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The Promise of Technology for People with Disabilities

By Drs. Jamie Basham, Sean Smith, and Jason Travers

The United Nations has declared December 3rd to be the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This year’s theme is, “Sustainable Development: The Promise of Technology.” Technology innovation has altered how we interact with others, learn new things, navigate worlds, keep track of our fitness, and find new experiences. Technology is increasingly integral to our daily lives. In today’s world, current mobile technology has far surpassed the computing power of common desktop computers of just a decade ago. As we look toward the future, the exponential rate of development means technology will become faster, more specialized, and so deeply integrated into our lives that wearable (e.g., on the wrist, in clothing) technology will be ubiquitous. Although some may find this technology intrusive, the integration of these technologies will support a more efficient and productive lifestyle. In that way, technology has the potential for positive and transformative impacts for people with disabilities.

When available and used, tablets, mobile phones, wearable technologies, and traditional computers have a multitude of applications that confer benefits to people with an array of disabling conditions. Technology serves as augmentative and alternative communication devices for people who have limited speech. Students who are blind or have vision impairments use devices to describe objects and guide them in physical and digital environments. Children and adults with learning or cognitive disabilities can access digital systems to support autonomy including independent learning, decision-making, daily functioning, and on and on. For individuals with disabilities, accessing and learning to use technology has life changing effects. Indeed, technology and the associated skills are basic blocks for building independent, healthy, and a meaningful life filled with personal meaning.

Unfortunately, many students and adults with disabilities do not have access to these technologies, are not taught requisite skills, and are not provided with necessary supports to benefit from the unlimited potential of the available and emergent technology. Although some in the technology industry have made great strides in developing Universally Designed systems that enhance access and use for all individuals, other companies are not making this same investment. Moreover, in the education space, service providers (e.g., educators, support personnel) remain unaware of the ways technology can be used in concert with specific skills to provide the quality of life of individuals with disabilities. For instance, many educators lack the knowledge and skills to conduct needs assessments to inform ways technology could be used to support students with disabilities. A collective effort is needed to develop sustainable and universally designed systems as well as skilled service providers who can purposefully integrate technology. Globally, technology development and educations systems should be focused on improving the quality of life for all individuals, especially those with disabilities.

On December 3rd, we urge leaders in the technology sector, service providers, and specifically educators to consider how current, innovative, and conceptualized technology can be used to support persons with disabilities. The power of technology can serve as a tool that provides for inclusiveness, equity, and a quality of life we all deserve. As a global community, we must consider how technology can support communication, learning, independence, productivity, and social interactivity necessary for a meaningful life.

Good Jamie

James D. (Jamie) Basham, Ph.D., is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. He earned his doctorate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Basham’s research is focused on student learning in modern learning environments chiefly related to the application of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). He is well published, has given numerous talks, and has served as a consultant for school districts, universities, state agencies, and corporate entities on modern learning environments, Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) education, big data, personalization, and UDL. Dr. Basham serves on editorial boards for various journals and was a co-guest editor for the Journal of Special Education Technology topical issue on STEM education for individuals with diverse learning needs. Beyond journals, he serves on the ISTE SETSIG executive board and the SXSWedu Advisory Board. Finally, Dr. Basham is a cofounder of the global UDL Implementation Research Network (UDL-IRN).


Sean J. Smith holds the rank of Associate Professor of Special Education at the University of Kansas. Dr. Smith has a background in the area of special education and technology, specifically towards the integration of technology across teacher preparation programs. He has authored and presented a number of articles and papers dealing with special education technology and is currently a Project Director on several US Department of Education program initiatives seeking to further the integration of technology components across teacher preparation programs and into the lives of students with disabilities as well as the development of a virtual social skill training experience for students with Autism. Dr. Smith has served as an associate editor for the Journal of Special Education Technology and currently serves as an Associate Editor for Teaching Exceptional Children. He is the proud parent of four young children, one having an intellectual disability.


Jason Travers is an assistant professor in the special education department at Kansas University. Jason earned his doctorate at University of Nevada Las Vegas and is a former public school special educator for learners with autism. He researches the effects of shared active surface technology on academic, communicative, and social-behavioral skills of learners with autism. Additional research interests include trends in racially disparate identification of students in the autism eligibility category, equitable access to early intervention, comprehensive sexuality education for learners with autism, and evidence-based practices in special education.

A Priority Call for Evidence-Based Practices

By Richard L. Simpson

Barbara Bateman (1994) reminds us there are some issues in our field that are perpetual. Each generation of professionals wrestles with these same basic matters. These themes and issues have taken a variety of forms, yet in general they have had enduring prominence over the past several decades. One issue concerns who should receive special education services (i.e., types and characteristics of children and youth with disabilities and special needs); and who should be teaching these learners (i.e., skills, knowledge of teachers and support staff)? A second salient issue relates to what educators should be teaching. A third long-term issue that has challenged the field for decades is where students should be receiving their education (i.e., full inclusion general education classrooms, self-contained programs, alternative schools, and so forth). Finally, the all-important issue of how we should be teaching, managing and otherwise serving students with disabilities has been a long-standing question.

This commentary focuses on the how topic. Succinctly stated, identifying and using suitable methods with fidelity is essential; and how we teach children should receive priority consideration as a research topic and in matters related to educator practice, professional development and preparation. Achieving general consensus on the importance of effective practices is relatively easy. Indeed, who within our profession or stakeholder groups would argue against working to ensure that teachers are highly skilled and knowledgeable in selecting, using and evaluating the most effectual instructional, management and other methods; and that conducting research leading to even more efficient and effective methods is crucial? Opposing such a declaration would be tantamount to arguing against the need for a more collaborative and united Congress or disagreeing that all countries should aggressively seek ways to support the basic rights of all people. Yet, apart from general consensus on the need for special educators to consistently use effective educational practices with their students (also of course that there is a need to create a more cooperative Congress and just world for all people), there is less than full agreement on particular issues linked to effective practices. There is also little indication this subject is a true priority for many educators. Thus, in spite of general (and often unenthusiastic) consensus among stakeholders on the need for use of maximally effective strategies, major obstacles challenge this enterprise. Achieving agreement on even the most basic questions, including the meaning and characteristics of effective practices and how to facilitate a more effective-practice minded profession, have been major challenges.

