By Guest Blogger Sharon Shapiro-Lacks, Executive Director, Yad HaChazakah
Let me introduce myself: My name is Sharon Shapiro-Lacks and I am the Founder and Executive Director of Yad HaChazakah–The Jewish Disability Empowerment Center (Yad HaChazakah-JDEC). We are a New York-based empowerment organization for and led by Jews with disabilities, and we provide guidance, resource information, advocacy, and community for people with obvious or hidden disabilities as we promote access to Jewish community life.
Yad HaChazakah-JDEC takes on many different issues, but at this time of year we get a disproportionate number of calls about school. The Jewish holidays are over and students now can fully immerse themselves in the new school year. They have met their teachers, rabbis or college professors and each has formed first impressions of the other. But in order to get down to the business of learning, many students with disabilities need accommodations in order to access the classroom, take examinations, or follow along in class. These considerations add more layers of concern to the student-teacher and parent-teacher relationships. And each year students and parents wonder how amenable the teachers or school will be toward providing the needed accommodations.
Of course it’s a relief for us to work with a teacher who has had prior experience in working with students with disabilities, is motivated, and knows how to access the right resources or make the appropriate accommodations.
But we also hear from countless parents and students this time of year who have met up with a teacher or school administrator who seems to resist the notion that some students have conditions, learning differences, or limitations over which they have no control. Or, even if she understands that the student has a disability that affects the ways in which the student learns, completes assignments, takes tests, or participates in classroom or extra-curricular activities, she may not know how to accommodate the student. He may make erroneous assumptions about the condition and the nature of the accommodation required, and thereby overwhelms himself into resistance or procrastination. The teacher or professor may even reject an accommodation on principle, feeling that the accommodation would provide an “unfair” advantage to the student with the disability. This happened to a college student with a learning disability in math who contacted Yad HaChazakah-JDEC for assistance because her statistics teacher would not let her use a particular calculator as an accommodation.
We at Yad HaChazakah recommend that students—and parents, when applicable—do the following prep work:
- Understand the disability very well and how it may affect the student’s ability to follow instruction and course content, participate in classroom activities, do assignments, and take exams.
- Evaluate what has worked and has not worked in the past.
- List whatever accommodations the student may need. This can range from note-taking to extra time on exams to paraprofessional and professional supports. Have an appropriate professional support your accommodation request whenever possible.
- Make sure that the student has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) on file in his or her school or school district and that it is up to date. If the student is in college, make sure the disability support services office has what it needs in case it has cause to intervene.
- Know your rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, state and local regulations, and school policies.
Once the prep work is done, the student and family need to do the most important thing: meet with and get to know everyone who will be working with the student: the teacher/professor, rabbis, guidance counselor/advisor, the disability services office, and so on. You not only want to tell the school personnel about the student and what he or she needs, you want to get to know the teachers, professors, rabbis, and administrators. Listen for what they value in their work. Acknowledge the good they do and what they’re striving for. Share what the student looks forward to learning in the class or classes and what would make it possible for him or her to gain maximum benefit. Teachers, professors, and rabbis want to feel that their positive impact on their students will last a lifetime.
Toward that end, you will want to show how the appropriate accommodation will make it possible for the student to learn the valuable material and lessons that the teacher wants to convey. Show too how the accommodation will enable the teachers to attend to the educational needs of the other students of the class rather than having to call or pay unnecessary negative attention to the student with the disability. Anticipate and address the possible concerns, worries, and assumptions teachers may have about the student or the disability. Reassure them that you’re on their team and on their side. Give them whatever information they need in order to provide the accommodations. The less research and work they need to do, the more supportive and cooperative school personnel will be.
Yes, we can and should fall back on “our rights” when we need to. That said, we should assume the best in those who chose education for their career. You want teachers and school administrators to feel that you are all on the same team with shared visions. When the students, teachers, and parents all care about and address each other’s goals, values, needs, and concerns, all benefit.
— Sharon Shapiro-Lacks