Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Engaging Students With Disabilities in their Education

The following blog is an installment in the DCAYA“School Climate” series where we asked experts, community members, and youth to write about the variables affecting school climate. Guest blogger Juanita Huff from School Talk, Inc. writes about the need to engage disabled students in school because they are most at-risk for dropping out. 

Students with disabilities[1] are faced with many challenges throughout their education, including becoming disengaged and dropping out of school. In June of 2002, the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET) cited that the dropout rate for students with disabilities was approximately twice that of general education students. The problem persists, as evidenced in a NCES compendium report which specifies a 2008-2009 national status dropout rate of 15.5 percent for students with disabilities and 7.8 percent for students without disabilities, ages 16 through 24. The report links this trend of non-completion to lower earnings, higher rates of unemployment, poverty and illness later in life.

What leads so many students with disabilities to abandon their education? A publication of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) “Dropping Out and Disabilities” offers the following explanation for the higher dropout rates observed among students with disabilities

“Although they are often held to the same standard as the general population, students with disabilities must overcome serious obstacles that can interfere with their education. To graduate from high school, students with disabilities may need to work harder, study longer, or possess greater academic ability than their peers without a corresponding physical, emotional, or learning handicap. The added work and frustration associated with a disability can take its toll over time[…]”

As parents, educators, and school officials continue to collectively explore ways to ensure special needs students’ success, it is important to remember that the students themselves are valuable sources of information and insight. Students who are given meaningful opportunities to participate in their education typically display higher levels of motivation, more positive attitudes, and better behavior. Promoting students’ involvement in their education can support them in (1) creating their own academic success, (2) contributing to a caring and supportive environment, (3) clearly identifying with the connection between their education and future goals, and (4) addressing their own social challenges; which have been identified as “four broad intervention components that are important to enhancing student motivation to stay in school and work hard (McPartland, 1994).” (Cited in “Students with Disabilities who Drop Out of School – Implications for Policy and Practice”)

Students who receive special education and related services must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is individualized for each student and is created by a team of teachers, parents, school administrators, students, and related services personnel. Providing students with the ability to actively participate in their IEP meetings allows them to express their individual needs, goals, ideas, and interests. In an article published in TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, author Becky Wilson Hawbaker maintains that meetings led by students promote greater parental involvement, undermine stereotypical assumptions concerning intellect, build students’ confidence and determination, and prepare students for transition to adulthood. Students are more likely to remain engaged when they are actively involved, reducing the risk of dropping out. Programs, such as I’m Determined in Virginia, have developed innovative practices for involving students from elementary to high school, and spanning all disability categories.

Support for improving students’ participation in their IEPs is gaining momentum in DC. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the DC Secondary Transition Community of Practice (members from OSSE, DCPS, charter schools, non-publics, community organizations, government agencies, etc.) are supporting a Student-led IEP Demonstration Project. The project team is working with selected District schools to support and document their efforts to increase the involvement of DC youth with disabilities in decision making about their education. For more information, contact Leila Peterson (Executive Director, SchoolTalk, Inc.) at


[1][1] The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (P. L. 101-476), defines a "child with a disability" as a child: "with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities; and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services." An important component of IDEA is Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE), which requires school districts to provide access to general education and specialized educational services for children with disabilities. It requires that children with disabilities receive support free of charge as is provided to non-disabled students. 

Juanita Huff is a recent graduate of George Mason University and currently works as a Transition Specialist at SchoolTalk, Inc. ( Born with a mix of moderate hemiplegic and spastic diplegic cerebral palsy, Huff is familiar with the challenges that many students with disabilities face. She is passionately committed to improving the ability of youth with disabilities to succeed in education, employment, and independence.

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