Selecting and using effective educational practices means using evidence-based methods (this author recognizes this is not a universally held interpretation). Variable terms are used to describe so-called effective educational procedures, including evidence-based methods and practices, scientifically supported interventions, and research-validated methods. These terms generally refer to methods and practices that have been shown to be efficacious based on objective and empirically valid and data-supported research. Shared features among evidence-based methods include a reliable and scientifically-valid evaluation or research design, clearly explained procedures, scientifically-supported evaluation methods, and peer-review vetting of claims (Cook, Tankersley, & Landrum, 2009). Unquestionably there are alternative evaluation procedures for determining if a method is an effective educational practice. In some cases informal, anecdotal and qualitative approaches have been used to make such judgments. Without question this information can often be constructive and useful. However, in the final analysis and as a definitive test of effectiveness, objective data-based scientific procedures are required. Only by adhering to such a process will the field be in a position to objectively identify and appropriately use those strategies with the greatest potential to positively advance the knowledge and skills of learners with disabilities and create maximally clear pathways to the best outcomes. Additionally, adopting and using evidence-based methods within all spheres of special education is an indispensable step towards developing and improving the image and overall professional standing of the field of special education.

Adopting a “best-practice” model requires that educators commit to learning and correctly using methods that have objectively and scientifically demonstrated capacity to consistently produce the best outcomes. Simply stated this requires knowledge of assets, strengths and limitations of particular methods; and how each method aligns with the needs and characteristics of particular types of learners. It also involves accepting that some methods for children and youth with disabilities are superior to others relative to achieving empirically and scientifically validated outcomes. Finally, this mindset involves recognizing that the educational landscape is awash with unproven and commercially-motivated methods that have limited capacity to bring about socially valid gains. The ability to make unbiased and rational judgment about methodologies and a willingness to make decisions on the basis of student’s interests rather than ideology, personal preference and convenience is an essential step required of educators who aspire to be effective-method practitioners.

Identifying methods that have effective-practice potential is not a Herculean task, however it is not easy. Use of three guiding questions can be helpful in judging methods: (a) what proof supports purportedly effective interventions and methods? (b) How will a selected intervention or method be evaluated? And (c) to what extent does an intervention or method fit an individual learner’s unique needs? The first question focuses attention on the scientific and objective evidence supporting a method, including the extent to which participants in research studies objectively benefited from a method; and the degree to which one’s own students or learners are similar to the research participants. This first-question process requires the ability to discriminate between scientifically valid research methods and products and methods lacking these characteristics. This translates as the ability and willingness of educators to interpret professional documents, peer-reviewed scientific journals, and related reports. This prerequisite skill has clear teacher education implications: Professional educators who aspire to consistently and independently use evidence-based methods with their students need to be taught to discriminate between objective and scientific research reports and the pseudoscience often found in non-peer-reviewed materials (e.g., anecdotally-based web reports, marketing and promotional brochures) and methods whose only support is personal testimony.

The second guiding question linked to prudently identifying evidence-based methods requires educators and other stakeholders to evaluate (or plan for evaluations) of methodologies and interventions adopted for use (or considered for adoption) with individual students. This includes such issues as: (a) what target behaviors will be measured as evidence of progress (e.g., classroom management problem behaviors such as out-of-seat without teacher permission, classroom attention to task, academic subject progress)? (b) Who will conduct the agreed upon evaluations and how often will the methods be evaluated? (c) What benchmarks or criteria will be used to determine if a method is successful and utilitarian and whether it should be continued or modified? This guiding question recognizes the importance of evaluating methods and interventions with particular students. Independent of the professed and reported benefits of a particular method and its supporting credentials, this guiding question reminds stakeholders that they must objectively assess individual students’ responses to particular strategies. That is, the suitability and utility of even the most scientifically valid method must ultimately be based on the outcomes it produces with individual learners.

The third guiding question focuses on the qualitative merits and shortcomings of methods and interventions under consideration. It prompts stakeholders to carefully consider which methods and supports have the greatest potential to positively affect individual learners, especially relative to contextual considerations, setting variables and similar factors. This theme relates to the perceived match of various methods and interventions with the needs, values, life styles and other social validity considerations of individual students and families. Consideration of these variables assists educators and stakeholders understand that, independent of the reported research that supports particular methods, qualitative factors (e.g., how a student’s predilections, personality, idiosyncratic features, and family circumstances might affect or interact with use of a particular intervention or method) need to be given serious consideration. The guiding features of question 3 clearly relate to matters of social validity. Educators and other stakeholders are asked to consider potential factors linked to use of particular methods that often fall outside the boundaries of traditional efficacy research. Because on their differing responsibilities, roles, experiences, attitudes, individual circumstances, and so forth, educators, related service professionals, parents and other stakeholders associated with children and youth with disabilities will almost surely have different ideas and perspectives about which methods hold the most promise. Related to these differences, discussions linked to social validity matters provide methodology-discussant participants an opportunity to focus on topics such as quality-of-life factors, perceived practical benefits of particular methods, and students’ preferences and characteristics related to adopting certain approaches. These discussions are not intended to replace other considerations related to judging methodology options, especially those conferences that primarily focus on empirical scientific themes. Rather, these discussions are intended to broaden the evaluation standards by including informal and qualitative considerations as a part of the deliberation process. This guiding question also allows stakeholders to consider negative side effects (e.g., a particular strategy might draw excessive attention to an adolescent who is extremely shy); challenging circumstances (e.g., a particular approach requires extensive one-on-one instructional time, and stakeholders agree a particular student has performed poorly in the past when removed from ongoing classroom activities); or conditions associated with using a method, such as financial and quality of life risks for a student or family.


