Story at a glance
- Since 1985, October has been recognized as Learning Disabilities Awareness Month.
- People of color already disproportionately affected by COVID-19 are also statistically more likely to be identified with a disability.
- Students are predicted to show much smaller learning gains in the upcoming school year, specifically in mathematics, returning with less than 50 percent learning gains.
- There are more than 35 million voting-age Americans with disabilities, but only 55.9 percent of these individuals voted in 2016.
October marks the start of Learning Disabilities Awareness Month — a time designated to acknowledging the challenges, and accomplishments, of those with learning impairments since a 1985 proclamation by President Reagan. Today it’s recognized by educational organizations throughout the country, which utilize the month of October to inform the public about learning disabilities through events, online learning tools and more.
This year’s Learning Disabilities Awareness Month is more crucial than ever, supporters say, as the coronavirus pandemic has severely affected the education of students with special needs, and as the country heads into a pivotal presidential election.
Learning disabilities by the numbers
The first thing to acknowledge is that learning disabilities are a more common occurrence than one might expect. One in five students has a language-based learning disability, whether it be the most common one, dyslexia, ADHD, or a processing disorder. The commonality of learning disabilities also differs fairly drastically by ethnicity, as American Indian and Alaska Native children receive special education at twice the rate of the general student population and Black students are 40 percent more likely to be identified with a disability versus all other students.
Since the coronavirus pandemic first hit earlier this year a racial disparity has also been made evident, as more communities of color have continued to be rocked by the virus. Now, as students have had a few weeks back in their classrooms or have begun learning from a distance, those disparities have only become more evident, experts say.
The challenge of distance learning
Many students with learning disabilities require hands-on or one-on-one attention in the classroom, and spending months away from teachers and schools has set some students back months or even years in their educational progress. Zoom fatigue, technical issues and distractions at home can present barriers to any student attending school from home, but can make it nearly impossible for students with hyperactivity or an attention deficit disorder.
In recent years, 96 percent of students with learning disabilities were already not proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And, despite laws and guidance calling for them to continue, many districts found it hard to provide the individualized instruction required in a student’s individualized education program, Changing America was told by the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), with some districts discontinuing interventions and support systems such as one on ones, small group instruction, and speech therapy.
“It will take a long time for some students to regain the skills they lost,” Selene Almazan, legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, told Politico in a recent story. "Schools and parents will need to work together to assess and evaluate students as they return to brick-and-mortar [schools] to determine exactly what has been lost and what can be regained during the course of a school year.”
Besides a loss of quality when it comes to education for those with learning impairments, many students are unable to attend school virtually, and statistics from last semester reflect the deep disparities faced by students of color and students with learning disabilities. More than 50,000 Black and Latino middle and high school students did not regularly participate in Los Angeles’ school system’s main platform for virtual classrooms after campuses closed in March, and only about half of students with disabilities in both middle school and high school participated.
These issues are compounded by the fact that even for those able to return to their classrooms in a limited capacity this school year, many students with disabilities have medical issues that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus. Beyond the frequent, one-on-one contact some need with educators in the classroom, some children also may need physical help in order to remain seated or to use the bathroom.
“A lot of what I usually do with them is, from the beginning, building classroom community and working on social emotional skills,” South Bronx teacher Jo Macellaro recently told Gothamist. “And now they can't even share blocks together. They can't work in small groups together like I would normally have them do. We can't play a game where we pass a ball to each other and have to ask each other questions or any of those sorts of things that I would normally do with them.”
Teachers and paraprofessionals told the outlet that New York City has failed to put out meaningful guidance on how to safely work with students with learning disabilities, which numbers approximately 25,000 citywide.
Educators in areas with disproportionate numbers of students of color are also advocating for trauma-informed instruction following both the city’s intense COVID-19 outbreak in the spring, and compounded by a summer of protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Approximately 87 percent of students in Macellaro’s district are nonwhite, according to last year’s enrollment numbers. And nearly 87 percent of students are below the poverty line.
Even more to consider
Besides the challenges faced by those with learning disabilities in the classroom, this year’s Learning Disabilities Awareness Month also brings up the question of how accessible voting will be this year.
There are currently more than 35 million voting-age Americans with disabilities, but only 55.9 percent of these individuals voted in 2016. Issues with voting are only expected to compound this year as voters are encouraged to vote by mail, and an audit of mail-in ballot applications for the upcoming election found that 43 states’ online applications had some level of inaccessibility to Americans with disabilities, making it more difficult or even impossible for people with disabilities to attain their absentee ballot.
According to the NCLD, all polling places for a federal election must have at least one voting system that makes voting accessible in a private and independent manner to voters with disabilities, but many voters with disabilities suffer from preexisting conditions that may prohibit them from feeling safe enough to vote in person.
To fill out a digitally accessible vote-by-mail application you can click here, and you can visit this page to learn more about NCLD’s plan for equity and inclusion as schools struggle with reopening. If you suspect that your child may be struggling with a learning disability, check out this handy digital tool to learn what signs to watch for.
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