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CEC Conference Highlights Challenges, Awards and Opportunities Facing Teachers
John M. Williams

Members from President Bush’s administration and the public should have attended the recently held annual conference by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) in Seattle, WA, April 9-12. They would have witnessed special education professionals driven to achieve excellence in their fields and fiercely advocating for the advancement of special education opportunities for students with disabilities.

CEC is the largest, international, professional organization dedicated to improving educational opportunities for individuals with exceptionalities, students with disabilities, and/or the gifted.

The international conference gave the 6,000 attendees hundreds of sessions, social events and award ceremonies the opportunity to augment their skills, network with colleagues and revitalize their passion for providing quality education for their students.

The conference sessions and several hundred exhibits also stressed the development of interpersonal communications skills among teachers to enhance their efficiency.

Scores of special education publishers exhibited thousands of books on a range of ways to deal with disabilities, to improve reading, writing, and critical thinking among students with special needs and to deal with other communication challenges students with disabilities present teachers.

Concerned that students, regardless their abilities, are not left behind dominated many conversations among the attendees I interviewed over three days.

Incoming CEC president Suzanne Martin told me, “Every child has a future, and CEC wants to ensure they have the chance to build one. Millions of our children’s futures and our nation’s future depend on the quality of education of students with disabilities receive.”

How do you ensure better futures educationally for children with special needs? You do it through an enriched and meaningful conference curriculum that strengthens teachers’ skills and ensures that teachers and students have access to assistive technology products and knowledge of how they work. The conference certainly achieved these goals.

As for curriculum, some of the sessions provided information on Intervention and Curriculum Integration in General Education.

How well did the sessions connect with the attendees? Special Education teacher Ms. Lawrence upon exiting from a curriculum session on The Characteristics of Effective Reading Programs commented, “I know how to strengthen my reading program for my special students.”

Teacher after teacher, administrators and parents that I spoke to were excited over the critical issues the sessions covered and the choices.

How did the presenters feel about their attendees? Lynn Newman, SRI International, led a session on A National Look at Family Involvement in Education of Students with Learning Disabilities, said, “The participants were so very eager to learn how to develop the correct learning environment for their child with a learning disability that it made the session dynamic and fun to manage.”

Individuals interested in adaptive and assistive technology had many sessions about Enhancing Inclusion and Access through Assistive Technology; Online Assistive Technology Professional Development for General Education and Special Education Teachers; Assistive Technology for Beginners; and Improving Peer and Teacher Attitudes Toward Augmentative and Alternative Communication.

How relevant were the assistive technology sessions? One of the attendees Mary Evers told me, “I have a greater understanding and appreciation of the empowering opportunities these products provide in the classroom.”

Still many attendees felt shortchanged due to the absence of some assistive technology manufacturers.

Special Education teacher Ms. Edwards said, “There are maybe a dozen AT manufacturers whose products can be used by students with disabilities. However, I know there are hundreds more. Where are they?”

Ms. Edwards said Kurzweil Educational Systems was the most versatile special education program there.

Kurzweil’s programs are designed to assist students with learning disabilities or visual impairments.

Recognizing the growing number of blind children attending school was a paramount concern of Ms. Karlson who after spending three hours touring the exhibit hall said, “The American Foundation for the Blind’s educational programs should be integrated into every school program in the country. AFB recognizes the need to educate blind children.”

AFB develops, publishes and markets a variety of publications and videos for students, professionals and researchers working in fields of blindness, low vision and visual impairment.

Policy contradictions were apparent among the attendees and the exhibitors representing school districts nationwide.

The attendees believe their schools’ special education programs are short funded and, as a result their departments lack financial resources for additional training and the purchase of assistive technology products. They believe the administration of Individual Education Plans are time consuming and must be reduced so they can teach. The energy anger coming from these teachers could lift a rocket to the moon.

And yet in conversations with people from school districts from Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Washington, Maryland and others, representatives said the students with special needs get all the equipment they need to achieve their education goals and the school administrators fully support their efforts.

While the representatives from the different schools admitted their schools could do better in educating students with special needs, none of them were critical of their school district’s efforts.

The future of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was certainly on everyone’s mind. Their concerns are increased federal funding above 17% annually, increasing the number of special education teachers, accurately classifying and appropriately placing children with disabilities with cultural and diverse backgrounds, reducing paperwork among teachers dealing with Individual Education Plans and dealing constructively with disruptive classroom behavior by students with disabilities.

Calls to the U.S. Department of Education to obtain its opinions on these and other CEC member concerns over IDEA were not returned.

The passion CEC’s members showed on their issues is contagious. They are altruistically concerned about the futures of millions of school children with disabilities. They see a positive role for the federal government in educating children with disabilities and fear that the federal government is retreating from its 30-year role as it considers the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act this year.

The benefits from this country’s commitment to educate children with disabilities and to include them in their communities were seen at the Yes I Can Awards during which children with disabilities received awards for excellence in academics, arts, athletics, community service, employment, technology and other areas. (visit TVWorldwide.com to view web highlights from conference.)

The father of award recipient Waiel Mustafa said, “Achieving an education for my son is important to him. This awards ceremony honors him for his academic achievements and IDEA made this possible.”

The future offers great promise for special education teachers and their students. Their commitment to education is soaring, even with the monetary and social barriers challenging them. Still, if CEC expects to grow it must attract more teachers of different races, it must attract more men, it must attract more teachers with disabilities, and it must reach out to more manufacturers of Assistive technology products to appear at its conferences.

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