Presuming Competence in Students with Significant Disabilities

By Ashley Quick

For too long, students with significant disabilities (SWSD) have been understood as little more than collections of low test scores and high needs. The very nature of a significant disability prevents educators from knowing with any certainty what a student’s true capabilities are, but the simple fact that a student’s IQ has been identified as “low,” or that they have complex physical or communication challenges, doesn’t automatically mean they are incapable. Traditional methods of assessing intelligence rely heavily on the ability to communicate and process information in a prescribed way, which are skills that can be particularly challenging for SWSD.

Given this, it is critical for educators to recognize that a student’s difficulties with conveying knowledge or demonstrating skills should not be interpreted as an inability to do so. Is it possible that their disability prevents them from doing or knowing something? Absolutely. But can educators know that for sure? Definitely not. The lack of direct evidence of knowledge or skill in no way equates to incompetence. Rather, this lack of evidence indicates that alternative strategies and methods must be pursued in order to better determine what a student truly “knows.”

"It is critical for educators to recognize that a student’s difficulties with conveying knowledge or demonstrating skills should not be interpreted as an inability to do so."

Being willing to seek out these strategies and methods stems from a place of presuming competence in students with disabilities. The concept of presumed competence can be summarized as an educator’s assumption that students with disabilities possess as-yet-unrecognized capabilities. By presuming competence in SWSD, educators influence how actively they work to engage students and therefore, how involved those students are in their own education. Educators who presume competence in SWSD speak to them more frequently, use a more age-appropriate tone, and offer them more complex information and materials. Perhaps most importantly, presuming competence in SWSD leads educators to demonstrate more patience and effort when resolving challenges with students. 

A key piece of presuming competence in SWSD is to provide them with access to the same content and settings as their same-age peers. In fact, in order for a student to receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) as required by law, they must be involved in, and making progress in, the general education curriculum. This rule applies even to students with the most significant disabilities – not just to those students who are subjectively judged to be capable of participating. Federal guidance explains that students with disabilities need not function at or near the grade level of their peers without disabilities for the regular classroom to be considered the least restrictive environment (Rebhorn & Smith, 2008). For many students with disabilities – even and especially those with the most significant disabilities – opportunities come first, and competence follows.

Providing SWSD with access to grade-level content and settings might seem daunting and perhaps unfair; however, the distinction between “fair” and “equal” is critical here. “Fair” would not mean that students with and without identified disabilities receive the SAME instruction, services, and supports; in reality, “fair” would mean that each student gets what they need in order to be successful. The intent of providing access to general education content and settings is not necessarily for SWSD to complete the same volume or complexity of work as students without identified disabilities; rather, the intent is for SWSD to have meaningful access to the same content.

This does not mean that the ultimate goal is for all SWSD to spend their entire school day in a general education classroom. To be sure, there will always be circumstances in which a student’s health or safety requires services and supports beyond what can be provided in the general education setting, and legislation is clear that a continuum of services must be made available. All SWSD should be provided high-quality, individualized instruction that promotes optimal outcomes for every student. But before a student is placed in a more restrictive setting, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that an effort must be made to keep the student in a less restrictive setting. Research shows that inclusive placements for SWSD correlate positively with their achievement (Kleinert et al., 2015), and given that general education classrooms are the best context for accessing general education curriculum and practicing social skills (Carter, Bottema-Beutel, & Brock, 2014; Jackson et al., 2008/2009; Taub, et al., 2017), most SWSD would benefit from at least some time in general education classrooms.

A student with a disability has the same rights as any other student, which includes the right to participate in general education curriculum and settings with same-age peers to the maximum extent appropriate. The presence of a disability does not negate those rights. As a matter of practice, then, the default placement for a student with a disability should be the general education setting. Case conference committees can then discuss any needs that might not be met in such a setting and make adjustments accordingly but starting the discussion with a presumption of general education and then tailoring services and placement accordingly is paramount in preserving students’ educational rights.

"Starting the discussion with a presumption of general education and then tailoring services and placement accordingly is paramount in preserving students’ educational rights."

