Confessions of a Special Education Teacher: The Impact Distance Learning has on Young Adults with Intellectual Disabilities and Their Adult Transition Program
March 13th was an ordinary day. As bus by bus arrived, my co-teachers, support staff, and I greeted all 40 students with a hello, high fives, or fist bump. Mornings are always filled with excitement and a sprinkle of anxiety. My peers and I jokingly relate our work to that of air traffic controllers. Much of our day is monitoring what students are going and returning from community-based instruction and vocational training outings. We prepare students and support staff for their excursions and ensure they all safely depart. Then receive returning students, directing them to their on-campus activity.
Meanwhile, we continue to teach and supervise the remaining students on campus. On this particular Friday, there were whispers of the possibility of schools closing due to the rapid increase of Coronavirus cases. Weeks earlier, we were concerned when a plane carrying American citizens from China arrived just a few miles away from our campus. However, none of us could have imagined that this virus could completely upend the educational system we have come to know. By noon, we had received word that school districts across the state had decided to suspend in-person instruction. We all, like many, assumed these emergency school closures would be temporary. I could never have imagined that that day would be my last day in the classroom with my students. Nor that in November, I would still be providing instruction, virtually from home.
Since then, we have had the exacting challenge of replicating a community based, vocational training adult transition program to virtual, remote learning instruction. This program’s purpose is to meet the needs of students ages 18–22 with moderate to severe developmental and intellectual disabilities by offering specialized academic instruction. It prepares students for future employment opportunities by providing hands-on vocational skills training within the community. It also provides a real-life application of independent living skills through community-based instruction. Adult transition programs are essential to building the life and vocational skills necessary for these young adults to function independently within their community.
What is the Adult Transition Program?
When I share with people the population in which I serve as a Special Educator, they are surprised to find out that young adults with special needs have the option to continue their education in a school district through the age of 22. Adult transition programs became federally mandated with the reauthorization of Public Law. 94–142 of 1975 became known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. Passage of this legislation in 2004 made it so local school districts could offer continued Special Education and related services for students up to the age of 22. After high school, Special Education qualified students who earn a certificate of completion in place of a high school diploma, are eligible to attend their district’s adult transition program. Because these programs are not compensatory educational programs like K-12 public education, there is no requirement for students to enroll. However, many parents take advantage of this additional education to help support their young adult’s transition to the real world.
Before Covid-19 forced school closures, most of my students spent 75–80 percent of their day in the community. The remaining instructional time focused on life skills, such as cooking, gardening, leisure activities, functional academics, and arts and crafts. If distance learning has taught me anything, it has been that teachers must implore a considerable amount of ingenuity. Adult transition programs are community-based. The real world is our classroom, and my goal is to maximize post-education outcomes by helping students apply the skills they have been taught throughout their education. While there is a transition centered curriculum available, I have found that students are more likely to generalize better when applying the skills taught. Let’s face it. There is only so much a teacher can do through Zoom. In my case, the challenge of bringing this program to life through distance learning has felt nearly impossible. However, I have always been the type to make a big ‘ole jar of lemonade when life hands me lemons.
Devising daily living skills and community-based instruction for remote learning means providing Zoom lessons while out in the community. I once taught a lesson in our local Target store right from my cell phone’s Zoom app. This lesson included navigating the store using the overhead signs to identify specific departments, reading price labels, finding correct clothing size, and identifying a store employee to ask for help. I prefaced this lesson, and others like it, by creating an engaging PowerPoint presentation to break up the skills I wanted the students to generalize during our virtual outing. I often include YouTube videos created by individuals teaching conversational English language. I have even used some employment training videos. These videos were the most age-appropriate, utilize clear and concise language to model skills, and include real-life settings. Only offering students interactive PDF activities through the online platform GoogleDocs was not enough. These activities would be an appropriate option if my students had not already had community integration experiences. These assignments do not teach students how to wait in line patiently or self-advocate if they are missing an item or overcharged. These and various other skills are vital to adult life. They are skills my students will need continuous support.
Some students only have chances to practice their independent skills during our outings at school. Some families do not take opportunities while out in the community to allow their students to reinforce skills, such as ordering their meals, finding items off a grocery list, or handling the purchase transactions. Like anything, mastery of independent skills requires consistent repetition. Unfortunately, as we continue offering remote learning, and as families are limited to their outings, students are likely to lose these skills.
A more pressing challenge has been addressing their vocational training. The reality of job loss has been a new experience for my students. Before the school closures, my students who demonstrated strong independent skills, and required little to no direct support to complete tasks, attended vocational training at different businesses. These worksites included restaurants, museums, retail stores, and many school cafeterias within our district. Students worked anywhere from two hours to six hours a week, earning minimum wages paid through a fund provided by our school district. Vocational training allowed my students to apply their employment skills, make a small income, and learn how to budget and spend their money. More importantly, working allowed my students to feel empowered and helped them to identify themselves as adults.
I often feel as if I am doing my students a disservice by only being able to assign interactive PDF activities for their vocational training. For example, these assignments may ask students to use a visual card with images of three different donuts to fulfill an order. Another may ask students to sort grocery items in categories such as fragile items versus heavy items and then drag the images into a grocery bag. While it may be reinforcing necessary skills for some, it merely does not have the same impact for others. Typically, these activities are given before students attend vocational training in the community, not to replace it. Going to work made many students feel more like their same-aged, typical peers. They no longer can look forward to their bi-weekly paycheck; the one thing in their life that made them feel truly like an adult is gone. Even worse, the question of the future of vocational training opportunities still hangs in the balance. The restrictions placed on businesses to stay open may indicate what the future could look like our chances of securing work sites for vocational training. If businesses must limit capacities and employees are required to have specific Covid-19 training, our students may not be able to work. For these individuals who are already likely to deal with job discrimination and subminimal wages, the substantial loss of job opportunities creates a continued struggle for them to embrace and step into adulthood.
The pandemic’s effect on social and emotional health is not exclusive to non-disabled people. Many in society often assume that individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities do not experience the same emotional distress as their typical peers. The truth is, anxiety and stress do not discriminate. My students have experienced an immense change to not only their education but to their daily routines, just like you and I. Many are overwhelmed, anxious, confused, and upset by the abrupt changes and the uncertainty of the possibility of ever going back to what was normal for them. Sadly, many are unable to express it. Many are unable to cope. Many are unable to conceptualize the magnitude of Covid-19’s impact. They may understand that they cannot go into the community regularly as they used to. However, grasping the idea of how societal changes may significantly impact their future is outside their cognitive ability.
So why do I share all of this? I want to shed light on young adults who many do not even realize are being impacted by this pandemic. The purpose is not to share how exigent the demands of distance learning have been for me. It is to illustrate how difficult it is to create the educational program that they need to move forward in their life. I share because I am concerned about how the lack of community experience and vocational training may impact their post-educational outcomes. I serve a fantastic group of young adults who have life experiences that are likely to be overseen and overshadowed by no fault of their own. The adult programs that many are expected to attend after they age out of the transition program, have already been in jeopardy of losing federal funding. Now with the impact of Covid-19, it is hard to know o how or if these programs will continue to function.
I want to lend my voice as a means of advocacy and education. Like every other young adult impacted by this pandemic, their experiences deserved to be shared. Their lives have been affected, and the uncertainty of the future of employment and community integration program options hang in the balance. And I, like scores of other special educators and adult service providers, want nothing more but for these young adults to thrive and experience an optimal life.
Disclaimer: This writing is a reflective piece of my own personal experiences as an educator.