Homeschooling & Disabilities

By some estimates, between one-fifth to one-half of children have at least one disability. Because of the high prevalence of disability, you should be prepared to recognize signs of disability while you homeschool, even if you are currently not aware of your child having a disability. You should also learn some basic disability theory, because you will likely encounter children with disabilities in your homeschool groups and co-ops. 

Our disabilities section includes information on disability theory (covered on this page), as well as guides on recognizing disabilities; getting a diagnosis; becoming a special education teacher; and creating an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for your disabled child. You can find all of our pages on disability displayed at the bottom of this page.

Disability and Homeschooling

Around 34% of homeschooling parents report a child’s disability as one of their motivations for homeschooling (see table 8). Some parents of children with disabilities choose to homeschool in an effort to provide their disabled child with an individualized environment, or to remove them from bullying they may have faced in school. However, other parents may choose to homeschool in order to avoid a disability label for their child, perhaps because they view disability as a negative attribute. One home educator became so frustrated by the attitudes toward disability she saw in her local homeschool groups that she wrote an article addressing it: The homeschool community has a problem with disabilities (and how to fix it)

As a home educator, you are your child’s teacher. If you are homeschooling a child with disabilities, you are also a special education teacher; it is your responsibility to ensure that your child receives appropriate disability accommodation and services. As a teacher, you have a professional responsibility to recognize and identify disabilities in your students. Some parents mistakenly believe that acknowledging that their child has a disability will harm your child. In reality, the opposite is true: refusing to recognize and accommodate a child’s disability actively harms that child. Creating accommodations for a child begins with recognizing signs of disability and identifying the child’s specific disability.

Ableism, or prejudice against individuals with disabilities based on a belief that typical abilities are superior, can have serious consequences for the children who experience it. CRHE’s Disability Advisor Kate Corbett Pollack writes about some of these consequences on her blog

Public schools have a responsibility under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide children with disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). IDEA requires public schools to offer a free evaluation to all children suspected of having disabilities, including homeschooled children, but does not require public schools to offer disability services to individual children who are homeschooled (see more here). In most states, there are few if any provisions to ensure that the needs of homeschooled children with disabilities are met. As a home educator, the role of protecting and advancing your child’s rights as a disabled person will fall largely (or entirely) to you.

At CRHE, we approach homeschooling with a children’s rights lens. We believe all children, including children that are homeschooled, have a right to a good education and a safe home environment. What does this mean for children who are disabled? In addition to IDEA and Section 504, which focus on disabled children’s rights in public school and related activities, disabled children also have rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Disability law is set up to empower parents to advocate for their children. As your child’s parent, teacher, and special education teacher, you bear an added responsibility. 

We included a section on the rights of children with disabilities in our Bill of Rights for Homeschooled Children. There are items in this section that you may not have thought of, such as the right to know others who share their disability, or the right to receive preparation for employment. Our Bill of Rights document is aspirational. As you read this section, consider your responsibility to both protect and empower your disabled child.

Disabled children who are homeschooled, including those with learning disabilities or invisible disabilities, have their own distinct needs and rights.

    • The right to learn about disability history and culture; the right to participate and engage in disability communities where they live and to have access to peers and adults who share their disability.
    • The right to make and be consulted in decisions regarding their disabilities and the care they receive; the right to be taught the legal rights of disabled people, and to know their rights to access and inclusion; the right to be taught to navigate self-advocacy.
    • The right to be evaluated and periodically re-evaluated; the right to access and receive therapies and medical care from licensed providers; the right to accommodations and services, including medical and assistive devices which grant independence and facilitate learning and communication; the right to an individualized education plan developed in concert with providers outside the home.
    • The right to enjoy a full and decent life in conditions that ensure dignity, promote self-reliance, and facilitate the child’s active participation in the community; the right to preparation for employment and recreation opportunities in a manner conducive to achieving the fullest possible social integration and individual development.
    • For children who are blind, deaf or hard of hearing, or autistic, the right to linguistic and cultural pride centered around that identity; for children who are blind, deaf, or hard of hearing, the right to access braille and sign languages; for children who are autistic, the right to have their neurological differences appreciated and accommodated, and freedom from therapies that center allistic developmental timetables.

Models of Disability

Around a century ago, the medical model of disability replaced a prior approach in which disabled individuals were treated as “freaks” and largely excluded from society. In recent decades, the medical model has been challenged by a new “social” model that accepts and values difference and questions the need for sameness. 

  • According to the medical model of disability, disability is a “problem” inherent to the individual, and it is the disabled individual who must be changed or “fixed” to fit their physical surroundings and societal expectations. 
  • According to the social model of disability, the problem is not the individual but their physical surroundings and societal expectations. The responsibility for reducing or removing these barriers falls on the society, not on the individual.  

Because of the ongoing prevalence of the medical model of disability, many parents feel obligated to “cure” their disabled children in order to remove the stigmatized disabled identity. This has led to a proliferation of “treatments” for disabilities that are, at best, not supported by evidence, and, at worst, harmful (for example, the popular Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) program for autistic children is not supported by evidence and is considered to be a form of torture by many autistic adults). 

In contrast to the medical model, the social constructionist model of disability interprets disability as a form of natural human variation, and puts the responsibility for ensuring the disabled person’s success on society’s acceptance and accommodation, rather than seeking a “cure.” In the social constructionist model, instead of fitting the child to their surroundings, it is the surroundings that must be changed. According to the social constructivist view of disability, a child who needs accommodations in order to learn but does not receive them is being actively disabled by their teacher, not by any intrinsic impairment. 

As an example, let’s look at left-handed children. Under the medical model, a child’s left-handedness is seen as the problem, and the child is made to use their right hand — in other words, the child is changed to meet cultural expectations and their physical surroundings. Under the social constructionist model, left-handed children’s surroundings are viewed as the problem, and they are given left-handed scissors and desks, as well as seats on the left end of a table or row so that they won’t be jostled by their neighbor. 

A quick note on terminology: Both “disabled children” and “children with disabilities” are considered correct and acceptable to use. Older terms such as “special needs” are considered outdated. While person-first language — “a girl with Down syndrome — is often preferred, some disabled individuals may prefer not to use it, because they view their disability as inseparable from who they are (read more here); this is particularly true for many Deaf and autistic individuals. Parents who are interested in learning more disability theory should read Introducing Disability Studies, by Ronald J. Berger, 2013.  

Bringing It All Together

All home educators, regardless of whether they are educating a disabled child, should know the difference between the medical model of disability and the social constructionist model, and should interrogate their reactions to disability and question any stigma they may apply to it. Even home educators who are not teaching a child with disabilities will likely encounter disabled children in their homeschool groups or co-ops. All home educators should read our page on identifying disabilities, so that they will be prepared to recognize signs of disability that they may encounter in their home or in a homeschool group or co-op.

Parents of children with disabilities should ensure that the resources they use to identify accommodations or therapies for their child are credible, and should consider the social constructionist model when they think about disability. Where possible, they should try to read information written by adults with their child’s disability. Parents who are homeschooling children with disabilities should also read all of the guides shown below, and should develop an annual IEP for each disabled child they are educating. 

Don’t forget to read the other articles in this series! 

— Homeschooling & Disabilities
Identifying Disabilities
Diagnosis, Therapies, & Specialists
Becoming a Special Education Teacher
Creating an IEP or PDP
Disability Law & Homeschooling

Return to our main Home Educator page!

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