, federal and state agencies need to fully fund IDEA to better cover the cost of educating students with disabilities. This will allow necessary supports and services to be available to students with complex disabilities to ensure full participation and learning. Full participation of students with disabilities in settings and activities with peers without disabilities is needed. All staff need better training about educating students with significant disabilities. This should start from the top down because administrators play an important role in the lives of students. They set the tone for the rest of the school. Unfortunately, many don't have a strong background in this highly-specialized area of education, and it becomes one of the biggest struggles they face. In order to serve students with more significant disabilities effectively without ignoring the needs of others at school, principals need to have a basic understanding of their role in the process. I have witnessed first-hand in my current school the positive outcomes of having a principal who is able to support and understand the educational needs of students with significant disabilities and the impact it has on the entire school community. My school has a large population of students with more significant disabilities because it is a combination of two schools; a highly recognized magnet school for more gifted learners and a school for students with more challenging educational needs. Because of my principal’s motto of “all means all” our school has integrated these two programs to form a successful school that meets the needs of all learners. Our school expanded from a middle school to include a high school program mainly from a parental request of a student in the life skills class. The principal fought for the expansion because he wanted to offer a high school program for students with complex disabilities that would prepare them for a successful adult life.
I believe I started in the basement so that I could learn and in turn teach others the importance of educating a population of students that often goes unnoticed in schools. I am no longer in the basement but on a journey pushing and moving forward to advocate for individuals who need support to voice their own thoughts, feelings, wants and desires for their lives. I look forward to the day when all environments such as schools and workplaces and all activities are unified and supportive of all people.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee