What Are Some Accommodations for Students With Learning Disabilities?
Learning disabilities are medical conditions that impact an individual’s use of language, coordination of movements, ability to attend to tasks, or do mathematical calculations. In the education context in New Jersey, there are different definitions of learning disability that are important to know if your child is struggling in school. First, there is the medical diagnosis of a learning disability. This diagnosis comes from a private provider, like a pediatrician, psychologist, or licensed practitioner. A medical diagnosis is important to have but is not always sufficient when a family is seeking school-based accommodations and services. An experienced education lawyer can help you determine whether you have the supporting documentation you need to get school-based support for learning disabilities.
If you are seeking accommodations, modifications, and related services for your child under a 504 Plan in New Jersey, a medical diagnosis is more likely to be sufficient to obtain services than if you are seeking an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The reason is because Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) does not require that a student’s disability impact their education. It requires only that the disability impacts a major life activity. This means that a student with a learning disability, like dyslexia for example, need not demonstrate that the dyslexia is preventing them from benefiting from their education the way a student seeking an IEP has to. One of our education attorneys can walk you through this process. A dyslexic student seeking a 504 Plan need only demonstrate that they have a disability that impacts the major life activity of reading.
For students who may need an IEP, under New Jersey law, a “specific learning disability” (SLD) is a defined disability classification that is “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions, such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.” In New Jersey, a SLD can be found when a severe discrepancy exists (usually twenty points or greater on normed testing) between the student's general ability and current achievement scores. This is not the only way to define or address a learning disability, however, and you can benefit from the guidance of an education lawyer as you navigate the identification and classification process.
Both IEPs and 504 Plans contain accommodations, modifications, and related services for students with learning disabilities who need support in school. Accommodations are changes to the way tasks are presented that give the student a work-around for their disability. Modifications are changes to what the student is expected to learn. Related services are services that the student needs to access their education. All supports must be individualized to meet a student’s unique needs. Below is a non-comprehensive list of common, helpful accommodations that our education attorneys often seek for students with learning disabilities.
Accommodations to the way material is presented could include:
- Recording lessons
- Providing large print materials
- Giving instructions orally
- Providing copies of the lesson ahead of time or afterward
- Using audiobooks
- Using mnemonics, rhyme, or song to teach lessons
- Multi-sensory lesson planning
Accommodations to the way a student completes work could include:
- Verbal rather than written responses
- Dictation to a scribe
- Using a table of facts
- Using a word processor instead of hand writing responses
- Allowing additional time to answer questions
- Color coded text for reading comprehension
- Using word webs and visual organizers
- Frequent breaks
Accommodations to the physical environment could include:
- Preferential seating
- Additional lighting
- Minimize distractions
- Small group work
- Providing an FM system
- Providing an interpreter
Whatever accommodations are provided, their purpose is to level the playing field for the student with the learning disability compared to students without that disability. If a student with dyslexia has trouble writing their answers, allowing them to answer questions orally is an example of an accommodation. They are still expected to know the same material as other students, but the unusually high hurdle of writing down their knowledge has been removed.
When a student requires an alteration in the content of the work, those adjustments will be in the form of modifications. Modifications change what we expect a student to learn, and generally lower expectations as compared to students without their disability. For example if our dyslexic student requires modifications to their classwork, they might be in the form of shorter assignments, a reduced reading level for reading comprehension work, or excusal from weekly spelling quizzes.
Accommodations and modifications should always be based on assessment of the student’s needs. Too often, New Jersey school districts accept a student’s medical diagnosis of disability and tell the parents that there is a particular set of accommodations available to students with that diagnosis. Or they offer a 504 Plan that contains dozens of accommodations and modifications, but no assessment or evaluation has been done to ensure that these interventions are targeted to the unique needs of the student. If you feel that your child is not receiving appropriate accommodations for their learning disability, reach out to our education attorneys for a consultation.