Bateman, B.D., (1994). Who, how and where: Special education’s issues in perpetuity. Journal of Special Education, 27, 509-520.

Cook, B. G., Tankersley, M., & Landrum. T. J. (2009). Determining evidence-based practices in special education. Exceptional Children, 75, 365-383.


Richard L. Simpson is Professor of Special Education at the University of Kansas where he has directed numerous University of Kansas and University of Kansas Medical Center demonstration programs for students with autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities and coordinated a variety of federal grant programs related to students with autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities.. He has also worked as a special education teacher, school psychologist and coordinator of a community mental health outreach program.  He has authored numerous books, articles and tests on a variety of topics connected to students with disabilities. Simpson is the former senior editor of the professional journal Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities.  Awards include the Council for Exceptional Children Research Award, Midwest Symposium for Leadership in Behavior Disorders Leadership Award, Autism Society of Kansas Leadership Award, and numerous University of Kansas awards and distinguished roles, including the Gene A. Budig Endowed Teaching Professorship of Special Education and Ingram’s Icons of Education Award.

Discovering Those Hidden in Our Community

By Matthew J. Ramsey, Ph.D.

The summer before my 8th grade year, I was working for my father on the farm. In fact, I’d worked for my father on the farm every summer, but this summer was different because he was paying me a gargantuan sum of $40 per week. This worked out to around $.50 per hour, but it was something. By something I mean $20 in my savings account and enough to buy a CD with some change.   It was 1989. Ice-Ice-Baby wasn’t even a thing yet.

One Monday evening my father came home from a Knights of Columbus meeting to inform me that in three weeks time I would be volunteering as a counselor at a camp for individuals with disabilities. Insert minor freak out!

I had no issues surrounding people with disabilities, but this was a time before inclusion and my experience was limited. My chief anxieties centered on not knowing anyone else that would be at this week-long camp and that I would miss out on income. Dad offered to pay me for the week. This was great but did little to squash the discomfort in being a 13-year old who was going to be in the position to negotiate a whole new social situation.

Three weeks later I was packed and ready to go. There were only a few minutes of awkward milling around before a meeting began. We learned a bit about each other, which made things more comfortable. Many of the counselors were in the same position as I – volunteered by a parent and not exactly sure what to expect. As the rules and procedures began to unfold we became more comfortable with each other.

Every counselor was paired with a single camper. This one-on-one relationship proved effective. I was placed with a young man who was slightly older than myself. He arrived at about noon on Monday and we got along well. Our week was full of activities: crafts, swimming, hiking, religious observation, talent shows, the list goes on. He functioned at a level equal to my own and needed no assistance with hygiene or other personal tasks. This was a huge relief in my 13-year old mind. His limitations were intellectual, but that did not interfere with out ability to interact with each other and the activities of the week.

The cast of characters was amazing. The camp directors were two women from my hometown. One was a classic grump, swilling Pepsis and smoking Virginia Slims. The other was a caring woman whose stern love for all was evident in her interactions. One of the counselors was confined to a wheel chair. In his day job he taught art at a private school in southeast Kansas. Watching him manage his physical limitation while working with a camper whose needs were challenging was amazing. There was a tiny 9-year old who helped with the art program and commanded the groups like a veteran teacher. The husbands of the directors ran the food service with the help of several campers and they made each meal a delight. The campers flocked to the priests and nuns who came to camp each day to offer Mass and hang out.

Campers ranged from hormone crazed teenage girls to elderly gentlemen who had spent most of their lives in an institution. Regardless of age everyone interacted free from typical boundaries. This was my first experience with institutionalized behavior which was so prevalent four campers cleaned the dining hall floor after every meal because mopping had been part of their routine. A few of the men woke up at 5:30 am as they had done for years. Without an early morning schedule, they took to the squeaky swing-set and catcalled to the sleeping lady campers.

The high point of the week was a dance on Thursday night. A king and queen were crowned and the cast of our unrehearsed production danced the night away with moves sweeter than any professional troupe, at least in our minds.

Friday morning meant packing, a final Mass, and cleaning. Saying goodbye to the campers was hard. The gratefulness of their family and caregivers was something I had not expected. Leaving my fellow counselors was even harder. How close we had become in such a short period of time!

I needed no external motivation to sign up for camp the next year or the year after that; in fact I attended that camp for the next seven summers. I also began helping out in a religious education program sponsored by my local parish. Many members of the class had also attended camp. Previous to my camp experience I did not even know these individuals existed in the church community. Many of them were my age. It turns out that two were so close in age our mothers took the same Lamaze classes. In the coming years I would spend more and more time with these folks and they became very important to me.

During my third summer at camp I met Phillip. Initially he was not assigned to me; in fact I had one of the most desirable campers around. Each night we had a staff meeting. I usually sat in the back half listening to the announcements and concerns from other counselors. On the first night that year, a young woman, about the same age I was during my first summer, was nearly in tears regarding her camper. He was nonverbal, mostly nonresponsive, but strong and active, very active. The directors indicated that his parents were concerned that he might not be a good fit at camp and would understand if he could not remain with us for the full week. The young counselor was relieved, the director resigned to call in the morning. As this conversation drifted towards the back of the room it struck me as somehow unfair.   I stood up and delivered a sermon on our need to do everything in our power to keep Phillip at camp. I explained that his parents might need a break from the 24-hour care he required, that is siblings might need time with their parents, that we should be committed to helping all people, and this might be the only week Phillip was away from those who cared for him everyday. Where this came from is beyond me. Why I volunteered to switch placements is even further beyond me, but Phillip was now mine and would remain mine for several summers.

Phillip and I got along fine. He was the most challenging person I’d ever worked with, but I learned the few signs he knew and engaged with him in the ways we seemed to enjoy. He was 12-years old. His physical stature was small for his age, but he was made of solid muscle. He could climb things like a monkey. We could sign and he had some words, which he uttered in a muffled half cry. By the end of the week he had my name down, if you listened really hard and weren’t particular. Sugar and caffeine were to be avoided. Picking up trash was his favorite activity and we spent hours wandering the grounds so he could clean up. He loved the pool, moved through the water easily, and tried to climb on me whenever I made it to the deep end. He didn’t sleep much so we shared a room away from the other campers.   At the end of the week I was exhausted, he was still super energized. In my exhaustion I was satisfied that we had done something worth doing.

It was later that I learned Philip was from my hometown. It wasn’t long before I received a call asking if I’d be willing to babysit. You see his parents had two other children and because of Philip’s needs they had never attended a baseball game or dance recital together because some had to be home with him. I began scheduling time with him once a week. He then started coming to the religious education class as my experience with him allowed him to benefit from the program. This routine went on until I moved away.

My grandparents lived in his neighborhood and I’d drive by his house often when I was back home. I always wanted to stop, but never quite found the courage to do so. Over twenty years after we first met, I saw him standing in the doorway of the house and had to stop. I was home helping to clean out the house after the death of my grandfather and knew I might not find myself in that neighborhood again. It took his mom a bit to remember who I was, but Phillip knew. He immediately said my name in is own way. My heart melted. I won’t admit that a tear or two welled up in my eye as I walked back to the car. Olivia, my daughter, was along and was terribly confused by the whole interaction. I tried to explain my history with Phillip. She thought he sounded funny.

What Olivia and Phillip’s mom didn’t understand was that Phillip is one of the most influential people in my life. To Olivia he is another person with a disability I know and to his mom I was one caregiver in a lifetime of caregivers. From my perspective Phillip gave me a career. All those years ago when our weekly contact came to a close, I moved on to college and majored in special education. Phillip helped me learn not only what those with disabilities need to be included in our communities, but also what support families need to function. The total of these interactions, which I shared with more people than I can possibly remember, both those with and without disabilities, served to show me that there were people hidden in my community who offered rich interaction and experience. Somewhere along the way these experiences became less of a job and more of…I don’t know…a social life?

I try to convey this knowledge to my students who will teach in both general and special education classrooms, but without a Phillip of their own I wonder if those who are preparing to teach individuals with disabilities will have the perspective they really needs to enter the field. I’m never quite sure I have what it takes to show them what individuals and their families require. Luckily I find that most of them do have a Phillip, maybe a brother or a cousin or even an uncle. Their stories come through as we have more classes together. In the same way Phillip was my teacher, so are my current students. We are all here to learn from one-another, we just have to make sure that everyone has a place in our community.


Matthew J. Ramsey is an Associate Professor of Special Education at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He began working with individuals with disabilities at a young age through the Holy Family Camp in Wichita, Kansas. His professional career includes five years as a teacher of students with severe emotional and behavioral disturbances in psychiatric treatment, two years as a principal in a private, special purpose school, and seven years in his current position. He finished his Ph.D. with the help of a generous OSEP fellowship in the spring of 2013. His research interests include the funding of special education programs and the training and supervision provided to paraprofessionals. He lives with his two children, Henry and Olivia, in Atchison, Kansas.

I’m Not a Volleyball Player, but I Am a Reader

By Melinda M. Leko

When I consider my identity I immediately think of my roles as mother, teacher, wife, daughter, friend, researcher, animal lover, and reader. I do not, however, identify as volleyball player. This is because frankly, I am terrible at volleyball. In fact, I haven’t played volleyball since 7th grade when my P.E. class was in the middle of a 6-week unit on volleyball. I served the ball, and it went sailing behind me and directly onto the head of our P.E. teacher who was knocked off the bleacher upon which she sat. My classmates thought this was hilarious. I did not. Luckily the P.E. teacher was not seriously injured, but the same can’t be said for me and my pubescent, hormonally volatile pride.

Fast forward to today. Despite being a terrible volleyball player I think I have led a relatively successful life thus far. My lackluster volleyball skills have not acted as barriers to my life’s goals. Not being good at volleyball did not make it more likely for me to dropout of school, be adjudicated, or rejected from college. Even though I can’t play volleyball well, I have still been able to pursue the education and career of my choice.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for adolescents with (or without) high-incidence disabilities who lack proficient reading skills. These students are more likely to be retained, feel isolated from the larger school community, and ultimately drop out of school (Daniel et al., 2006; NCES, 2003). Unlike volleyball, literacy permeates our lives. It is a skill upon which our entire society is based. Not being a good reader or writer in our world can have dire consequences. It is at the intersection of disability, literacy, and adolescence that much of my research is situated. How do we as a society support adolescents with high-incidence disabilities who struggle with reading? How do we prepare their teachers who, at the secondary level, often do not view the teaching of reading as their responsibility (Kamil, 2003)? How do we make learning to become a more proficient reader age-appropriate and motivating for students who have experienced a long history of challenges, frustration, and humiliation regarding their reading skills?

