3 lessons on serving kids with disabilities from SXSW EDU

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: My colleague Stephanie Cawthon and I were selected to present on students with disabilities at SXSW EDU earlier this spring, and our names appeared on the presentation list alongside Oprah’s. (Much to our families’ disappointment, we did not actually get to meet her.)

SXSW EDU is an annual conference and festival that spotlights the very latest in innovation, technology, entrepreneurship, and learning. As with all things during COVID-19, this year’s event was fully online, bringing people together from around the world for three days of cutting-edge presentations, dialogue, and networking. We were thrilled to have our presentation, “COVID-19 and reaching students with disabilities online,” selected by the public through a PanelPicker voting process. Getting to talk about such an important topic in such unprecedented times was an honor. And sharing a “stage” with Oprah? Well, that was the cherry on top.

Ours was one of the only presentations focused on accessibility for students with disabilities, which was baffling. In the United States alone, there are over seven million students ages 3 to 21 in special education, and this does not include students with unidentified disabilities. Challenges to providing high-quality access and learning during the pandemic have impacted—and continue to impact—our most vulnerable student populations.

Speaking up for the needs of kids with disabilities

SXSW EDU participants come from both the public and private sector: students, educators, administrators, non-profit founders, technology innovators, and public policy makers, to name a few. Our challenge was to share critical information with them while also engaging them in dialogue, problem solving, and learning moments to take into the future. The pandemic has amplified many issues of social justice, equity, and accessibility that students with disabilities face, particularly students of color. We focused our attention on critical topics that have consumed many special educators and families of students with disabilities over the past year:

  • Special education eligibility services
  • Remote and online learning
  • Assessment considerations
  • Looking ahead

Accessibility was not only central to the content of our presentation but also reflected in the design and format. We know that many people never get to see what a truly accessible online conference discussion looks like, and leading by example is critical in our work. The presentation represented the principles of universal design for learning (UDL) by allowing for multiple ways for participants to interact with and respond to the content. We also asked for American Sign Language interpreters and closed captioning, and our presentation PowerPoint was made available 24 hours in advance for previewing and was accessible to screen readers with ALT text.

Here are the three key lessons we shared on how to address social justice inequities for students with disabilities, now and in the future.

Lesson #1: Technology can be accessible, but only with intention (and planning. See #3)

One theme that bubbled up in conversation was the difference between an accommodation and an accessible learning environment. Unlike the singular focus on a particular strategy that an accommodation provides (for example, extended time to complete an assignment or a speech-to-text app), accessibility is all about ensuring the platform and technology can deliver material in an accessible way. For example, a math curriculum may be available via an online portal, but without accessibility features added, that information may not be usable by a student using a screen reader or refreshable braille device.

In the United States alone, there are over seven million students ages 3 to 21 in special education, and this does not include students with unidentified disabilities.

This issue of inaccessible online materials has been prevalent during the pandemic, especially during remote and hybrid learning. Ensuring consistent approaches to accessibility is foundational for supporting students with disabilities. What we learned from session participants is that accessibility is highly inconsistent from district to district, platform to platform, and state to state, making it difficult to troubleshoot and share strategies.

Lesson #2: Family support is important (very important)

Parents and guardians are an integral part of the support system of students with disabilities. Not only are they a part of the learning team, but they are also, typically, a student’s number one advocate.

Throughout the pandemic, families have been leaned on heavily to ensure instruction delivery and accessible learning opportunities for their children. Yet just as many students needed to learn how to attend school online—how to operate Zoom or send a document through Google Docs, among other things—and families had to learn “on the fly,” alongside their children. In many cases, teachers worked directly with them on how to provide access to students online in addition to helping them meet coursework expectations.

This intensive focus on family support was demanding but also gave us an opportunity to connect more meaningfully with parents and guardians. We’ve heard many success stories about how they’re feeling more connected to the curriculum or enjoy having greater flexibility in how they participate in conferences. Families have also been more actively involved in gathering information and understanding their child’s disability, such as having the opportunity to make videos of their child as part of observations used in assessments related to eligibility and reevaluations for special education.

Lesson #3: Educators should plan to pivot and pivot to planning

COVID-19 lockdowns hit fast and hard, leaving school systems and families to pivot and come up with creative solutions largely on their own. A recurring theme in our conversation was the amount of planning remote and hybrid learning takes. Countless research papers and books have been written on good classroom management: how to structure your classroom or foster engagement. Yet very few, if any, address remote or hybrid learning for students with disabilities. The fact that this pandemic has been a long haul—now over a year—spotlights the struggles in education and how much we depend on dialogue and planning.

Challenges to providing high-quality access and learning during the pandemic have impacted—and continue to impact—our most vulnerable student populations.

Many still struggle with key steps in the special education process, such as determining if a student is eligible for services or if new services are needed for hybrid and remote settings. One teacher who attended our presentation stated, “Our eligibility services have been incredibly delayed because of COVID, but also because our district is so big and our education diagnosticians are pushed too far and wide. We are very, very behind with our students who need special ed but aren’t able to be tested.”

Planning takes time, and changing formats and learning platforms creates an even stronger demand for time. One key thing to remember is that one size never fits all for our students. Even though we know many students are happier, do better, and succeed more in person, we must remember that there are students who do just as well—or even better—in a remote setting. For example, one teacher mentioned that, “Some students with anxiety and some neurodiverse students may actually find virtual learning suits their needs better.”

Effective teaching and learning for students with disabilities may need to integrate both hybrid and remote options in order to best support our students moving forward. Educators will need ample time to be successful with these multiple instructional delivery methods, and they must be given the chance to pivot as much as is needed to best serve students.

Consider your students with disabilities as you plan for next year

We were thrilled to have the opportunity to engage on such an important topic at SXSW EDU and hope our work can help guide your efforts for equity and inclusion for students with disabilities, colleagues, and advocates as you begin to plan for 2021–2022. While the road ahead is uncertain, here is what we know for sure (à la Oprah): collaboration, intention, and dialogue are all critical parts of building a more accessible world, together. We encourage you to watch the Alliance for Excellent Education webinar “Supporting COVID-19 recovery for students with disabilities: Research findings, policy recommendations, and lessons from the ground,” recorded on June 8, 2021, to learn more about what you can do.

Stephanie Cawthon contributed to this post. Learn more about her on her website, and read her posts on Teach. Learn. Grow.

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