Affirming the Needs of Students with Disabilities in 21st Century Learning

By: Ace Parsi

In the learning disabilities community, the end of October didn’t just mark Halloween—it also marked the end of Learning Disabilities (LD) Awareness Month, a month that the LD community recognizes both the progress we’ve made and the challenges that remain. Our young people are no longer relegated to segregated spaces and lower places in schools and communities.  Today more than two-thirds of students with learning disabilities (the largest federal category of students with disabilities) spend 80 % or more of their time in general education classrooms. That progress we have made as a nation—and particularly with regards to those with LD—has been a great accomplishment in educational and social change.

And yet, there are still glaring issues and failures we have to confront. Large achievement and graduation gaps between young people with and without LD persist. When our education system fails these students, their long-term outcomes devolve into deeper social injustices. 55 % of young adults with specific learning disabilities are involved at some point with the justice system for reasons other than a minor traffic violation according to a large-scale longitudinal study of youth with disabilities. (The rate for all young adults is 30 %.) Some studies indicate a third or more of incarcerated youth have learning disabilities, and an even greater number show signs of ADHD.

The persistent failure to fully engage our students with learning and attention issues in an education that prepares them for meaningful 21st-century learning has become the sad reality of our educational system. We’ve seen how society has transformed and hasn’t created a system to prepare youth with learning and attention issues for this transformation.

At the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), we hold a simple belief. We believe that if jobs with rote skills are becoming increasingly automated and 21st-century jobs demand young people to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, self-advocates, collaborators, and communicators, then preparing our young people with disabilities for anything less is as immoral as it is irresponsible. Making a positive impact demands a movement, not a policy. Here are some of the resources we’ve created to help support that movement:

  • Students and Families – Advocate to be included in learning approaches that deliver 21st-century skills. We must fight for the opportunity to be included in a 21st-century learning system in the same way our predecessors fought to be engaged in general educational experiences. This resource can equip you with the tools to do that.
  • Educators – Implement practices that are explicitly designed to engage students with disabilities in 21st-century learning. Empower students with disabilities with the skills to facilitate their IEP meetings; provide explicit instruction in self-advocacy and executive functioning; build 21st-century skills into your multi-tiered system of support (MTSS).  Students with disabilities can only be engaged in this new civil rights movement when our approach is explicit rather than generic.
  • Policy Makers – Create the conditions that enable inclusive 21st century learning to thrive. Provide educators with the time, resources, and training to include all students in a 21st-century vision. Don’t retrofit systems that weren’t inherently designed to meet all learners’ needs. Be proactive in advancing inclusive design; assess, support, and hold schools accountable for their capacity to engage students with disabilities in 21st-century learning.

We’ve come a long way as a nation. We are the nation that believed enough in inclusion to make cuts in sidewalks and took bold steps that made public transportation and buildings accessible. We mandated that all students be engaged in free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. These weren’t just disability rights victories—they were civil and human rights victories. As the 21st century unfolds, we have a new opportunity to turn to the next chapter of this civil rights movement. We encourage you to join us. Why do you think it’s so important to be inclusive of all students in 21st-century learning systems? Answer that question on social media using #WeWantIn and enable us to similarly join your 21st-century disability and civil rights efforts.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update.

Ace Parsi is the Director of Innovation at the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Follow them on Twitter: @ncldorg

Guest Author

Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.