When Terry Monkaba would attend parent-teacher conferences for her then school-age son Ben, his teachers would often rave about him. He was a nice, well-mannered kid who never caused any problems, and “they loved him,” Monkaba said.

What she had not realized, but knows now, is they were not teaching him appropriately. Monkaba’s son, now 28-years-old, has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic spectrum disorder that occurs in about one in 10,000 live births. Often people with WS experience cardiovascular issues, challenges in visual and spatial learning and poor short-term memories. 

Evening the playing field

Although people with WS have strong verbal and musical skills, they often have trouble with traditional writing and fine motor skills. While Ben played drums very well at a young age, his fine motor skills in general were very poor. “He could not draw in a straight line,” Monkaba stated, “his words were always written on an incline.” 

Political initiatives such as the the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act have been working to even the playing field in classrooms for students with learning disabilities.

Universal Design for Learning, a teaching method which most U.S. educators are versed in, “calls on teachers to consider all forms of expression in schools,” said Robin Pegg, educational consultant for the WSA. Be it a building made accessible for people with disabilities, or lesson plan that caters to people of all learning types—the idea of Universal Design means ‘accessible for everyone.’

After teachers take students’ input and study how they process it, they look at the output and offer feedback accordingly. Essentially, under UDL, teachers should adjust their approaches according to students’ needs.

“When a teacher can understand a child with WS and the extent of their needs, it opens that child’s world,” Pegg stated, “they are able to learn and do so many things because they are not fighting their biology.”

Creating inclusion

Today, new assistive technologies, teaching methods and inclusion classrooms can be beneficial for people like Ben, helping them obtain the education they need, as well as the attention they deserve. “Modern technology certainly helps this effort,” Monkaba said. Everything from audiobooks and tablets, to word predictors and word processorseven Facebook and YouTube can facilitate learning for students with special needs.

To remember how to shave his beard, for example, Ben created a video tutorial that he watches each day. “It’s all on his [smartphone],” Monkaba said, “so rather than asking someone for help, he can do it on his own.”

“I am truly excited for kids today—every year their future gets brighter. Assistive technology and new curriculums are opening doors to learn in a way that wasn’t possible when my son was in school,” Monkaba explained, "although, I know he would be in a different place if he had the access to education that kids have today—I’m proud of my son and all that he has accomplished.”