COVID-19 has catapulted us all into a new reality: Workplaces are closed, social distancing is the “new normal,” and kitchen tables have replaced classrooms. The sudden shift from in-person to online learning has not been easy for all parents and kids. And for those who are entitled to (and depend upon) specialized instructional services and supports to deal with disabilities, the transition is even more complicated.

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As the parent of a student with a disability, you may hear a lot of new terms being thrown around during the COVID-19 crisis. Education is notorious for having a lot of terms of art (what’s often called “eduspeak”). Here are definitions of some of those terms and their implications for students with disabilities.

Adaptive software

What it means: Adaptive software is any software or program that builds a model of the preferences, goals, and knowledge of each individual student and uses that model throughout the interaction with the student in order to adapt to that student’s assessed needs.

The implication for students with disabilities: Some adaptive software can adjust for the lexile (reading) level based on the student’s responses. Some programs have read-aloud features. It’s important to identify whether the software is adaptive to a particular student’s needs. For example, a child may struggle with decoding but excel at reading comprehension. If the software doesn’t allow the student to demonstrate proficiency in different aspects of learning, it could misinterpret the student’s skills, resulting in a reduction in grade level or content level. This would compromise the overall quality of the student’s education.

Accommodations

What it means: Accommodations are adaptations made for specific individuals with disabilities (as defined by law) when a product or service isn’t accessible.

The implication for students with disabilities: The accommodations a student with a disability needs in a virtual learning setting may be different from what would be appropriate in a typical classroom setting. For example, an accommodation for a student with ADHD in a physical classroom may be to be seated in a part of the room that reduces distractions (called “preferential seating”). In a virtual learning situation, reducing distraction might be achieved by adjusting the visual layout of what’s on a screen to help direct and sustain the student’s focus.

The IEP team—which includes educators, parents, the student, and others—should identify the accommodations a student currently receives based on the IEP, consider the purpose of these accommodations, and discuss how they need to be adjusted for an online setting.

Assistive technology

What it means: Assistive technology (AT) is any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability.

The implication for students with disabilities: Assistive technology is designed to help individuals overcome challenges with particular tasks or in particular environments. When shifting from face-to-face to online learning, the types of assistive technologies that are most helpful may change. IEP teams should review how AT was used by students in school, and determine whether additional or alternative forms of assistive technology are needed in this new circumstance.

Asynchronous vs. synchronous instruction

What it means: Asynchronous instruction is teaching that is offered at a different place or time than when or where the actual instruction is being provided (e.g., video modules that students can access without being connected to an instructor or peers in real time). In contrast, synchronous instruction can happen in different locations, but it occurs at the same time that the instruction is being delivered. It’s delivered through methods such as real-time chats and videoconferencing.

The implication for students with disabilities: Students with disabilities in online environments can benefit from both of these types of instruction. But there are trade-offs with each, so the two modes are complementary.

Asynchronous instruction denies educators access to visual cues and doesn’t allow for real-time feedback to students. During synchronous instruction, students with disabilities may struggle to remain focused, organize information effectively, and keep track of questions for later reference.

Accessibility

What it means: Accessibility is the “ability to access” the functionality and benefit of some system or entity. This term is used to describe the degree to which a product (such as a device, a service, or an environment) is accessible by as many people as possible.” “Born accessible” (an ideal standard for accessibility) means that the origin and design of a product prevent the need for retrofitting inaccessible content after its creation, which can often be cost-prohibited in terms of time and resources.

The implication for students with disabilities: The creators of many education technologies that were conceived and used before COVID-19 likely didn’t envision the scale to which these tools have recently been deployed. This reality raises two issues related to accessibility: (1) physical accessibility to the software, hardware, and internet connection; and (2) pedagogical accessibility so that educators can leverage available technologies to deliver high-quality instruction and achieve learning goals for all students. Educators and vendors must work hand in hand to identify and address both types of accessibility issues within online and virtual learning settings.

Learning management system (LMS)

What it means: Learning management systems are electronic systems and methods that support the timely creation, scheduling, and delivery of course materials in education.

The implication for students with disabilities: In the absence of face-to-face contact between adults and students, districts and schools will have to rely more on an LMS than ever before. But an LMS designed to address the needs of whole school or district-wide instruction—as well as data collection—might not be inclusive or responsive to the needs of students with disabilities. It’s critical that schools immediately consider how their LMS addresses the need for accessibility and enables the delivery of content and needed support to students with disabilities. Also critical is for schools and districts to identify whether existing LMS need to be adapted to ensure that educators are well prepared to support student learning in an accessible manner. Schools should consult with vendors to integrate any add-ons that ensure the products serve multiple functions and meet the needs of all students. Schools will also need to communicate clearly with students and their families to ensure that everyone feels empowered to access and participate in high-quality learning.

Online learning

What it means: Also referred to as e-learning and virtual learning, online learning is a type of distance learning in which instruction and content are delivered primarily over the internet or through software.

