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Twice Exceptional Children: Gifted and Disabled

by Allison Hertog, J.D., Florida School Partners advocacy

One of the most challenging advocacy situations I encounter is trying to get schools even to recognize that gifted children can be disabled, let alone to accommodate them. It seems that most school personnel are steadfastly ignorant about giving any help to gifted students with disablities (sometimes called "twice exceptional") because they often perform at least in the average range on the FCATs and in the classroom. Fortunately, federal law requires that public and private schools accommodate children with disabilities regardless of their IQ score. That is where I come in.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that public schools do not discriminate against any student with a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity." Learning, reading, speech/communication, and emotional functioning are a few examples of "major life activities."

What does it mean that a school can't "discriminate" against such a child? It means that schools must level the playing field so to speak.

So, if a student cannot perform a school activity because of his or her disability, the school must provide services, accommodations or support to help the child perform that activity. If a school were to mark down a student for not performing an activity that due to a disability he or she cannot do, that would be discrimination.

For example, imagine a middle school boy who has a disability limiting his hand-eye coordination so significantly that his handwriting is slow and illegible to even himself, and he can not keep up with the other students when they are copying information from the board. Let's call him Joseph. At the beginning of class when the other students have finished scribbling their homework in their agenda books and are already listening to the teacher's daily lesson, Joseph has just begun to slowly and deliberately take down the day's homework because he was fumbling to get the right books out of his bag. By the time he's finished writing down the homework, he's already missed critical lesson time.

Now imagine that Joseph is enrolled in a fast-paced gifted program. He's certainly intelligent enough to do well in his classes, but due to his disability (known as "dyspraxia," "developmental coordination disorder," or "visual-motor integration disorder") he often struggles to keep up with the other students. With enormous effort his handwriting is passable. He makes intelligent guesses at the information he sometimes misses in class. He spends much longer hours on his homework than the average student in his classes, and gets it done. But Joseph's exhausted, feels terrible about himself for not measuring up, and is becoming increasingly anxious and depressed.

The law says that Joseph should not have to struggle and suffer as he does without some accommodations. Why should a child who by no fault of his own cannot keep up not get a little extra time to do his homework? Why should he get marked down for sloppy handwriting? Why can't he use a computer to take notes in class? And why shouldn't he get a copy of another student's class notes (known as a "peer note taker") if he misses a significant amount of material? Those are easy and costless accommodations to implement. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act says that failure to provide these kinds of accommodations is discrimination, and that the school should develop a "504 Plan" to outline the support to which Joseph is entitled.

Generally speaking, schools don't like to give special accommodations to individual students in any case, but they have a particularly hard time with it when the disabled child is also gifted. Why? Well, children like Joseph who are highly intelligent are able to do OK in school even with their disability. He is able to compensate to some extent for his disability but at a great emotional cost. And he's not achieving what he's capable of achieving. Don't get me wrong; the law does not say that every child is entitled to reach his or her potential in school. The law does say, however, that when looking at Joseph's school performance you have to compare him to non-disabled students of similar talent and ability.

Now, because he does average or better in school Joseph may not be entitled to an Individual Education Program ("IEP") under another federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. An IEP would give him more rights in school than a 504 Plan, but not all disabled children are entitled to one. A discussion of the differences between these two laws goes beyond the scope of this article, but here is an interesting article on the subject.

Joseph's entitlement to accommodations seems to make perfect sense to me, but as I said earlier this is one of the most challenging areas in which I advocate. If you'd like some more tips on getting a 504 Plan for your gifted child, contact me or look up "Gifted Disabled" on the special education law web site www.wrightslaw.com.

Copyright 2007 Florida School Partners

Ms. Hertog, an attorney and former special education teacher, founded Florida School Partners in 2005. Its mission is to help South Florida families to 1) understand their childrens’ legal rights in public school; 2)gain accommodations and special services in school; 3) find the right public or private school placement and; 4) navigate the process of attaining significant McKay Scholarships for their disabled children. See her site at: www.makingschoolwork.com or contact her by phone at:305-663-9233, or email at:AllisonHertog@gmail.com.
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