Addressing English Learners with Disabilities

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This July marks the 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On July 26, we celebrate this important civil rights law that works to ensure all people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. Helping English learners (ELs) with disabilities requires a thoughtful and comprehensive approach that considers their unique linguistic, cultural, and academic needs. Students who have disabilities and are learning English need support for both their language learning and their disabilities. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that educational institutions comprehend their students’ needs during enrollment to avoid any potential delays in providing essential services. By embracing the principles of the ADA, we can collectively strive toward a more equitable and accessible future for all.  

During the Office of English Language Acquisition’s (OELA) National Convening on English Learners’ Civil Rights, educators shared their experiences with ELs with disabilities and strategies to enhance classroom support for these students. In this blog post, we highlight strategies on dual identification, service delivery processes, and overall best practices shared by the panelists, including Laurene Christensen, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Fran Herbert, Responsive Inclusive Strategic Education Professional Development (RISE PD) and American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA); Lynda Espinoza Idle, RISE PD; and Caroline Torres, Hawaii University.

Ensuring Proper Dual Identification at the District Level

To ensure proper dual identification at the district level, consider the following steps:
• Examine policies: Districts need to review their policies and procedures to ensure they are comprehensive and inclusive of ELs with disabilities.
• Involve ELD educators: Engage English language development (ELD) educators in the identification process to gather valuable insights.
• Emphasize language objectives: Integrate language objectives throughout all levels of instruction.
• Collect and compare data: Gather relevant data and compare ELs with disabilities to their true multilingual peers.
• Incorporate experience: It is crucial to factor in cultural differences and consider trauma and past experiences when evaluating ELs with disabilities.

Reviewing Processes for Appropriate Service Delivery 

To ensure the right students receive appropriate services, consider these strategies:
• Explore alternate assessments: Consider alternative assessment methods that provide a more accurate understanding of ELs’ abilities and progress.
• Address individual student needs: Tailor services and interventions based on the specific needs of each student.
• Support communication in home languages: Provide devices that allow students with disabilities to communicate effectively in their home languages.
• Acknowledge patterns and cultural bias: To support ELs with disabilities, specialists like speech-language pathologists should be knowledgeable about home language patterns to offer targeted assistance and also consider cultural biases in assessments for appropriate services.

Best Practices and Strategies for Supporting ELs with Disabilities 

To ensure students receive proper support, consider these strategies:
• Foster collaborative IEP development and family input: Involve all stakeholders, including families, in developing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to foster collaboration.
• Adapt SMART goals: Make goals within the IEP linguistically relevant.
• Identify and reduce potential barriers: Identify and minimize barriers specific to ELs with disabilities, taking their specific disabilities into account to support their academic progress.
• Provide explicit instruction and modeling with scaffolding: Explicit instruction as well as modeling with scaffolding paired with structured collaboration can provide opportunities to build verbal development and social skills. 
• Implement a culturally relevant and sustainable framework: Ensure that support for ELs with disabilities is delivered through a culturally relevant and sustainable framework.

By incorporating these key points, educators can establish an inclusive and supportive environment for ELs with disabilities. To further enhance your knowledge and access helpful resources, check out the English Learners with Disabilities Fact Sheet, Information ELevated: English Learners with Disabilities, and Chapter 6 “Tools and Resources for Addressing English Learners with Disabilities” in OELA’s English Learner Toolkit.

Blog tags
english learners
Language Instruction
multilingual learners
K-12 Education