Last week I had the privilege to attend and present at Building Bridges, an assistive technology conference at Grant Wood AEA. For the past couple of years, I’ve really focused a lot of my professional energy on accessible educational materials (AEM) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The big idea behind both of these frameworks is that when schools provide baseline assistive technology tools to all kids — everyone benefits. For example, at Prairie, we provide all students with a tool called Read&Write for Chrome. This powerful tool gives kids access to a great screen reader (it will read digital text to kids) and a powerful speech to text engine (kids speak and it will type for them). Without getting into deep educational theory, the core concept is that these tools allow all kids to choose the style that works best for them (regardless if they have a disability or not) and for the kids who must have these types of tools to access learning — it removes the stigma of being different because everyone uses them. We are doing some exciting, bleeding-edge work along these lines at Prairie. I was there with the rest of our AEM leadership team to share our story and practice with other area schools and educators.
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a special ed conference put on by the Iowa Department of Education. I attended this conference as a member of SEAP — the Iowa Special Education Advisory Panel. My role on SEAP is to represent parents. At this conference, I attended a breakout session by an IDoE staffer named Maggie Pickett. Maggie was talking about universal design and assistive technology. After this session was over, I had the realization that I had been perpetuating a malpractice in regards to assistive tech. I, like many others in my role, viewed assistive tech as a student-based, consultive model. I would only get involved with AT when called upon by a consultant from the AEA or some other organization that provides services. Maggie helped me see that AT is good for all learners. In fact, we’ve gone on to publish a monthly podcast, Friendly Disruption, to provide learning about AT to other educators.
The main reason for relating these professional details is to make it clear, that while the conference was about assistive technology, my focus was professional and not personal. While Koan would certainly benefit some from his teachers considering UDL when creating learning, for the most part, his disabilities are so profound that he still requires much more intensive and individualized tools. That being said, Koan is still the genesis for all of my work along these lines.
The keynote speaker at Building Bridges was Kate Ahern and the theme of her talk was presuming potential. Kate is an expert in Augmented and Alternative Communication (AAC). These types of tools are used for people with really profound disabilities. People like Koan. So, I quickly shifted from professional to dad as I listened. Her core message was so powerful — presume potential! If you assume the person fully understands you (even if they can’t show it), you make the safest assumption. If the individual does not understand, you are still modeling the desired behavior. But, if they can understand, you open the world to them.
This is one of my most profound hopes for Koan as he moves through life. I hope that all of the significant people he encounters presume his potential. This idea, at least in my mind, presupposes so many things that are highly important to me — respect, dignity, compassion, and even accountability. It’s an oversimplification to say I want him treated like everyone else because frankly, I don’t. He has real and significant disabilities that do make his needs different. But, I do want all meaningful people in his life to presume his potential for everything. Assume he can do it until he demonstrates otherwise. Model the behavior or action we want to see from him. And, most importantly, persist in doing this even when it seems like it’s not working.
Jeri and have been really blessed that Koan has had a number of people in his life so far that have done this for us. In fact, Koan’s teachers, paraprofessionals, and therapists at school have been far better at this than we have as a family. I find that as a parent/caregiver that sees him every day, it’s all too easy to do things for him just to get things done. It is hard to find the right balance between his needs and everyone else’s needs. The simple truth is that I need to get better a presuming his potential.