Saturday, May 20, 2017

How did students with disabilities get to Harvard?

Thomas Hehir and Laura A. Schifter's book, How Did You Get Here? Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard, was not what I expected. I thought I would read vignettes about the trials and tribulations of people with disabilities getting into a prestigious Ivy League school. Instead I read a book that was the analysis of a research project. The authors performed in depth interviews with 14 individuals, their families and, in some cases, service providers. Then they examined commonalities and differences between the tales. There is one narrative like I expected at the end, written by Wendy S. Harbour. The book also includes two essays by people with disabilities, one the co-author, Laura, and one a student, Nick. While these include more narrative than the rest of the book, they still both lean heavily toward meta-analysis rather than story. As a piece of research, this is a pretty readable text.

The book hit upon some interesting features. Of the 8 chapters (plus a hearty forward, preface and conclusion), 6 discuss aspects that helped young people make it to Harvard. They are as follows:
  1. Mom- These young people had a parent who was a powerful advocate for their child. She could have just held high expectations, but many were so invested they became active service providers for their children. In chapter 8, Tom questions how can we help more children succeed without requiring monumental efforts from their parents. His only suggestions is universal design for learning (UDL), a theme throughout the book. While I cannot imagine that being a universal panacea, it would help more students move forward.
  2. Teachers and or service providers who believed in the child. These passionate, highly talented professionals included a preschool teacher, a private speech and language pathologist, a special ed teacher and a general education teacher. These professionals provided  support, critical training, and advocacy for their students leading to positive outcomes.
  3. Asking for more. These young people wanted more than the education that was initially provided. In spite of the challenge of pulling information into their brains, they wanted more. Several students commented about being in self-contained programs and seeing them as academically undemanding. Switching to mainstream programs helped impart rigor, but often presented challenges of input. Other students saw their self contained programs as life savers. The authors caution that there is no single right placement. A spectrum of placements is essential so that the placement for every student can continually be examined to see how well it meets the child's needs. These exceptional youths requested more rigor themselves.
  4. Finding things outside of school to be successful at. If school is a challenge, having something in your life that you can be successful in with less work is important. Sports, music, and poetry are some of the interests that sustained these young people through their challenges.
  5. Drive to find a way. These students attended a mix of programs- public and private school, fully mainstreamed, separate schools for students with disabilities, self contained classes and resource room were all placements that were experienced. Students needed to figure out accommodations. Developing a bag of strategies to be successful was important to these students who were highly motivated to be successful and who were, it appears, intellectually gifted, in spite of their disability. Their disabilities were deafness, blindness, deaf-blind, anxiety, dyslexic, learning disabled and orthopedically impaired. (Interestingly, no ADHD, autistic, or emotional disturbed students were in the group interviewed.) In order to make it, these students needed work-arounds for their challenges, and many had to self-discover them. They brought with them indomitable drive to be successful, often in spite of people telling them they would not make it.
  6. Audio-texts. Since many of the students interviewed experience reading disabilities, audio books, screen readers and voice-to-text technologies were critical to their success. The last two decades have seen an explosion in technology to help students with disabilities. These tools help implement UDL in a way that was, perhaps, impossible years ago.
These students overwhelmingly came from upper middle class families where there was someone who saw through the challenges to a bright and capable young person. They received the benefits of private support, educated parents, and intact families. Interventions received mixed reviews. Being deaf or dyslexic did not mean the same intervention worked for all.

Interestingly two suggestions from the students were seen as important. If you are blind, learn braille. The notion that audiobooks replace self-reading was dismissed. Being able to independently read and write, regardless of the status of the power being up, was seen as important. Audiobooks impair the ability to fully create the story in your mind and that was seen as important. Another key takeaway from the audiobook area was the challenge of someone with dyslexia listening to an audiobook in which every picture, figure, chart and diagram is described, can be a serious waster of energy.

The other suggestion was that students learn organization. Most of these students needed to spend extra time on activities. Whether it was studying for the GEDs or writing a paper, students with disabilities needed to carefully plan their time to accomplish their goals. They needed to develop plans to keep track of materials and assignments. They needed to be good at initiating and persevering through challenge. These students did not exhibit classic executive function weaknesses that many with disabilities struggle with. In and of itself, this could be a reason for these students' success. So many students, with and without disabilities lack these skills. If we can teach students strategies to manage these challenges, many more would be successful.

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