Friday, April 11, 2014

College for All - including students with special needs

I was very glad to find this article pop up in my ListServe folder this morning: 

The article is from, and speaks to some of the most frustrating issues a post-secondary instructor can face. 

Teachers in K-12 (at least in Minnesota) are required to include training in special needs as part of their license renewal, and are held to 504 plans and IEPs, ideally with support and collaboration from the special education team. On top of that, the instruction and curriculum in a K-12 classroom can be adapted to a student's special need pretty readily; in fact, the trend seems to be that this is expected for each individual student...but that's another post. This adaptation is possible since licensed teachers have built an instructional toolbox from which they can choose the appropriate method. 

The expertise of instructors in post-secondary isn't always in education itself, especially not in the technical programs, and that goes for approaches to students with special needs. This article resonated with me because it reminded me of how much the instructors at my institution have struggled, particularly in the past few years, with students who are deaf. The support we could offer those students was a sign language interpreter, and then a whole new set of issues arose - not the greatest of which was how much it was costing the college to contract an interpreter. 

And these are certainly not the only issues post-secondary is challenged with. In the Learning Center, I have had many instructors ask what to do when a student has a learning disability, or how to help a student who has ADD, or what academic help we can offer a veteran with PTSD. But what gets ignored in terms of when this happens in the technical colleges is this: could there be a circumstance in which a student legitimately cannot perform the duties of that technical field at a level that is safe and/or effective? How does a college accommodate a student in a wheelchair so that it is physically possible for him/her to fix a furnace, build a roof, or reach under a car?  What can a college offer a student with ASD so that he/she may be able to communicate with customers, a vital component of the career of a graphic designer? Do we expect colleges to keep someone on staff with enough training and credentials to help students with severe mental and psychological issues so that they might succeed in their classes, much the same as in K-12? 

Perhaps the hardest question of all is this: Is a technical college responsible for stepping beyond ADA requirements and making it possible for students with special needs to at least attempt the program of their choice? 

And, of course, the questions following these regard how colleges support the instructors in these accommodations. If post-secondary instructors are not given the professional development and/or support to even approach an issue such as a student with autism in a classroom, many pieces suffer. Is one of the ten monthly hour-long faculty development sessions sufficient to provide post-secondary instructors - who may or may not have a background rooted in formal education - with enough development to take on this task? 

The transition to college is rough and tough for many students. Colleges, especially technical colleges, would do well to consider these questions and look for ways to build a better bridge for all students, including those with special needs. 

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