From Newsletter — More here
Nearly 15 percent of all students in the United States — 7.1 million kids — have been identified as having a disability that requires special accommodations from the school district.
Although that number has slowly been rising every year since they started keep track, 15 percent is probably the low end of children with disabilities in this country. Some kids might not be diagnosed and labeled, so they do not receive any help from their schools. Other children’s disabilities might be mild enough that schools doesn’t have formally classify them, but are helping them out informally with some extra time in the resource room with a specialist.
The biggest chunk of those kids with disabilities — 33 percent — have what is termed as “specific learning disability,” which is edu-speak for learning problems like dyslexia or dysgraphia. Those kids need academic help, but are otherwise able to blend into the school population. The rest — 67 percent — have issues, like autism, language impairments, and hearing impairments, that cannot be solved simply with a reading specialist in the resource room.
Enter the therapists.
To meet the needs of that other 67 percent of special ed students, school districts must employ a variety of specialized therapists to help kids with everything from speech to behavior to physical strength and coordination. Special education teachers only handle the school work. For some kids, their biggest needs are handled by therapists, not their teachers.
A child with autism, for example, might get help from a Physical Therapist (PT) for weak muscle tone, an ABA specialist for OCD behaviors, a speech therapist to help them expand their expressive language skills, and a occupational therapist (OT) for handwriting and sensory needs.
When I was teaching special education in the South Bronx, there was one classroom in the school where the students arrived every morning in an ambulance. They were in a semi-vegetative states. The teacher would dress in a kimono and play classical music for the kids all day, as the aides changed diapers and PTs moved their limbs, so they didn’t get bedsores.
School therapy falls in a grey area between education and health care. Some say that schools should not be in the business of health care. If kids need help for physical or neurological differences, then our health care system should provide that help. But the health care system doesn’t. Many folks in this country don’t have any health care insurance at all, despite years of ACA laws. Even those with health insurance are not able to get coverage for issues like the poor social skills from autism.
I have never, ever been able to get our insurance companies to cover common services for autism for our son. Over the years, we have supplemented his education with private, after-school help — academic tutoring, social skills groups, special sports groups, and so on. I periodically try to submit those expenses to the insurance company, but have never had any luck. This year, we had to supplement quite a bit and are paying nearly a $1,000 per month to various groups and individuals. It’s all out-of-pocket. No help from schools, insurance companies, or the government.
Without any movement to get help from other sources, schools have to provide all these services, which are expensive. So, they aren’t very happy about it. Parents often have to fight to get this help.
Pre-COVID, this therapy-end of special education was problematic. Now, imagine trying to provide all those services over a Zoom call.
A couple of months ago, Edutopia — a positive solution-based education website run by the George Lukas Foundation — asked me to talk to special education teachers and therapists to find out how they were doing doing it. After some discussions, we decided to focus on one kind of therapist — Occupational Therapists (OTs).
Despite their name, OTs don’t do anything about jobs or careers. Their primary job is to help kids with their handwriting. This is a big issue for kids with autism, but it’s a common problem that impacts a lot of kids. Typically, OTs provide this help by standing behind the child and doing hand-over-hand to guide them as they form their letters. They might give students special pencils or strength children’s hand muscles with special exercises.
In addition to help with handwriting, their jobs have expanded in recent years to include helping kids with sensory needs, executive functioning, core strength, and even mental health. They might provide fidget toys to a child with ADHD, so he can focus on his lessons. Or they might help a child with tactile sensitivities overcome his refusal to wear long pants to school. But the reason for this massive expansion of the job responsiblities of OTs is a subject for another day. Today, let’s just talk about doing all those tasks via virtual education.
For my article for Edutopia, I interviewed several OTs in different schools around the country. They all say that they’ve worked super hard this year. In some cases, they’ve been successful. In other cases, less so.
You can read the whole article here.
One OT told me that her school has been all virtual for this entire year. Her students, which included little kids with non-verbal autism, were in one room in the school with their aides, while she and the other staff were in another room in the same school. She helped them with everything from handwriting to sensory integration over a computer. Therapists have not physically guided student’s hands and bodies for a year.
All the OTs told me that when the kids were working from home, they could not do their jobs without the full-time assistance of a parent. Parents, who have not been paid or compensated or supported in any way this year, have kept schools afloat (and free from subsequent legal issues) and have kept kids somewhat normal this year.
I’m exhausted, as are all parents with kids like mine. It’s been a long year. If schools can’t open (my son is back to learning virtually upstairs in his bedroom), then parents need a bailout. I’m keeping an eye on Romney’s Child Tax Credit, but we need more.