In the past few years, after describing my research interests, several people have said things like, “Why spend time teaching these students to read better when computers and apps can read for them?” Hmmm, good point. Technology can decode unknown words for students and tell them the meaning of those unknown words. Technology can spell words and record students’ stories. There’s no question that technology is pretty amazing. It allows us to communicate, learn, and live in ways that constantly amaze me. Personally, it comes down to issues of equity, accessibility, reliability, and quality of life. Not finding effective and efficient ways to teach older students how to become better, more proficient readers and instead using technology as a “fix,” assumes that all students, once they become adults, will have financial access to expensive and rapidly evolving technology and software. I might be more in favor of the idea if it was, completely reliable. No power surges. No Internet or server or router outages. No lost cell phones. No dead batteries. Or (and I know this one is completely operator error) as I like to refer to it: cell phone + washing machine = sad Melinda! Here’s another idea to consider. The world of today is not to the point that everything is digitized and full of embedded supports. I still read street signs, parking tickets (oops), nutrition information on food packages, menus in restaurants, my kids’ notes home from school, etc. Whenever I teach a reading methods course to special education pre-service teachers I often ask them keep a log for one day and record every time they read something. The result every semester is the same. They are astounded by how much reading they do throughout the day without even realizing it. As skilled readers, so much of our day-to-day interactions with text occur naturally and automatically. What happens if it wasn’t natural or automatic? Finally, there is the issue of ease and quality of life. My literacy skills allow me to navigate our world fairly easily. I can read a book on my iPad, but if it is not available electronically, I can read the old-fashioned hard copy version. Most importantly, I identify as a reader. I “fit in” in a world that revolves around literacy.

I would imagine in the not too distant future this blog will be completely obsolete. But for now, what should we do to help adolescents whose futures do depend on their reading and broader literacy skills? Is there a middle ground? I think so. Scammacca and colleagues, in their meta-analysis of interventions for adolescent struggling readers, found that adolescence is not too late to intervene (2007). We should empower students by helping them acquire the skills and strategies that will promote their independence and success in literacy, while also teaching them about technology-based supports and how they can be a resource. Let’s help students think of themselves as readers. Don’t think that just because they are older it’s too late, or it’s not worth the trouble! Just please don’t ask me to play volleyball.


Daniel, S. S., Walsh, A. K., Goldston, D. B., Arnold, E. M., Reboussin, B. A., & Wood, F. B. (2006). Suicidality, school dropout, and reading problems among adolescents. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39, 507-514. doi: 10.1177/00222194060390060301

Kamil, M. L. (2003). Adolescents and literacy: Reading for the 21st century. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (2003). The condition of education 2003. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Scammacca, N., Roberts, G., Vaughn, S., Edmonds, M., Wexler, J., …. Torgesen, J. K. (2007). Interventions for adolescent struggling readers: A meta-analysis with implications for practice. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.


Melinda Leko is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education. Her research centers on high-incidence disabilities, reading instruction, and special education teacher quality. Currently she is interested in better understanding how to prepare secondary teachers to deliver high quality basic reading instruction to adolescents with disabilities, particularly in inclusive classrooms. She is also interested in understanding issues of teachers’ implementation of interventions. She earned her PhD at the University of Florida and worked as an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison prior to becoming a faculty member at KU.Dr. Leko serves on the editorial boards for Remedial and Special Education, Journal of Teacher Education, and Intervention in School and Clinic. She served as co-editor for the special issue of Remedial and Special Education on qualitative research in special education (Volume 35 Numbers 5-6).

I’m sorry, I didn’t know

By Laurisa Ballew

Today I headed to the grocery store. I took with me one envelope of grocery money, one non-verbal three-year old, a purse full of snacks, and a cup of milk. I even had a list, which let’s face it, is the icing on the cake.

I quickly checked things off the list and, to my surprise and delight, Emmaus was amazingly well-behaved. No whining, no throwing her snacks or pulling her hair, just happy to be out with mama. As I rounded the produce corner, a well-dressed woman in her mid seventies inquired about Emmaus’s age. I smiled and said, “She is three”.  The woman (in an overly sweet voice) clicked at me and said, “Well, it’s about time to get her out of those diapers then, don’t you think?”

My heart sunk to my feet, and it took everything I could do not to cry. It has been a hard few weeks around our house. The reality of having a child with special needs and the permanency of that reality has hit me like a ton of bricks. Lately, it has taken all my strength to get myself up, care for my children, and not just melt into a puddle of tears all day long.  And so today, for me to wake up, do our September budget, get to the bank, make a grocery list, and get to the store was quite an accomplishment.

I quickly smiled at the woman and replied “Oh, she is developmentally delayed, and has an uncontrolled seizure disorder, so she’s just not there yet.” To which she looked horrified and said “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

See, that’s just it. None of us know.

We all walk around assuming that we know what is happening with other people. We form opinions, and convince ourselves we know best and that our opinions are truth. But, we have no idea what is happening in other people’s lives, what their back story is, or if they have had a bad day.

Yet we judge.

We judge the woman in front of us at the grocery store using Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC) checks she pulls out of her designer purse. We judge the grumpy man at subway who gets huffy with the lady making his sandwich. We judge how people parent, how long they breastfeed, and if they don’t breastfeed. We judge if parents spank or if they don’t. We judge what people feed their kids, or how they restrict their kids. We judge peoples’ homes and attitudes. And yet, we don’t truly know.

Just like the woman who thought she could see the whole picture – a child who looked typical and clearly was old enough to be potty trained, yet was still in a diaper. Did she assume I just hadn’t done it? Or was babying her?
She couldn’t see. She didn’t know.
I couldn’t even be mad because I have been this woman. While I haven’t been bold enough to speak my opinions, I have sure thought them.

The permanency of having a child with special needs has hit me hard. Yet, I am so thankful for the sight it has given me. I am learning to fight my opinions, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and to spread love instead of judgment. I just don’t know what people are up against. I don’t know who is thriving and who is barely surviving. Why not try to love those I encounter? I can speak kindness and give people the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the very best they can.

