Photo Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

Is our vision of educating students with disabilities aligned with the demands of the 21st century? The answer to that all-important civil rights question changes with time. A satisfactory answer when IDEA was first authorized in 1975 (as the “Education for All Handicapped Children Act”) would certainly not be sufficient today. Nobody would disagree that a lot has changed — both in our conception of disabilities and in the demands for success in the 21st century.

Acknowledging a need to evolve with the times — to give our conception a reboot — doesn’t diminish the significance of past victories. The passage of the original education civil rights law in 1975 was monumental in its time. The protections it afforded students with disabilities and their families are still essential today. Before its passage, the great majority of children with disabilities would either be educated in totally separate corners of schools or would simply not have their disabilities identified and addressed at all. The social and legal expectation IDEA ushered in by demanding that all students have access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) ensured — and still ensures — that significantly more students are seen and effectively served. These principles deserve protection.

Considering these ideals raises important questions about the meaning of fundamental principles like FAPE and LRE in a modern context. In the coming months, NCLD and partners will seek answers to questions like:

  • What must change in a world where economic sectors continue to evolve from an emphasis on manufacturing to one focused on idea generation?
  • How can schools focus on the transferable skills employers and postsecondary faculty emphasize, like critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration? It is much easier to create an IEP goal of “Johnny will be able to decode 36 of 40 multisyllabic words” than to say that “Johnny will demonstrate a growth mindset when facing challenging text and will reflect on his experience.” But the latter may serve Johnny best in the long term.
  • How can we adjust to the fact that many jobs that don’t require these new skills are either being outsourced or automated?

These are not easy questions to answer, but they are the very issues of interest for NCLD’s latest Innovation project. To date, we have explored these questions with some great partners — networks of schools like Big Picture Learning, Brooklyn Lab, EL Education, High Tech High, and New Tech Network. We’ve discussed what these networks that are committed to 21st-century learning environments do to engage their students with disabilities. We’ve delved more deeply with educators at schools within these networks, and we’ve relied on some renowned experts and practitioners to provide guidance. We believe some of these ideas hold promise, such as:

  • Incorporating instruction on self-advocacy and self-determination into the general education curriculum
  • Providing opportunities and support for students to participate in and lead their own IEP and transition meetings
  • Facilitating collaboration among special and general educators around more engaging, interdisciplinary, and project-based instruction
  • Using the IEP as a tool to capture students’ progress in the development of social and emotional skills
  • Fostering inclusion and growth mindsets in all students

We will be digging deeper into these practices and looking at outcome data. Our goal is to identify areas where more research is needed and to provide a set of recommendations to help improve these practices, moving closer to an education system in which 21st-century skills are part of every student’s development. We are bullish in our belief that students with disabilities must be included in a vision of 21st-century learning. We invite your considerations, ideas, constructive pushback, and partnerships in making that vision a reality for all our kids.

Meet the NCLD Team

Carrying out the NCLD mission to improve outcomes for the 1 in 5 individuals with learning and attention issues.


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Help empower and advocate for young adults ages 18–26 with learning disabilities and attention issues.

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