The Journey from Special Education to Master’s in Social Work

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By Taylor Easley

Everyone’s special education journey is unique and can lead to different outcomes depending on their abilities, strengths, and challenges. It’s important to recognize and respect these differences and provide appropriate supports and accommodations to help each person reach their full potential. Not all school district’s special education classes are the same. Special education has a bad reputation because people do not know how special education helps students with learning disabilities.

Not all students who will be in special education will end up in the same place, but with the right supports in special education, the student can go far. The right help can ensure the student gets an evaluation, and in turn, the right accommodations to support their needs.

Here is my story about being in special education and how my path led me to get my master’s in social work. I was in special education from elementary to high school, because I have Cerebral Palsy and learning disabilities.  Being in special education allowed me to learn at my own pace and learn what works for me in my learning and accommodations.  In middle and high school, I was placed in smaller classes where the teachers broke down what was being taught in the main classes. This helped me because I was still able to learn what many other students were learning and was doing the same work, just at a slower pace.

Being in special education throughout school was not easy. I was in the Maryland and Virginia school systems and had two different experiences. There were times when I did not get the help I needed, or when people only saw my learning disabilities. However, throughout the years, there were times when I found the right accommodations in my classes. Also, there were times when I could work on my speech and reading at the same time. These skills still serve me today.

Special education can help students and their families succeed in school and life. In my special education journey, many people helped me and saw me more than my learning disabilities: family, teachers (not just special education teachers), case managers, administrative staff, and principals.  Although it is too many to name, I want to say THANK YOU to everyone who has helped me along the way. I would not be here without their help.

Sometimes, “the help” that teachers gave me simplified things too much. This was not good because that “help” did not allow me to learn what steps I needed to take to complete more challenging tasks. It did not teach me how to check for my own understanding or show me that I could do the work. Once I got into smaller classes in middle and high school, I started getting the help that I really needed. I got tips on how to do well in school overall and had time to practice specific stills like reading.

Special education evaluations are only completed every three years. That means that a child is only evaluated once or twice in elementary school, once in middle school, and once or twice in high school. Do parents know that their child should be evaluated every three years? Do they know how to ask for an evaluation? Even if a child gets evaluated regularly, do parents know how to advocate for the right accommodations? I was not evaluated every three years. I missed out on the right accommodations for school because I was not evaluated every three years. In addition, I also missed out on other services like transition services, pre-employment services, and college planning.

In college, I learned that special education is different. Students have an Individualized Education Plasn in K-12 school, and in college, students have accommodations. In college, I did not have the same supports that I had in elementary through high school, and that is unfortunately when I found out that special education did not always prepare me with the best support. I learned that I had to speak up and advocate for myself, two things that were new to me.

It was not until college that people pointed out that my writing needed to improve, such as sentence structure or word choice. Throughout college, professors, classmates, and tutors at the writing center assisted me with my writing and gave me tips on improving my writing. It was, and still is, hard to get my thoughts down on paper. I have always been better at getting my thoughts out by speaking thanks to my “CP brain”. It was not until the middle of graduate school that I learned my writing was my biggest learning disability. In the master’s program there were many different papers that I had to write, and with each paper I learned something about my writing. As I continued writing more and more, my ability to convey content improved. This allowed me to see that I needed to improve in word choice and sentence structure. Through all of this, I became more confident in my writing.

As an intern at the disAbility Law Center of Virginia (dLCV), I was able to practice my writing through fact sheets and a blog post for the March 2022 Newsletter around Cerebral Palsy Awareness month. During my internship, I learned about the Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) and how they could help me get the right testing for my learning disability and even find a job. I got the right evaluation to see what accommodations I would need for my fellowship. I worked with their team to help find the right software that I would need for my writing. This is when I learned about Ghotit Real Writer & Reader and was able to use it during my fellowship here at dLCV. Ghotit has a toolbar with Ghotit intelligent word prediction, integrated text-to-speech, and a screenshot reader. Ghotit has more helpful tools, these are just the few I used the most. I am still working with DARS now to help me find employment for when my fellowship ends.

Although I earned my master’s in social work and was chosen for the Post-Graduate Fellowship in Minority Public Health at dLCV, I still wish I had the right tools all along. There were many papers that I had to write, and the things that I know now about writing that would have been helpwhile I was in scful hool. For example, knowing how long an evaluation lasts or learning how to advocate for myself earlier on would have helped me when I got older. There are tools that I would have liked to know about, such as using different fonts when writing, and the different writing software available. I wish I had known more about writing rhetoric, sentence structure, and how to check for the right grammar or vocabulary earlier on.

I am a Black woman with Cerebral Palsy and learning disabilities with a master’s in social work. Despite my academic accomplishments to date, I still fell through the cracks in the special education system. This forced me to face MANY challenges. The journey to get here would not have been so hard if I had known about the RIGHT skills, tools, and accommodations.

Students with learning disabilities should not have to go through challenges and then later in life struggle to get the right accommodations. Special education programs should prepare a person with learning disabilities for success. That ONLY works when people know what right accommodations, skills, and tools to use in special education for each individual.

dLCV Blog Content Statement: dLCV is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that provides information and referral, legal representation, technical assistance, short-term assistance, systemic advocacy, monitoring and training to Virginians with disabilities.  Our services are provided free of charge.  We are independent from state and local government.

The statements given by staff or volunteers for our blog content are NOT intended to be taken as legal advice. Instead, our blog content aims to focus on the lived experiences of people with disabilities and shine a light on the diverse perspectives within Virginia’s vibrant disability community.