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Laurisa is a mom living in Kansas City- which she affectionately refers to as “the promised land”. She writes about the incredible joy and deep sorrow that comes with parenting. She is the proud mama to two little girls, Emmaus (3) who has a rare genetic disorder and special needs and Shiloh (1) who eats all the food.

What We Don’t Say: The Danger of Silence

By Maggie Beneke

What was not said? Who was silenced? These are the questions that are lingering in my mind after reading Frederick Erickson’s work (1996). His analysis of classroom discourse has me filtering my experiences as I reflect on the value of being explicit and the actual structure of conversations. I continue to think about how silence provides a dangerous opportunity for individuals to form assumptions.

Yesterday, I spent almost two hours re-hashing a series of comments about gender equity that occurred in a doctoral class with two fellow students. We unpacked how we had each formed assumptions based on what was said. During class, the professor prompted us to share our reactions to an article about how parents explain scientific thinking differently to boys and girls (Crowley, Callanan, Tenenbaum, & Allen, 2001). In this fairly unstructured conversation, our class dialogue ping-ponged from national K-12 test data, to equal pay for men and women, to the number of women doing research in STEM, to the efficacy of the research itself. On top of the statistics and research, this is clearly a topic that evokes a lot of feelings for both women and men in our class; we have all had experiences that shape how we understand gender differences. In the follow-up conversation with my two classmates, it became clear that we each had made sense of the comments and their implications in very different ways. For example, I assumed that when the male classmate stated a data point about academic achievement, he was implying that gender equity has been achieved. And honestly, this felt personal and made me angry. After revisiting the topic and asking more probing questions, I realized he was really trying to point out a flaw in the research article. In the moment of class conversation, I drew conclusions based on an inaccurate judgment. Revisiting the conversation made me aware that I had interpreted and formed assumptions because of what wasn’t said.

When we talk about differences and our multiple “ways of being” (race, religion, family structure, etc.), what is and isn’t said seems especially important. Could structure support us as we engage in discourse? For adults, dialogue about difference conjures powerful feelings, encourages us to associate our personal experiences, and can be quite political. While I am not in a position to criticize the professor’s teaching moves, I do wonder how our conversation about gender equity might have looked differently if we had been given more structure. At Tufts, I was trained as a facilitator through the School Reform Initiative. One goal of this organization is to support educators to engage in focused and productive conversations about issues of educational equity through the use of protocols (2013). These protocols help funnel the exchange of ideas and eliminate the “turn shark” phenomena by providing equitable ways of participating. Although the protocols are designed to facilitate conversations about the dilemmas educators face in schools, I think it could be useful to adapt them for conversations about equity in university classrooms. By organizing “talk” to provide space for multiple voices, they give contributors conversation avenues for being explicit. Perhaps these protocols would provide less opportunity for individuals to be silenced and for assumptions to be formed.

Finally, and perhaps tangentially, I think about what it means to be explicit with children in our remarks about differences. Just as with adults, when we aren’t straightforward with children, we leave space for them to form assumptions about the diversity they see. When adults silence the topic of difference, it can marginalize individuals and groups of people. In my classroom, children were very curious about one of our students. Because of his learning differences, many children were forming assumptions about him, including, “He is a baby.”  I decided to invite the student’s father to speak to the class because I believe that children need explicit language and concrete experiences to make sense of and accept differences. The following vignette illustrates this point:

I sit in the meeting area with my first and second grade class and listen. The father of a child in my class with special rights has just read My Friend Isabelle by Eliza Woloson, as a way to open up a conversation with my class about his son’s learning differences. He explains his son’s exceptionality to the class, “Our son has Down Syndrome. He will learn the same things as you, but it might take him longer and sometimes he needs extra help.” I carefully watch to see how the children in my class interpret and respond to the father’s assertion. A first grade girl, raises her hand and states matter-of-factly, “Well my mom said it’s just because he has an extra chromosome. And also, he is really good at shooting hoops!” I make eye contact with one of my graduate teaching assistants. We both raise our eyebrows and smile. This student’s simple sentence affirmed that all of our hard work mattered.

For both children and adults, it is important to talk about differences. Educators have a powerful role in the ways students engage in talk, shaping both the content and structure of these conversations. The actions educators take to support dialogue about differences is critical, because these conversations involve values and beliefs, influencing how individuals see each other. People are not going to always agree and that can feel uncomfortable in these charged arenas of communication. But when we don’t talk about our different perspectives in explicit, focused ways, we are left with silence. And in that silence, we risk forming inaccurate, and potentially harmful, assumptions.


Crowley, K., Callanan, M. A., Tenenbaum, H. R., & Allen, E. (2001). Parents explain more often to boys than to girls during shared scientific thinking. Psychological Science, 12(3), 258-261.

Erickson, F. (1996). Going for the zone: The social and cognitive ecology of teacher-student interaction in classroom conversations. In D. Hicks (Ed.), Discourse, learning, and schooling (pp. 29-62).  United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

School Reform Initiative. (2013). Guiding Principles. Retrieved from: http://www.schoolreforminitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/guiding_principles.pdf


Maggie Beneke is a second year doctoral student at the University of Kansas studying Special Education under advisor Dr. Gregory Cheatham.  Her research interests include critical literacy, culturally reciprocal family-professional partnerships, social justice curriculum for young children, and peer acceptance in inclusive early childhood settings.  Prior to studying at KU, she worked at Tufts University’s laboratory- demonstration school as a Head Teacher and Graduate Student Supervisor in an inclusive, mixed-age classroom. There, she was trained as a facilitator through School Reform Initiative. In the summer of 2013, she taught and consulted with the Expanding Minds Program in Mumbai, developing culturally responsive curriculum to support critical and creative thinking for young children.

