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English Language Learners (ELL) with Disabilities
By Janet Vohs, Director of Publications
Mass Parent Information & Resource Center (PIRC)

High Quality Education for All
All students in the United States have a right to a high quality education. Federal and state laws recognize the importance of educating children with special needs in classrooms with their peers. This practice is commonly referred to as “inclusion.” The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) cites more than 30 years of research that shows that students with disabilities who participate in general education classrooms—with proper special education supports, language supports, and accommodations—dramatically improve their performance. Therefore, inclusion has become part of what it means to have a “high-quality” education.

In updating IDEA in 2004, Congress found that the education of students with disabilities had been impeded by “low expectations.” These low expectations occurred because students with disabilities were often placed into separate classrooms where they did not have the opportunity to learn the same academic content that all other students were learning. Today, ELL students with disabilities often face low expectations, segregation, and insufficient opportunities to learn academic content.

What is Inclusion?
Inclusion not only means being educated in regular education classes. It also refers to a sense of belonging to a school community as an equally valued member. Students who are “included”:

  • articipate in age-appropriate general education classes with access to the physical environments and routines of the school.

  • Have opportunities for social interactions and relationships with their peers.

  • Participate meaningfully in the general education curriculum to the maximum extent possible with the supports and services they need to make progress.

  • Are held to the same high academic standards that Massachusetts has set for all children.

Schools with proven records of success in educating ELL students with disabilities provide an environment of belonging and academic support where all students can learn.

Challenges ELL Students Face
Families of ELL students with disabilities may confront extraordinary challenges in their efforts to ensure their children receive a high quality, inclusive education. They may not be familiar with U.S. schools or proficient in English. One particularly difficult issue is the misidentification of ELL students.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, misidentification of ELL students results in both under-identification and over-identification of ELL students as disabled. For example, a student who needs special education may not get it because that student’s school district may not have the specific specialist needed, such as a psychologist, in the child’s native language. Students in another district may need help learning English, but if the district does not have resources to help, that student may be referred to special education. ELL students with poor school achievement may also be mistakenly identified as needing special education because their language and cultural differences are interpreted as a disability.

Once a student is identified as being an ELL with a disability, the main issue often becomes access to grade-level academic content. Without access to the regular education classroom, access to the general curriculum is difficult. A balance must be achieved between learning English and learning academic subjects. Often, the best place to create that balance is in the regular classroom.

Parents are Crucial
Because of the diversity among students who are disabled and who are English language learners, parents play a vital role. They can provide important information about their children’s cultural and language issues, as well as explain their child’s learning strengths and needs. Parents may need to take courageous steps to ask for the language support they need to stay in touch with the teachers and to participate in IEP team meetings. Schools should provide translators as necessary to support families’ communication needs.

Mass PIRC has updated two publications, “English Learners and State Assessments.” and “Rights of English Language Learners.” Both will be available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Albanian, Caper Verdean Creole, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Russian, Somali, and Vietnamese. For copies, additional resources, or to learn more about the rights of ELL students, contact Mass PIRC at 1-877-471-0980 or visit www.masspirc.org.