Imagine for a moment that you are the parent of a child who was identified as having a significant intellectual disability when she entered school. Everyone assumes that your child’s education will primarily target functional and personal care skills—because, really, that’s all she’ll need once she leaves school, right? Your own goals for her include being able to dress herself appropriately, having an acceptable level of hygiene, and, if all goes well, maybe getting a part-time job stocking grocery shelves after high school—all with as much independence as possible.

Though this child is in fifth grade, she has not yet learned to read. Perhaps that’s not a big surprise because of the significant intellectual disability. Most of her education so far has focused on life skills and functional academics—things like counting money, telling time, following a schedule, and identifying safety signs. But, has anyone tried teaching her to read? Really tried?

Some people may think it’s too hard for a student with a significant intellectual disability to master the complex processes involved in learning to read. And since it’s important for her to learn to be as independent as possible by the time she exits school, some might argue that it would be silly to take time away from working on activities of daily living for something that likely won’t happen. These naysayers think that the “disability” label and IQ score tell us everything we need to know about the types of skills she can handle—letters, numbers, shapes, colors, toileting, and brushing teeth.

Presuming Competence

As I travel throughout the state of Indiana providing professional development aimed at improving outcomes for students with significant intellectual disabilities, I work with teachers and administrators whose views vary widely. You might be thinking, “Wait a minute! Who says trying to learn to read is a waste of time?!” Or maybe you’re thinking it sounds like way too much work for indeterminate benefits.

In March 2019, I was thrilled to make the case for presuming competence in students with significant intellectual disabilities at the South by Southwest EDU conference in Austin, TX. My session, titled “Think Big: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know,” encouraged attendees to broaden their views on how the outcomes of students with significant intellectual disabilities can be improved simply by presuming competence in them.

We truly don’t know what exactly we don’t know about students with significant intellectual disabilities. Communication challenges, processing difficulties, physical impairments—these can all interfere with students who are accurately demonstrating what they know and are capable of learning. Therefore, it’s critical that we presume students are competent when we don’t have distinct proof to the contrary. In other words, absence of evidence of intelligence is not evidence of absence.

The Least Dangerous Assumption

Committing to make the least dangerous assumption when educating students with significant intellectual disabilities is the best way to presume competence in students. Noted special education researcher Anne Donnellan says, “In the absence of conclusive data, educational decisions ought to be based on assumptions which, if incorrect, will have the least dangerous effect on the likelihood that students will be able to function independently as adults.”

Think back to your fifth-grade child who hasn’t yet learned to read. Until fifth grade, had her teachers presumed competence in her? Had they operated under the least dangerous assumption, which would indicate that she should be engaged in specially designed reading instruction in order to transcend potential challenges stemming from her disability? Maybe a child displays limited communication skills. From the outside, it might appear that she also has limited understanding, since she isn’t able to indicate engagement or express understanding in more traditional ways. This might lead teachers to restrict her exposure to academic content. However, the least dangerous assumption in this case would be to assume the child understands more than she is currently capable of expressing and to include her in exposure to grade-level academic content.

If, years down the road, the child’s communication skills expand and she can understand much more than what she was able to express, she will have benefited from the exposure to the academic content. If a child had not been exposed to academics during that time, she would have missed out on years of content, learning, and maximizing her potential. Therefore, it’s least harmful to assume she is capable of understanding content, even if she’s not necessarily able to communicate that understanding to others.

Every Student Can Succeed

The Every Student Succeeds Act considers each child enrolled in school to be a general education student first. They might also be identified as having one or more disabilities and require additional services and supports in order to make progress, but they first and foremost have the same rights to access general education as their nondisabled peers. Students with intellectual disabilities deserve to be exposed to and engage in grade-level, general education academic content. It’s up to us as educators to make that content physically and intellectually accessible through accommodations, modifications, and specially designed instruction, but it is never our job to preemptively restrict a student’s ability to experience that content.

Let’s go back to the child who hasn’t yet learned to read. It turns out, her fifth-grade teacher was guided by the philosophy of presuming competence in all students. The teacher designed reading instruction that specifically aligned with that child’s strengths while also addressing the barriers that had kept her from learning to read in the past. The teacher scheduled time each day to present this physically and intellectually accessible content. She recorded data to determine which strategies were effective and which ones needed to be shelved or replaced.

Fast-forward to this year—the child is starting sixth grade. She’s a reader. Maybe not at the same level as her nondisabled sixth-grade peers—but she’s reading.

In fact, this child is a real-life student from a small town in Indiana whose school has been awakened to ideas they hadn’t considered before. Her success, and the visibility of her teacher’s philosophy of presuming competence, has shifted mindsets among other teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, and even students.

Our students can achieve so much more if we stop letting preconceived notions guide our teaching and instead commit to presuming competence and making the least dangerous assumption.

Ashley Quick is a special education subject matter expert at Public Consulting Group and a field associate for Project SUCCESS in Indianapolis. Project SUCCESS aims to improve outcomes for students with significant disabilities by providing teachers and administrators with current, research-based resources to support the implementation of academic standards in instruction.