AAC Users Are Being Denied Safe Access to Education During Distance Learning

While distance learning is a challenge for many students, a new survey finds that those with expressive communication disabilities who require in-person supports to access their education are left even further behind.

CommunicationFIRST is a nonprofit organization that works on behalf of the rights and needs of more than 5 million Americans who rely on more than speech alone to communicate. At the end of 2020, they surveyed families of students with expressive communication disabilities and significant support needs about how they are being supported to access their education during the COVID-19 pandemic. All students had been enrolled in a public or private Pre-K–12 school in the U.S. since March 2020 and required in-person supports to access their education before the pandemic. 

The survey includes responses from 244 families from at least 125 school districts in 30 states, including 10 of the largest districts in the nation. While not scientific, the survey provides insight into how school districts are failing to adequately accommodate students with significant support needs during school shutdowns. 

It’s also important to note that additional studies have suggested that people who rely on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices who have intellectual or developmental disabilities are between 1.7 and 16 times more likely to die from COVID than those without these disabilities. This is because many live in group settings, often cannot consistently wear masks and keep a physical distance, and are often unlawfully denied access to necessary in-person communication supports in hospitals. 

You can read the full report and key takeaways here, but we wanted to point out the most important findings: 

  • An overwhelming majority (88%) of respondents reported that their districts are not providing any in-person supports to students who require support to access any kind of learning. According to the survey, these students are “being denied safe access to the same educational opportunities their nondisabled classmates are being provided.” One of the key tenets of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is that every child with a disability is entitled to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE), and students that aren’t able to access their education are thus being denied FAPE. 
  • If any in-person supports are offered, most school districts require students to travel to group settings in a school building to receive them. Despite the higher risks of contracting and dying from COVID, school districts are asking students to decide between staying at home without the help they need to access virtual learning or entering a riskier group setting at school. 
  • Families who are unable to hire outside support and do not have a parent who can assist the child have to send their children to these riskier group settings. 
  • At least 13 school districts in seven states are successfully providing in-person supports in student homes, and at least another two districts are designating private classrooms for a single student/aide pair to limit exposure to other people at the school. 

The survey found that it is possible to safely provide students with the in-person help they need to access virtual learning, and CommunicationFIRST “urges more school districts to learn from these creative examples to ensure the most marginalized students with disabilities do not fall further behind and experience further discrimation and denial of access.”

As Special X legal consultant and special education attorney Grace Clark tells us, if your child requires a 1:1 aide in order to access FAPE, the district is required to figure out how to provide that service. In addition, Dr. Sarah Pelangka tells us that parents may be able to privately hire a 1:1 aide through an ABA agency. Getting that service reimbursed by the school district may be difficult but not necessarily impossible. Attorney Mark Woodsmall also explained that providers of in-person special education services are classified as essential workers. If remote options are not efficient or practical for your child, the local education agency (LEA) can provide in-home supports, overriding mandatory shutdown orders. Check out our article with more information and steps you can take to request an at-home 1:1 aide

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