Thinking Differently

My original intent for this blog was to pick up on the recent themes of partnership and coaching. My twist was to discuss partnerships with parents whose children are enrolled in early intervention. I intended to discuss how coaching with parents is an intervention that fits well within the construct of partnership, is situated in family systems theory and more precisely, builds upon the work of our beloved Bronfenbrenner.

And then… as has happened often over the last four years… my major advisor, my mentor… Dr. Ann Turnbull said something that took over my thinking and now I have to write about it before I can write about partnerships with parents.

Dr. Turnbull along with some other colleagues and I recently engaged in a discussion about a video from The Center on the Developing Child from Harvard University titled Building Adult Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes: A theory of Change,http://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/multimedia/videos/theory_of_change/. The video discusses toxic stress and defines it as the prolonged activation of stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships resulting in developmental delays and later health problems – for a lifetime. Toxic stress is visually illustrated through sketches of a crane piling up one concrete block after another labelled with family risk factors (e.g., poverty, neglect, mental illness). I had been using the video in training early intervention providers because of the very strong message it contains about building adult capabilities. The intention was to support the intervention of coaching within partnerships with families as a capacity building intervention. What I did not focus on was the impact of the term, toxic stress, and the impact of the visual used in the video, despite its overall message.

The first reaction from my mentor was: “I feel that it is a “pile-up” of negatives against families who often are already negatively perceived by the service system. I also think the term toxic stress is very pathological. I think the drawing engages the viewers. “ And that was it. Purposely short, I am sure intended to make me think. So true to form for me, my first reaction was to…. create an argument which justified my use of the video. My argument was that the word was already widely used. If it is out there, we have a duty to discuss the term and help people understand it so they do not use it as a way to judge families. Being a good mentor Dr. Turnbull let me have my perspective, said some kind words back, and left it there. However, it did not end there. It has been eating at me ever since.

So I began to think and reflect and realize that she was right. Not only was she right but I actually held the same belief but I wasn’t paying enough attention to what I was doing. I was not thinking deeply enough about my actions.

I remembered the first time I heard the term, toxic stress, five years ago and how offended I was, not only personally but also on behalf of all families experiencing challenging circumstances. I grew up in a family that experienced every risk factor that is associated with toxic stress and much of the literature on the subject strikes close to home. My first reaction was to view this term as one more way to categorize and judge families, to judge kids and their abilities, perhaps a reason to not expect success. The term threw me back to sitting with my mom in the welfare office and hearing the surprise in the workers voice when she told my mom she had noticed in the newspaper that I had made the A honor roll. Her shock clearly communicated to both my mother and me that she would not expect this type of child from my family.  Now, here I was, showing videos that use this term, toxic stress, and promoting the concept that had so offended me as a child.

Dr. Turnbull is not the only faculty member who made me assess everything I say and everything I do against the set of beliefs I profess to hold and the theories I profess to subscribe to. Professor Rud Turnbull has an uncanny knack to push doc students to dig deep and know what it means to have their practice match their beliefs about persons who experience disability. He challenges us as students to realize that if we truly believe that every person is worthy, and then it must be apparent in the work we leave behind.

Similarly, Dr. Winnie Dunn’s helped me to know myself, my beliefs, the theories I hold as truths; and then to match my words and actions to these and ultimately to carry these into my research and my writing. Dr. Skirtic introduced ideas of civic professionalism urging us to compare these ideals with the practices of our profession and to align our actions with the ideals we hold dear and then to be willing to become the agent of change. Dr. Wehmeyer challenged each of us to articulate the theories with which we align and to match our actions accordingly as we would be called upon to do so as we moved from our PhD programs into the wider world.

“As a doctoral student, you will learn to think in a very different way than you do now” is a phrase I remember being told as a first year doc student. I remember thinking… we shall see. I have spent my career being what I considered a good thinker, a reflective practitioner, and leader. How would this program teach me to think differently? My professors and advisors have changed my thinking and thus, my actions to make a positive impact on my community. At this point, I know it’s good to be uncomfortable, to reflect and understand if my actions are aligned with my beliefs. When they are, I will truly be of service. I leave this program having internalized these values and skills I learned from this wonderful faculty.

To think differently enough to truly be of service. The trick will be to keep this value and skill a part of who I am once I leave the program and not forget the lessons learned at the hands of the masters.



Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child. (2013). Building Adult

Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes: A Theory of Change. Retrieved from


Peggy Kemp, M.S., is a doctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Department of Special Education and Beach Center on Disability, funded through a U.S. Department of Education OSEP Leadership Grant, Families, and Policy under Dr. Ann Turnbull. Peggy also works as technical assistance specialist for the Part C programs in Kansas through the Kansas Inservice Training System, University of Kansas. Peggy’s areas of specialization are early intervention, infant mental health, families, and policy.

Preparing Professionals

We are thrilled to share this blog from two graduates of the KU program who are extending the work of their alma mater on the ground, in their faculty positions.  Congratulations, Drs.  Lancaster!!

We were inspired by Marti Elford’s December Blog post, Partnerships in Professionalism and wanted to continue the themes of both partnerships and professionalism in our contribution. We teach in the College of Education at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), a public university with an enrollment of over 24,000 students and located in western Michigan. The College of Education has a long history of community partnerships and a very strong presence in school districts in metropolitan Grand Rapids. For example, our faculty members run summer camps for students with high incidence disabilities. We provide weekly reading and math clinics through our graduate special education programs, and have recently started more extensive partnerships with two local elementary schools. Each of these partnerships, along with many others, give our graduate students and teacher preparation candidates opportunities to practice implementing recently learned strategies, methods, and approaches while the children with whom they work are afforded intensive instruction in areas of need. As important as these services have become to the local community, we find them invaluable in our teacher preparation program.

