Special Report
English-Language Learners

‘A Unique Challenge’: What English Learners With Disabilities Need

By Ileana Najarro — May 13, 2024 7 min read
Student trying to navigate a landscape of a different language
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Students with disabilities face a gamut of challenges when it comes to accessing high-quality K-12 education, including a shortage of specialized teachers. The nation’s growing English-learner population faces outsized needs as their English-language proficiency scores remain lower than pre-COVID-19-pandemic averages, and immigrant English learners in particular require more trauma-informed instruction.

English learners who also have disabilities face their own intersectional issues, researchers and advocates say. They range from schools locking students out of dual-language programs in favor of English-only special education programs, language barriers between schools and families, and teachers ill-equipped to serve their students’ needs.

“It’s a complex issue. If it was easy, we would have probably figured out a better way forward by now,” said Sarah Salinas, an assistant professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato’s department of special education. “[This group] includes students that are at the intersection potentially of cultural differences, linguistic differences, and disability differences.”

According to federal data from the school year 2020-21, nearly 14 percent of all students ages 5 through 21 enrolled in public schools were served under IDEA Part B. Of those students, 11.7 percent were English learners.

As this dual-identified population continues to grow, researchers and advocates offer some potential systemic solutions to many of the prevailing challenges these students and their families face.

A lack of access to bilingual education

One of the top concerns researchers and parents alike shared in interviews with Education Week when it comes to English learners with disabilities is a lack of access to bilingual education or dual-language programs.

Parents are encouraged to speak only English with dual-identified students, in part because of a flawed assumption that bilingualism will confuse them or hinder their academic progress or language progress, said Nikkia Borowski, a Ph.D. candidate in inclusive education at Syracuse University who studies access to bilingualism among such students.

She added that there is also the idea that dual-language programs are enrichment programs designed for academically gifted students, locking dual-identified students out in the process.

This preference for English-only instruction for English learners with disabilities plays out in smaller contexts as well, such as speech-generating devices students use that are programmed only in English.

“As a result, the students are missing access to a bilingual identity and missing access to really important cultural aspects as well,” Borowski said.

There is also the matter of how federal policy works for these dual-identified students.

Both the Equal Education Act of 1968 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act apply to this student population.

The IDEA, in its 2004 reauthorization, defines a least restrictive environment as the premise of providing services to a student with the greatest access to the general education curriculum, without any explicit mention of what these services look like for multilingual students, Salinas said. The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 focuses on language access for students whose first language is not English without explicit mention of education access for students with disabilities.

So while dual-identified students stand at the intersection of distinct federal policies and laws, the policies and laws are not intersectional themselves.

And even though an English-learner tool kit from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition reminds educators that a student’s English learner and disability-related educational needs must be met, what ultimately ends up happening is special education and IDEA are consistently prioritized over bilingual education services, Salinas said.

Policymakers have talked about reauthorizing IDEA with more explicit mentions of the needs of dual-identified students, though such a move remains hypothetical, Salinas added.

But even before policies and practices can better align to the linguistic, cultural, and disability-related needs of students, another challenge is at play that presents a quicker potential solution.

The need to reassess communication between schools and families

Navigating IDEA and individual education programs, or IEPs, can already be a daunting task for families. Doing so while English is not the family’s home language is all the more complicated.

Under IDEA, districts must ensure that a student’s parents understand the proceedings of the IEP team meeting, including taking steps such as providing a translator.

In an April survey by the EdWeek Research Center, 65 percent of participating district and school leaders said they offered translation services for special education programming for students whose first language is not English. 37 percent said they did so for all relevant languages spoken by students and families.

Meanwhile, 6 percent of leaders said they do not offer such a service although they have special education students with that need.

Even when considering that 37 percent said their school or districts covered all relevant languages in translation needs, there’s a question of whether the translators involved were trained professionals who understand things like IEPs, or if Spanish-language teachers and bilingual receptionists were called in instead, said Christy Moreno, the chief community advocacy and impact officer of the Missouri-based family-advocacy group Revolucion Educativa.

Moreno, a trained interpreter and translator herself, said offering translation services is the minimum schools and districts must offer families. High-quality translation is key to ensuring families are fully informed of their rights, she added.

“I’ve seen IEPs that are done by Google Translate,” Moreno said.

In addition to investing in proper translation and interpretation, Moreno said educators need to proactively ensure that parents understand how to ask questions about their children’s education. That includes taking into account cultural barriers at play such as stigma within the Latino community over the experiences of students in special education.

Lizdelia Piñón, an emergent bilingual education associate for the Texas-based advocacy nonprofit Intercultural Development Research Association, or IDRA, knows all too well how important it is for families to advocate for their children. Her Spanish-speaking 11-year-old triplets require several accommodations for their autism, cerebral palsy, ADHD, and more.

On several occasions, Piñón said she had to file formal complaints against her local school district to ensure her children’s linguistic and special education needs were met—including pushing back against an attempt to reduce the time her triplets spent with their special education teacher.

However, one systemic issue she sees is a lack of proper training among educators on how to best work with dual-identified students.

The need for better teacher preparation

Piñón worked as a bilingual teacher for about 10 years. She knows that existing bilingual teachers can get their certification in special education as well. But there is a gap of information in both programs, she said, leaving teachers without full context on how to best work with dual-identified students.

“I think that educating English learners with disabilities is a unique challenge for our teachers,” Piñón said.

Overall, there aren’t many teacher-preparation programs that train teachers on what to do in bilingual special education classrooms, said Salinas of Minnesota State University.

Recognizing that knowledge gap, Piñón worked on legislation signed into law in 2021 in Texas to create a bilingual special education certification. However, approval of the new certificate program remains stalled within the state board of education.

Yet, a temporary solution to such knowledge gaps in teacher preparation lies in strategic collaboration among educators, Salinas said.

Such work isn’t always possible between special education and bilingual education teachers on account of tight school schedules and other barriers, she added.

Still, it’s a strategy researchers focusing on English learners say can mitigate not only a lack of bilingual and special education teachers but also address how little training general education teachers have when it comes to working with English learners and special education students overall.

Coverage of students with learning differences and issues of race, opportunity, and equity is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2024 edition of Education Week as ‘A Unique Challenge’: What English Learners With Disabilities Need

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