We Can Do Better for Our Special Needs Students—and We Must

By September 16, 2019 No Comments

Teletherapy and the quest for high-quality speech language pathologists By Dr. Robert Pasternack


Special education directors want to build great teams. But, increasingly, they lack the resources to get the job done. Perhaps nowhere are these shortcomings more glaring than in the shortage of quality speech-language pathologists in K-12 schools. Take New York City, the nation’s largest school system, with more than 200,000 students eligible for special education. In 2017, parents of two of those students sued the district, claiming they received vouchers for special education services but could not find qualified providers to fulfill them. A subsequent report revealed that more than 9,000 such vouchers issued by the city to parents during the 2015-16 school year went unused. It wasn’t for lack of effort; parents said they simply could not locate specialists to meet their children’s needs. That case has since been elevated to class-action status.

A similar refrain has been echoed in other states in school districts of all sizes. When SCOTUS ruled on Endrew in 2017 U.S. schools were essentially mandated to offer special education services, including speech language pathology, in accordance with students’ individualized education plans. Yet, everyday tens of thousands of students are summarily deprived of these services for the simple fact that schools can’t locate qualified providers.

If you work in education, particularly in special education, it’s possible you’ve become numb to this kind of failure. As Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education, part of my job was to update Congress on the state of special education programs. Exit numbers hovered around [ADD PERCENTAGE HERE] during my tenure (this was 2001-2004); evidence would suggest we‘ve made scant progress in the time since. Training not the answer If the debacle in New York City teaches us anything, it’s that we must find other ways to connect students with disabilities with the services to which they are entitled.

Teletherapy is one method by which educators and therapists have sought to level the playing field. By using technology to connect students with qualified SLPs, the thinking goes that special education directors can leapfrog the physical and geographic barriers that keep schools from making good on students’ IEPs. Rather than sit in a classroom with four or five other students, teletherapy makes it possible for students with disabilities to meet with a certified SLP or other provider over the computer, usually is a small group or individualized setting. The hope is that, with the right therapy, students with disabilities will eventually acquire the skills and knowledge to exit out of special education. Where some school-based leaders would prefer to take a wait and-see approach to teletherapy, supporters of the practice see immediate benefits: helping overworked teams offset unwieldy caseloads, connecting students in busy or remote locations with certified providers, a cost-effective way to add team members without the overhead of a full-time hire.

Does that mean teletherapy is right for every student, or that it might one day replace the need for in-person therapy in schools? Hardly. Like any emerging practice, there are potential drawbacks to consider. For one, special education directors must get used to the idea that online SLPs do not work on-site. That doesn’t mean they can’t participate in team meetings or help fill out evaluations. In many cases, their perspective can lead to new approaches and ideas. And that’s a good thing.

Because if we’re going to make special education special for those who need it, we need access to special education professionals who’re trained, passionate and committed to making a difference, wherever they are.

Want to learn more about the potential benefits of teletherapy in your schools? Sign on to TeleTeachers to learn about the role that remote SLPs can play on your team.
Dr. Robert Pasternack is a national leader on issues related to special education. He formerly served as assistant secretary for the office of special education and rehabilitative services at U.S. Department of Education.

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