Impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act on Public Schools

Special Education legislation was created to protect the rights of students with disabilities, but the question is how have these laws actually impacted the public school? Like most other legislation that sounds logical and well intentioned, there are several problems that result from such laws. I believe these problems occur because unlike most institutions that follow guidelines set by experts in a particular field, the Educators are governed by laws that are created by politicians who have little or no experience in education. The premise behind Americans with Disabilities Act does, indeed, set standards in place to protect the rights of special needs students, but do these standards achieve the desired effect. As a teacher I will try to give you an insight to how special needs students are dealt with in the classroom.

First let me displace the misconception that special needs students are all visibly handicapped and “stick out” in a classroom. This is not the case; in fact shortly after school begins teachers receive notices from special ed. teachers that include a list of their special needs students. I am often surprised by what students are actually on the list, and even, some of the students that are not on the list. Which raises the question who decides who receives protection from these laws. The short answer is parents. Parents that feel their child is disabled somehow may request testing. School officials including counselors, and pyschometrists attempt to test and place a student. Essentially, a parent who is worried that their child who is receiving bad grades could get their child labeled as special needs which would require teachers to modify for students who can perform actual course work, thus relieving students from being accountable for their own academic performance. On the other hand, I have also taught students that do seem to have disabilities and need additional help. For various reasons ranging from pride, to unawareness parents do not place their students into special ed.

Now that we have established who is special ed, and in some cases who isn’t, lets focus on the role regular classroom teacher plays to a special need student in their class. The law states that a student should be placed in the least restrictive environment as possible. This can range from students recieving one on one instruction, students places with other similar needs kids in the same class, students go to regular classes with an actual special ed expert with them, or students are fully integrated into regular classrooms. That ADA requires that teachers modify homework, tests, and grades according to that students Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Most special ed students attend annual IEP meetings to determine these modifications. Legally an IEP meeting must be attending by a counselor, a parent, the student’s special ed teacher, a regular teacher and that student. Ideally, the teacher would be an actual teacher of that student, so that teacher could provide input as to that students capabilities. However, sometimes teachers are unavailable, therefore to avoid breaking the law and rescheduling, some IEP meetings are conducted with a teacher that has never even met the student before, an obvious flaw in the system. Once the modifications are established teachers are obligated by law to follow these modifications; failure to do so will result in law suits and possible determination. Modifying for students seems to be in the best interests of the students, but lets examine this issue a bit closer.

What does modifying for a student really entail? Keep in mind that most teachers teach four or five hours out of a six or seven hour day, leaving them with a one hour planning period and a break for lunch. Teachers use their planning time to work on lesson plans, make copies, grade papers and attempt to regain their sanity among other things. A teacher with five classes would be lucky to have only one hundred students. Let’s pretend that ten of these students are protected by the ADA. That teacher is supposed to know and implement each students modifications, while remaining discreet so as not to violate the Federal Education Right to Privacy Act also known as FERPA. Modifications may include but are not limited to: increased time on homework or tests, modified tests, (an easier or shorter version of test) access to a computer or calculator, shortend assignments, typed copies of notes, (students that cannot seem to focus and take notes must be provided notes)preferential seating, or any other modifications deemed necessary. Teachers are also expected to document the fact that they are modifying, so if a student does issue a complaint (which may arise in the event this student is failing) the teacher has proof of modifications. So how do you prove that you allowed a student extra-time on an assignment? The short answer, paperwork.

It is not uncommon for a teacher with ten special needs students to spend their entire planning hour modifying tests (yes rewriting, or altering an entire test) and documenting the fact that they did, indeed, modify the test. Thank goodness for special ed. teachers who often volunteer to add to their never-ending piles of legal paperwork to offer their help and advise to classroom teachers who wish to keep their jobs by assuring their special needs students’ pass. Special ed. teachers are truly living saints who work under a ton of pressure and are seldom recognized; my hat is off to anyone in that profession.

If I sound a bit negative about the ADA, please do not misinterpret my attitude as uncaring, or indifferent towards special needs students. I do make modifications, (even for students who are not on IEP’s) while at the same time encourage students to attempt reular work. They are often surprised at what they can achieve if pushed. I am, however, insulted that my degree and professional experience has not earned the trust of law makers. I now have to shift my focus from helping students, creating lesson plans, grading papers to protect my own backside. I would not be as cynical if there were people that did not abuse this system. On occasion students are given the label special needs, because they cannot seem to take notes, remember a pencil, turn in homework, refrain from disrupting class, study or basically perform skills that people must have to function outside of the classroom. While in reality sometimes the reason these students do not perform well in class is actually because of poor decision making and lack of effort, but wait, admitting that may actually put the blame on that student, or worse, the parents. After these modifications are set in place, believe it or not, some students still manage to not pay attention, turn in work they have been given extended time for, fail modified tests. So what happens then? In extreme cases, parents hire lawyers and teachers that cannot prove they have given these students modifications begin packing their bags. In less extreme teachers are observed while they are teaching by state department representatives (who do not know the student and have no teaching experience) who attempt to determine if that teacher is negligent. The result of possible ADA law suits is that teachers are pressured, sometimes externally, to simply pass these students to avoid law suits – a great lesson to teach kids by the way.

The solution? As long as educators have no direct control over the laws by which they are governed there is no hope for a resolution. While lawmakers believe they are protecting special needs students and holding teachers accountable, they fail to realize they are taking important time away from teachers, fueling teacher burnout, (especially in the special ed department) enabling students and parents to “cheat” the system, diminishing any academic accountability of struggling students, giving students, and giving parents legitimate power over teachers (“if my kid doesn’t pass i’ll sue”). The ADA may have been created to protect students from and to prevent from leaving students behind, it has led to ushering students into a limousine leaving teachers in the dust. Hopefully, someone will notice when the limo stops and drops the students off in the real world that we will have created a whole generation of students that were not “left behind” but pushed forward into a world they are not ready for, a world that will not hesitate to leave them behind.