Presuming competence and providing meaningful access to general education is an example of operating under what is known as the “least dangerous assumption.” First coined by Anne Donnellan in 1984, the term refers to making educational decisions that have the least impact on a student’s ability to function as independently as possible in the future. Another way of understanding this idea is to consider the following:

  • What if you presume competence in a student with disabilities, giving them every opportunity to learn what their same-age peers are learning, but one day find out (maybe through some type of newly developed technology) that the student simply doesn’t have the capabilities that were originally presumed? What harm has been done to that student’s future ability to function independently? (Not much.)
  • On the other hand, if you assume that the presence of a disability – even a significant intellectual disability – means that a student CAN’T learn, you might not give them every opportunity to do so. Imagine that new technology comes out and shows the student did, in fact, have a greater ability to learn than was first imagined. How much time has been wasted, and how many opportunities have been squandered?

Oftentimes educators make decisions based on simplifying things in the moment for students (and for themselves) but doing so potentially interferes with a student’s ability to function independently in the long run. Educators must consider both short- and long-term effects of their decisions. Choosing what is easier in the short-term could lead to decreased independence for the student in the future, while putting in the hard work in the moment could pave the way to greater independence down the line.

Holding SWSD to higher expectations is an outward sign of educators presuming competence in students. When educators have high expectations for students – any student, regardless of disability – they are making room for those students to grow. By keeping expectations low, educators inadvertently stunt the growth that students might have achieved otherwise. It’s impossible to know for sure what capabilities any one student possesses. One thing that is certain, though, is that no student can learn what they’re not taught. By presuming competence, all students – regardless of disability – are provided the opportunity to achieve their maximum potential.

Putting Into Practice

The table below provides a few suggestions on how school staff can demonstrate the concept of presumed competence:

Teachers & Paraprofessionals


Plan and execute lessons based on grade level aligned academic standards and expect that all students can benefit from the instruction.

Look for academic instruction for all students during walk-throughs, even in classrooms serving students with the most complex needs.

Set up the classroom in a way that includes each student as a full member of the class (e.g., desk with nametag, cubby, work displayed, class job posted, included on class roster, etc.).

Look for students with complex needs to be integrated into the class rather than segregated at a back table or other separate location.

Provide ample wait time when expecting a student to respond to a question or prompt.

Wait longer than you think you should; providing ample space for students to respond indicates to them that you believe they have something important to contribute.

Support building and staff schedules that allow for students with complex needs to participate in general education settings (academic and non-academic) to the maximum extent appropriate. 

Be intentional about preparing students with complex needs to be called on in class. Ask them specific questions to engage them in the lesson.

Ensure all teachers and related services professionals receive sufficient and consistent planning time together to discuss how to best meet the needs of all students (in the general education setting as much as possible).

When speaking about students, use language that focuses on their abilities and needs, rather than on the disability label or what they “can’t” do.

Seek out quality professional development for staff to broaden their knowledge of evidence-based practices and provide opportunities for families and the community to engage.

Ensure all students have access to a system that allows them to initiate and respond to communication.

Provide opportunities for family and community engagement that are inclusive of all students and families.

Speak to students directly, rather than indirectly via paraprofessionals or other assistants.

Speak to students directly, rather than indirectly via paraprofessionals or other assistants.

Use age appropriate vocabulary, topics, and inflection when speaking to all students.

Use age appropriate vocabulary, topics, and inflection when speaking to all students.

Utilize curriculum and resources that are aligned to academic standards.

Select and provide curriculum and resources that are aligned to academic standards.


How PCG Can Help During an Unprecedented Time

COVID-19 is creating significant challenges for school districts across the country. PCG is always looking for ways to support districts and students.

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Virtual Staffing Solutions. Provides trained professionals to augment staffing needs and work directly to support your efforts to deliver continuity of instruction and services during this emergency period using your available digital learning solutions or by providing PCG’s EDPlan™ suite of tools.

About the Author

Ashley Quick is a Special Education Subject Matter Expert (SME) at Public Consulting Group and a field associate for Project SUCCESS in Indiana.  Prior to coming to PCG, Ashley was a special education teacher for 10 years in the elementary setting.  She collaborated with general education teachers to implement individualized education plans for students with high-incidence disabilities and designed behavior intervention plans and adapted academic curriculum for students with a wide range of abilities.  Additional areas of expertise include data analysis and crisis prevention and intervention.  Ashley also has three years of experience in higher education custom publishing with Pearson.

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