Sólo Tiene Problemas de Aprendizaje: Lessons Learned From Perceptions of Disability and Diagnosis in the Dominican Republic

Sólo Tiene Problemas de Aprendizaje: Lessons Learned From Perceptions of Disability and Diagnosis in the Dominican Republic

Lilly B. Padía
Copyright: © 2022 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-9043-0.ch011
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Students from the Dominican Republic are a growing demographic in United States schools, particularly in the Northeast. As the number of Dominican emergent bilingual students in special education grows, it is imperative that educators consider transnational issues of dis/ability and language learning. In this chapter, the author explores a set of interviews with teachers in Santiago, DR, and draws connections between the interview data and recommendations for US bilingual special educators. The chapter ends with suggestions for how educators can collaborate with families to ensure that the cultural understandings, questions, concerns, and wisdom of immigrant students and families are central to the bilingual special education process.
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“No es que tiene una discapacidad, es que tiene problemas de aprendizaje. A veces no puede enfocarse bien. Eso es el problema. No es que verdaderamente es una discapacidad.”

(They don’t have a disability, it’s that they have learning problems. Sometimes they can’t focus well. This is the problem. Truthfully they don’t really have a disability.)

This quote is one that was shared by an educator in a K-12 public school in the Dominican Republic. It is also one that mirrors a host of conversations I had with Dominican parents and family members of students with individualized education programs (IEPs) in the Bronx, NY. The purpose of this chapter is to examine how K-12 teachers in Santiago, Dominican Republic adjust and adapt their classroom instruction and practices to meet the learning needs of students with an array of behavioral and academic difficulties, which may or may not be identified as related to student disabilities. Dominican students comprise approximately 10% of all students in NYC DOE schools (Zahka, 2006). Dominican immigrant students participate in special education programs and receive services related to Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). I conducted school-based interviews in Santiago, DR, to try to gain some clarity around how learning and/or behavioral challenges are conceived, perceived, and addressed in schools in Santiago, Dominican Republic. The findings shed light on some transnational realities, concepts, and ideological foundations that can help educators understand and connect with Dominican origin students and families in special education systems in the United States.

I was a public school teacher in the Bronx for almost eight years. I began my teaching career in District 75, New York City’s public school program for what they referred to at the time as “students with moderate to severe disabilities.” My first classroom was a 6:1:1, which means six students, one teacher, and one paraprofessional (or classroom aide). 6:1:1 is considered one of the most restrictive environments, and is typically designated for students with significant autism. That first year of teaching, I had three students who were referred to as “non-verbal.” Non-verbal is a term used in educational spaces to identify students who do not vocally express their thoughts using words. I struggled that first year to comprehend how to best support my students who were labeled as non-verbal, as all of them lived in homes with families who spoke languages other than English. The language development that was occurring in school was English, but my students’ families spoke Spanish.

During my first parent-teacher conferences, I remember sitting in the empty classroom waiting for my students’ parents, wondering when they would realize that I was a fraud, that I was totally ill equipped to be in charge of their children’s minds each day. What happened at my first meeting is forever ingrained in my teacher psyche, and led me, albeit years later, to this research. The mother of one of my non-verbal students, a beautiful woman from the Dominican Republic who worked at a local bar that we teachers liked to frequent, walked in, sat down, and quickly interrupted my timid reflections on her son’s work.

“When will my son be normal?”

I stared at her for a moment, certain that I had heard her wrong. She continued,

“We hang out with my girlfriend and her kids, and her son is Ricky’s age, and he is always talking and laughing. I want that for my son. I want him to be like other kids his age. I know he’s developing a little slower than other kids, but when will he catch up? When will he be normal.”

Ms. Montoya, an elderly Filipina Social Studies teacher whose “office” was a designated corner of my classroom, stood up and moved as if to come over to us to save me. I found my words before she made it over to us.

“Different children develop at different rates, and different people experience the world and express themselves differently. Ricardo may develop different ways of communicating as he gets older, or this may be his normal. Only time will tell. What I believe is that there is nothing abnormal about him; he processes the world differently than many people do, but that does not mean the way he experiences it is wrong.”

She nodded slightly, but looked dejected. I hadn’t given her the answer she was hoping to hear. In the moment I felt proud of myself for coming up with my response when faced with such an unexpected and troubling question. But I also hadn’t done the asking and listening that I should have done.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Individualized Education Program (IEP): A legal document that is updated yearly that outlines the special education programming and services that a student is entitled to at school; the IEP is updated annually.

Transnational: The dynamic of belonging to two or more nation-states, whether in terms of citizenship, lived experience, or both.

Access: The opportunities, avenues, and ease with which people are able to obtain necessary information, supports, and/or participate in certain spaces.

Dis/ability: A continuum that includes official medical diagnoses as well as social dynamics that render an individual disabled.

Equity: A dynamic wherein every individual and/or community receives the resources and support that they need to operate on a level playing field.

Families: The families of students in primary and secondary schools; families is used in place of parents in certain places in recognition that not every child lives with their biological parent(s).

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): A US-based law that provides guidelines and protections to ensure that all students with disabilities receive a quality public education.

Related Services: The services that a student receives as per their IEP beyond the special education program; related services may include, but are not limited to counseling, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy.

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