The implication for students with disabilities: One new reality of COVID-19 is that the vast majority of students with disabilities who were previously attending brick-and-mortar schools are now learning in online settings. Schools, students, and families must contend with a number of challenges, ranging from the physiological (e.g., ensuring that students feel safe, have access to their social peers, and receive nutritious meals) to the pedagogical (e.g., ensuring that students have access to content learning and that teachers and students communicate via phone, chats, and other online features).

Open education resources

What it means: Open education resources (OER) are any type of educational materials that are in the public domain or introduced with an open license (free for public use).

The implication for students with disabilities: COVID-19 has resulted in parents and educators scrambling to identify resources that could be helpful to accelerate learning in an online and home-based environment. One caution is that many of these resources are not aligned with principles of Universal Design for Learning, or UDL (see below). The OER field is diverse in both quality and accessibility. Many major textbook publishers have already begun to make changes to products to reflect UDL standards. Schools, districts, and educators should determine whether a particular OER is appropriate for students with disabilities. If it’s not, it’s important to determine what steps need to be taken to ensure that these students can access and benefit from OER materials.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

What it means: Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a way to optimize teaching to effectively instruct a diverse group of learners. The approach is based on insights from the science of how people learn. It emphasizes accessibility in how students access material, engage with it, and show what they know.

The implication for students with disabilities: UDL can be applied to educational settings that are in-person or virtual. To engage all learners, educators must align instruction, materials, and technology with principles of UDL. The specific learning platform being used to organize and deliver content and activities will need to have built-in features of UDL, such as allowing students to access and represent learning in different ways. Educators will also need instruction and support about ways to incorporate features of UDL into their online instruction.  

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As schools close doors in response to COVID-19, you should be aware of key laws that protect your child’s rights to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and existing frameworks that can support accessibility. As parents, it’s important to know that your child’s rights don’t disappear when the doors of the physical building close. Schools will inevitably need to change the way they provide instruction and services—and might even need to resort to providing compensatory services for students with disabilities. But students’ rights do not go away. Schools and educators can use a number of tools and frameworks to help them provide high-quality experiences for all learners during time away from school buildings.

Major Laws You Should Know

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): The ADA is a federal civil rights law that provides legal protections for individuals with disabilities from discrimination in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, telecommunications, and transportation. Title II of the ADA requires schools to make educational opportunities, extracurricular activities, and facilities open and accessible to all students. These provisions apply to brick-and-mortar and online schooling. Learn more: https://www.ada.gov/access-technology/index.html

Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (Tech Act): The Tech Act promotes awareness of assistive technology (AT) and provides funds that enable access to AT devices and services. AT grants can help schools access assistive technology as more students with disabilities transition to virtual learning environments. Learn more: https://www.ataporg.org

Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): The nation’s main law governing K–12 education, ESSA calls for states, districts, and schools to provide students access to challenging academic standards and holds schools accountable for the success of students, including students with disabilities and other subgroups. The U.S. Department of Education has provided states flexibility with regard to administering their state assessments this school year.

Learn more: https://oese.ed.gov/files/2020/03/COVID-19-OESE-FINAL-3.12.20.pdf

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): The nation’s main law governing specific rights of K–12 students with disabilities (and a civil rights law), IDEA entitles all public school students to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Students suspected of having a disability have the right to a free evaluation, and students deemed eligible for special education have the right to special education and related services. IDEA provides parents with the right to be involved in all educational decisions about their child and also provides them with a private right of action in the event that the school fails to provide FAPE. Importantly, the U.S. Department of Education recently noted in its guidance that “FAPE may include, as appropriate, special education and related services provided through distance instruction provided virtually, online, or telephonically.” IDEA also says that students with disabilities are entitled to compensatory services to make up for challenges schools and districts are experiencing as they move instruction online. 

Learn more: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/frontpage/faq/rr/policyguidance/Supple%20Fact%20Sheet%203.21.20%20FINAL.pdf

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is an anti-discrimination law that notes: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States … shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance ….” In light of COVID-19 and in conjunction with other laws, Section 504 assures that students with disabilities maintain their right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Learn more: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act: Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies to procure, develop, use, and maintain information and communications technology (ICT) that is accessible to people with disabilities. 

Learn more: https://www.hhs.gov/web/section-508/making-files-accessible/checklist/index.html

The outbreak of COVID-19 launched the United States into a public health crisis, impacting families, schools and communities in unprecedented ways. Yet, we know parents and schools across the country are working hard to uphold the civil rights of students with disabilities and meet their needs during this scary time. We want to highlight good ideas, creative thinking, and concrete examples of how families, schools, and communities are working together to serve students with disabilities as best they can. 

Ultimately, we want to share positive stories with schools, administrations, and state policy makers so that we can work together to provide special education to students with disabilities as best we can during this time. This is not the time to waive critical civil rights protections for students with disabilities and their families! We need to work together so all kids continue to learn.

Tell your Members of Congress: Oppose IDEA Waivers!

We need your help to protect students with disabilities and their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) during the COVID-19 outbreak!

The CARES Act directed the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to provide Congress (within 30 days) with a list of the waivers she is requesting under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). If granted by Congress, these waivers would free states and school districts from their legal obligations, such as designing and implementing individualized education plans (IEPs), collaborating with parents, and providing equal educational access to students with disabilities.

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