In Linda Darling-Hammond’s 2006 article, Constructing 21st Century Teacher Education, she challenges schools of education to, “…venture out further and further from the university and engage ever more closely with schools in a mutual transformation agenda, with all of the struggle and messiness that implies” (p. 302). She continues by identifying and describing three, what she refers to as, “pedagogical cornerstones” essential for transforming teacher preparation. They are: coherence and integration within coursework and between coursework and field experiences; extensive, well-supervised clinical experiences that promote the link between theory, research, and practice; and, new relationships with schools in which strong instruction and professional norms are the rule not the exception.

Our own recent work within the College of Education at GVSU has focused on these three areas. First, the college undertook a curriculum mapping process during which we identified the underlying theories and framework, key research, and evidence-based practices taught in every course we offer. This process helped us to identify gaps, unintentional redundancies, and occasions for intentional redundancies. It also allowed us to identify opportunities for field experiences that might emphasize and enhance the theories, research, and practice we want to highlight.

Next, we took steps to expand our clinical and field experiences. The special education program has taken the lead in this endeavor moving sections of our assessment, oral language, and methods courses into a local school. Teacher candidates attend courses in the school and work for approximately 60 minutes with individual children or small groups applying the skills and knowledge they are learning. For example, they help conduct universal screens, collect progress monitoring data, and then use the data to inform small group instruction. Candidates in the oral language and methods classes provide targeted, intensive small group instruction to primary and upper elementary aged students for 30 minutes each. The obvious benefits are that teacher candidates receive targeted practice and immediate feedback, students in the schools receive intensive and individualized instruction, and faculty and teachers are able to collaborate and share their expertise and insights all toward developing better prepared teachers. A benefit we hoped for but did not expect was similar to findings described by Leko and Brownell (2011) in that at times our teacher candidates were skeptical about the effectiveness and utility of some of the research and approaches they learned in their coursework, but their implementation with children convinced them otherwise. The ability to learn in a field setting, apply learning to benefit students, and realize results with expert feedback has proven to be quite effective and popular with our teacher candidates.

Third, the relationships we are currently developing with schools are indeed quite different from our past approaches. We now spend considerable time getting to know the teachers and administrators with whom we are considering partnering. We discuss approaches for teaching literacy and numeracy skills, content, classroom management, etc. and sometimes attend each other’s professional development activities so that we speak the same language, support each other’s work, and view education through a similar theoretical lens. Our partner schools house multiple courses and six to twelve teacher assistants and student teachers per semester. We have made long-term commitments with these schools but also provide for opt-out pathways in the event the partnership is no longer productive.

Finally, in an effort to give our teacher candidates structured, supervised experiences as early as possible in their education, we created a 100-level course for all potential teacher education students. College students who enroll in the course spend the first two weeks learning and practicing Strategic Tutoring (Hock, Deshler, Schumaker, 2000). In week three, college students and their instructors, move their course to local schools, and each student provides approximately 45 minutes of one-on-one tutoring twice a week to elementary, middle, or high school students. Away from the schools they participate in online discussions reflecting on their experiences and educational contexts.

While we have considerable data in the form of case studies that demonstrate the extent to which the clinical courses and summer camps have impacted student achievement, and we have anecdotal data suggesting that these experiences serve to convince our students of the value of the interventions they learn, we have not attempted to systematically measure the extent to which teacher candidates or graduate students might be changed by these experiences. We would like to learn whether these experiences have an effect on their overall vision of professional practice. As a first step a colleague of ours at GVSU, Dr. Mary Bair, conducted a comparative case study in which she explored the phenomena of professionalism in the College of Education, College of Nursing, and School of Social Work at our institution. Her findings suggest the need for teacher educators at our university to more clearly identify and articulate what professionalism means within our field. She also found a stark difference between the manner in which nursing and social work preparation programs orient their candidates to becoming a professional compared to the way in teacher preparation programs do. Specifically, Dr. Bair found that participants within the education program expressed an individualistic and constrained perspective regarding professionalism in which candidates were encouraged to act like teachers rather than to become teachers. Thus, rather than a singular, focused view of being a professional, individual instructors share their suggestions for how candidates might behave like professionals. Contrary to that approach, participants in the social work and nursing programs expressed a collective and extended view of the construct of professionalism and maintained focus on ethical standards, consumption and production of research, and participation in policy making throughout their programs.

Given Dr. Bair’s findings, similar related findings in the literature, and the national conversation regarding teacher preparation and teachers as professionals, we are convinced that we have considerable work to do. We have made progress toward coherence and integration in our programs, developed strong partnerships within our community, and are offering many, varied opportunities for our teacher candidates to immediately apply their course-based knowledge in the field. Next, we need to firm up our definition of what a professional educator is, articulate and model that definition to our students, orient them to that perspective, and support them throughout their preparation as they become one. We sincerely welcome your thoughts, suggestions, comments, experiences etc.


Darling-Hammond, L. (2006). Constructing 21st-Century teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 57(3), 300-314.

Hock, M. F., Deshler, D. D., & Schumaker, J. B. (2000). Strategic Tutoring. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises, Inc.

Leko, M. M., & Brownell, M. T. (2011). Special education preservice teachers’ appropriation of pedagogical tools for teaching reading. Exceptional Children, 77, 229-251.

paula lancaster sean lancaster

Paula Lancaster is a Professor of Special Education and Chair of The Special Education, Foundations, and Technology Department in the College of Education at Grand Valley State University. She completed her PhD in Special Education at the University of Kansas in 1999.

Sean Lancaster is a Professor of Educational Technology also in the Special Education, Foundations, and Technology Department in the COE at GVSU. He completed his PhD in Special Education at the University of Kansas in 2002.

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