When I was a special education teacher, I read every single word in each of my students’ Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEPs were full of information. Most of the information was negative. It included everything the student could not do.
The positive information was usually about the child’s personality or interests. This could be things like, “She is sweet and happy” or, “He enjoys the computer.” I thought the IEP would give me a snapshot of sorts about each student. Instead, the IEPs typically sold the child short. They did a bad job at presuming competence.
Presuming competence is to assume the person with a disability understands everything you are saying to them. It also means to expect they understand everything that is being said about them. If I believe my students understand what I say, then I will also believe they can learn what I teach. I expect them to learn and develop based on this belief.
Setting expectations is necessary. If my students know what I expect, they will try to meet that.
My son has cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair to get around. He uses a computer with eye gaze to talk. Until a few years ago, he only used noises and facial gestures to communicate. Many people look at him and think that he doesn’t understand anything. They don’t think he can do anything.
However, from day one, our family has treated Wade like he understands everything around him. We teach the world around us to presume competence when dealing with Wade. Wade is in a general education 5th-grade classroom. He has been fully included—with special education supports—since Pre-K.
We have treated Wade like he understands everything for 10 years. Because of that, I think Wade has had more positive experiences than other kids around him who have a disability. He has been exposed to richer programming at school. We have set the bar high, and we expect him to reach or pass that bar. We also make sure the school staff understands our goals. We make sure they know what presuming competence means.
Does presuming competence really matter? I think it’s one of the most important things we need to do for our children and students. If we don’t, we are failing them. By assuming they don’t understand, we don’t give them the chance to truly experience life.
I would much rather be wrong about presuming competence than to be wrong about presuming incompetence. If we continue to question their abilities, we will never know what our children are truly capable of.
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During the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked parents of children with disabilities and special health care needs to share their tips and stories about caring for their children during difficult times.