By Janet Story Sauer and Zachary Rossetti, authors, Affirming Disability

During the last few months since the COVID-19 outbreak hit the United States, it has become increasingly clear that the effects of the pandemic highlight existing sociopolitical inequities regarding the health care and education of non-dominant groups. Among the most vulnerable and hardest hit are people from racial and ethnic minority groups and people with disabilities. At the intersection of many of these groups are culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) families of children with disabilities who receive special education services. This group specifically includes people of color, immigrants, and refugees. While schools continue their closures, teachers might ask themselves how they can reach out to and support their most vulnerable students.

Equitable education necessitates family engagement. Collaboration between parents and school personnel improves outcomes for students with disabilities who receive special education services (Harry, 2008). However, rather than collaboration, many families have reported for decades feeling they have to fight with school personnel to secure appropriate services for their children with disabilities. CLD families face additional barriers to the development of collaborative relationships, including lack of language access (e.g., translated materials and professional language interpretation), cultural misunderstanding, lack of cultural responsiveness by school personnel, and limited accountability by school personnel. Such barriers contribute to poorer outcomes for these children, who so often are multiply marginalized by society, particularly in educational contexts. With nothing short of an onslaught from the recent pandemic on marginalized communities, it is even more important now that educators and those of us involved in professional development and training of educators recommit ourselves to taking personal action toward improving these relationships.

Rather than engage in arguments about clarifying legal obligations or laying blame on anyone, our focus here is on extending what we learned from our multiyear collaborative research with CLD families as described in Affirming Disability: Strengths-Based Portraits of Culturally Diverse Families.

We ascribe to the tenets of Disability Studies in Education, which seeks to disrupt power hierarchies, so the first thing we want to emphasize is the importance of self-assessment, checking-in with one’s own positions of power and privilege in the structures within which we work with CLD families. We begin with a reminder of our own positionality, writing as professors who identify as white, cisgender, middle-class people living with relative job security and health. Since we are qualitative researchers, we developed long-term relationships with most of our research participants, many of whom we now consider colleagues and co-researchers. We learned about the importance of developing cultural humility (Lund & Lee, 2015), a stance which carries an expectation of on-going learning or continuous personal development, rather than cultural competence that suggests a specific skillset to be learned. For instance, a teacher (or professor) could use this time of quarantine to take one of the many self-assessment surveys and then identify a topic or area to study in greater depth. One suggestion from a CLD family with whom we have worked included watching documentaries to begin to learn about the migration histories of our immigrant communities. Other suggestions were to learn basic vocabulary and customs of the children’s cultural and linguistic identities (e.g., greetings in languages other than English, holidays celebrated within specific cultural tradition). During this time when many cultural and religious gatherings have moved to online environments, some educators might find even greater opportunities to get to know their students’ families on a personal level. Educators can find a language-specific supports for CLD families for whom English is not their first language from such organizations as the Vermont Multilingual Coronavirus Task Force and the Federation for Children with Special Needs. While engaging in these and other efforts, we must all remember to recognize there are nuances and complexities within every cultural group that will need to be learned about each individual child and their family moving forward. Educators can formalize all of their efforts into an individualized Action Plan for developing collaborative partnerships with CLD families.

Developing more meaningful relationships with CLD families also requires adopting a strengths-based approach. Many of us have been acculturated into systems that practice deficit approaches towards both cultural diversity and disability, and we might unwittingly contribute to the marginalization of children and their families. Too many students with disabilities continue to be viewed as less capable than they are, or have their learning challenges misinterpreted as behavior problems. Students’ outcomes improve when we acknowledge and incorporate their strengths and talents while providing individualized supports for growth and learning. In one example, in response to teachers who did not provide her daughter access to a communication device because they did not believe she could use it, a mother made use of her daughter’s interest in balloons. She learned how to make balloon animals, asked her daughter what type and color balloon animal she wanted, and her daughter learned to use her communication device by responding about the details of her balloon animals! Additionally, during the Zoom meetings and tutorial sessions, teachers should continue collaborating with families to identify their language preferences and seek out their input about priorities for their child.

The pandemic has certainly taught us all how interdependent we are, and during this time a child’s Circle of Support may have or will need to be changed. Who is providing direct support services for the child and their families when schools remain closed? Are the child’s basic needs being met? Does the family need access to information about special education services during COVID-19 (e.g., to develop a hospital plan in case someone in their home gets sick)? CLD families have shared that during the pandemic they are experiencing a heightened sense of racism. Some CLD families with whom we work have had to significantly change their home routines while trying to work from home, especially when they might have elderly family living with them who are at greater risk of getting sick. There are many CLD families working directly with COVID-19 patients in hospitals whose own children are already living with compromised health, who have had to adapt their home lives.

If there ever was a time to get to know our students and their families’ circumstances, it is now. There are useful resources education professionals have at our disposal that we do not often find the time to examine more carefully, so while we work from home this could be a good opportunity to do our own homework, to develop greater cultural consciousness, and reach out.