Anyone with an adult child with special needs knows how hard they can fall after they leave high school and no longer have that safety net. In school, academic and other cognitive tests are used to bring tutors, therapists and other academic supports to students who need them. After high school, all they get are standardized tests, which play a far different role. Instead of helping students with special needs, they hamper them. These tests help decide what kind of college you can get into, which influences what kind of job you can get. If you don’t test well, which many special-needs students don’t, you’re left with fewer options.
Last week I watched a preview of Night School, a comedy starring Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish and directed by Malcolm D. Lee, which brought the issues that my son faces every day to the big screen. Living with special needs is no laughing matter, but hyperactive comedian Hart, who also co-wrote the script, used his humor to humanize millions of people who are rendered invisible by our beliefs about who is smart and who should be employed.
People with special needs are normal. However, their pathways to employment are extraordinarily treacherous.
“In 2015–16, the number of students ages 3–21 receiving special education services was 6.7 million, or 13 percent of all public school students,” according to 2018 data produced by the National Center for Education Statistics. “Among students receiving special education services, 34 percent had specific learning disabilities.”
In 2017, 18.7 percent of persons with a disability were employed compared to 65.7 for those without, according to a 2018 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. While that number includes physical and intellectual disabilities, one can still see the challenges faced by people with disabilities and their families.
Night School’s main character, Teddy Walker, played by Hart, struggled in high school and dropped out. With a chip on his shoulder about his lackluster test scores, Walker works his way up the ladder at a store that sells barbecue grills, only to lose his job after a dramatic accident. Without a diploma, he can’t find work and begrudgingly goes back to his old high school to earn his GED. But the rest of Walker’s story is one we seldom tell: We find out that his struggles in school emanated from learning disabilities.
Teddy Walker may be a fictional character but his life story is very real. Adults with special needs are often chronically out of work—not because they can’t do the job but because they don’t have the credentials. In addition, many don’t have the social supports that come from workplace friendships or romantic relationships. Many must deal with shame from their parents, siblings and others for living at home. To quote Teddy Walker’s dad in the film, “I failed as a father.”
Those who’ve been diagnosed with learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, dyslexia, hearing loss, autism, intellectual disabilities, developmental delays, emotional disturbances and blindness may place on a broad spectrum of ability. Having hearing loss and dyslexia may give you a lower score on a standardized test but it doesn’t mean you can’t do certain jobs better than someone who doesn’t have those diagnoses.
We need to validate a multitude of ways students can demonstrate competencies. For instance, work-based learning, an educational approach that makes use of the workplace or real-world projects to drive instruction, seems promising. Much of what we do in the workforce can be learned by doing, with guidance from a mentor. Sound engineers, for example, can study the physics of sound while learning how to edit a radio interview by working in the classroom alongside an engineer—a teacher—in a studio. And that mentor can offer a job evaluation instead of a standardized test.
Reading and writing are forms of learning that privilege those who read, write and compute over those who learn differently, but human beings have many other senses and ways of knowing that demand different ways of evaluating talent. We can’t judge how well a teacher will perform by looking at her grades in college or her teaching exam. Ultimately, we measure teachers by their performance in the classroom. And we don’t know how well someone with emotional disturbances can sell barbecue grills if we don’t give them a chance.
I am not suggesting that students with special needs shouldn’t take traditional tests at all. I’m also not saying that work-based learning is for people who aren’t academically competent. But we’ve allowed testing to cut off the many ways we can evaluate talent, a powerful message delivered by a feel-good, light comedy.
Many people who know they have a learning disability are reluctant to disclose it. “Only 19 percent of young adults with [an] LD reported that their employers were aware of their disability,” according to a 2011 report by the National Center for Special Education. They are reluctant because we stigmatize anyone who doesn’t fit the normal description. No, you don’t have to learn like “normal” people who don’t have a learning disability to contribute to a workplace and an economy. You just need a place that nurtures your talent, however you present yourself.
Our eldest son is currently looking for that nurturing place of employment. The academic support he received for his special needs included a social network that enabled him to be a contributing member of his school community. He went to class, dances and even became a manager on the basketball team. The skills he gained can easily be applied to the workforce. However, employers and colleges should make room for capacity and ability to grow—just like good schools.
Students with special needs don’t need night school as much as the society that fails to recognize their talents.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.