Amina was a very bright girl, but lately she was struggling in school. When her teacher read stories out loud to the class, Amina couldn’t answer any of the comprehension questions. She also had trouble remembering her teacher’s oral instructions and so she frequently missed assignments, or did them incorrectly.
Amina’s teacher grew irritated and told her to pay more attention. She sent notes home to Amina’s parents, who got upset. Everyone assumed the youngster just wasn’t trying hard enough in school. After months of frustration and no academic improvement, Amina’s parents finally had their daughter evaluated by a professional. They discovered that Amina had a learning disability that made it very difficult for her to process verbal information. Amina was not lazy, careless, or irresponsible; she simply needed certain accommodations to help her learn.
There are many children like Amina. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, one in five children in the U.S. have a learning disability. While some children receive specialized instructions and accommodations, many do not. This article will give a brief guide to pursuing specialized instruction in the public school system.
One benefit of public schools in the United States is the availability of specialized services for students with learning disabilities. Many Islamic schools and private schools are not equipped to support children with disabilities because they lack trained staff and other resources. Public schools, however, are required by law to serve the needs of these students. Since it is estimated that around 95% of Muslim children in the United States attend public schools, it is important that Muslim parents undestand the services that are available.
How do you know if your child has a learning disability?
While some disabilities are obvious from a young age, many times they are hard to recognize and thus go undiagnosed. If your child is having marked difficulty in school with certain subjects, comprehension, focus, attention span, controlling body movement, or emotional regulation, it is possible that they have a learning disability.
Some parents fear a diagnosis because they don’t want to think of their child as “slow,” “flawed,” or “mentally challenged.” Others want to avoid labeling their child with a diagnosis. They think that giving a name to their child’s struggle might somehow make it worse. In addition, some parents wish to avoid the stigma attached to disabilities. In the Muslim community in particular, mental illness and disabilities are often stigmatized and misunderstood. It will take a great deal of open, courageous, informed conversation about these topics among Mulsims to eliminate the taboo and the ignorance.
It is also crucial for parents to realize that their refusal to acknowledge, treat, or label a learning disability does not make it go away. In fact, a child with an undiagnosed disability will probably suffer much more than a child whose challenge is named and understood. Most likely, their teachers and peers will label them, anyway. They will call them “lazy,” “irresponsible,” “careless,” “out of control,” “stupid,” or other unfair terms. This will negatively affect the child’s self-esteem. Students, their parents, and teachers all need to understand that children struggle because of how their brain is wired, not because of character flaws.
When thinking about the term “disabled,” it is helpful to learn about the social model of disability. This model says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. In other words, the problem is not the person with the disability, but rather society’s inability or unwillingness to accommodate them or help them achieve their potential.
All people are valuable, and having a learning disability does not make someone less worthy. When supported, understood, and given the chance to succeed, people with learning disabilities can be quite successful in school and life.
How can schools help?
In the United States, there is a law designed to ensure “equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.” According to the U.S. Department of Education, “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.” From birth to age 21, children with disabilities can receive early intervention and special education and related services through the government.
Public schools have two main ways of accommodating or supporting children with disabilities: a 504 Plan and an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. 504 plans are shorter and less involved than IEPs. They aim to provide equal educational opportunities to people with disabilities. 504 plans often provide accommodations in the classroom like giving students extra time to take a test, or allowing a student to leave the classroom for sensory breaks.
IEPs are more structured and specific. They are designed to measure a student’s growth and tend to be much more complex than 504 plans. Not everyone is eligible for an IEP; to qualify, a child must fit under at least one of thirteen disability categories. Also, their disability “must significantly and adversely affect a child’s ability to demonstrate academic achievement,” according to an article called “504 Plan Versus IEP: A Guide for Parents” in U.S. News and World Report.
If you suspect your child might have a learning disability, the first step is to contact the school’s special education coordinator or principal in writing. You have the legal right to request an assessment for your child if you believe s/he needs assistance. The school must respond to your request within a certain number of business days, depending on which state you live in. Educators are then required to evaluate your child in a timely manner and convene with a team of special education experts to assess the results.
If your child qualifies for special education, then you, your child’s teachers, and the school’s special education team will work together to develop a detailed educational program. This might be a 504 plan or an IEP, depending on the child’s needs.
If your child has a learning disability, be prepared to advocate for him/her throughout their school years. There is a great deal of information on the internet about what kind of accommodations parents can request, what to expect from IEP meetings, what the legal rights of students are, and how best to support your child with his/her specific learning disability. It takes a great deal of time and energy to support a child with a learning disability effectively, but if Allah has given you this child, then He has also chosen you to be his/her advocate. Ask Him for help and know that your efforts on behalf of your child have the potential to earn you tremendous blessings.
Resources for Parents
The U.S. Department of Education provides details about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which extends free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities provides details about the law and many other resources including information about advocacy and research, scholarships and awards, and special initiatives for older children with disabilities ages 18-26.
MUHSEN (Muslims Understanding and Helping Special Education Needs) is an organization founded by Dr. Omar Suleiman that works with adults, children, and families in the Muslim community who live with all intellectual, mental, and physical disabilities. The organization is also equipped to assist masjid communities with supportive equipment and programming for adults and children with disabilities.
504 Plan Versus IEP: A Guide for Parents by Sally Kassab, Dec. 14, 2021
Laura El Alam is a first-generation American Muslim and the founder of Sea Glass Writing & Editing www.seaglasswritingandediting.com. A prolific writer, Laura has published articles in numerous magazines and is currently writing a children's picture book for publishing company Ruqaya's Bookshelf, due to be released in 2023, inshaAllah. A wife and mother of five, Laura lives with her family in Massachusetts.