Bilingual AND Special Education: YES!

When I was a practicing SLP I remember sitting in IEP meetings and arguing for BOTH speech-language therapy services AND ESL for bilingual or ELL children who had speech and/or language impairment. Often, I would be told that, no, their district POLICY said that we would have to pick that it would be EITHER ESL or SLP services but NOT BOTH!

That never made sense to me, children who are in the process of learning English as a second language, can and sometimes do have speech and/or language impairment. So, logic tells me they would need both. I can’t imagine that we could say okay physical therapy OR speech-language therapy; or English OR Math classes; or Art OR Music, and so on. So why not special education services AND ESL? I think that this was especially true for language related services (reading/writing; speech/language), but that’s just an impression. I think the logic was that in ESL they would be learning language skills related to oral and written language. And that’s true. But, they would not be receiving the individualized services targeting their area of disability (which is not the same as trying to learn a second language).

Certainly, we don’t deny these services if the child is monolingual English. Districts don’t have policies that say, well if the child is learning to read with the teacher and has dyslexia– they don’t need to see a specialist too. Or, they talk every day at home and school, so let’s not work with a speech-language pathologist.

Anyway, here’s what the feds have to say about this policy.

“As explained in the Dear Colleague Letter: English Learner Students and Limited English Proficient Parents jointly issued on January 7, 2015, by the Department and the Department of Justice (2015 DCL):

“The Departments are aware that some school districts have a formal or informal
policy of “no dual services,” i.e., a policy of allowing students to receive either EL
services or special education services, but not both. Other districts have a policy of
delaying disability evaluations of EL students for special education and related
services for a specified period of time based on their EL status. These policies are
impermissible under the IDEA and Federal civil rights laws… (p. 25)”

Did you see that?? IMPERMISSIBLE under the IDEA and Federal civil rights laws.


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  1. #1 by Melissa Harris on September 15, 2016 - 12:49 pm

    I have been butting up against this personally. My son has Autism and is fully bilingual. While his home language is English, his preferred language is Spanish. In fact, I am convinced that he is more at grade level in Spanish as opposed to English.

    I have battled with the district to allow my son to attend an immersion school AND get his services. I have been told that I need to choose language or disability.

    It is very frustrating – as he is more able to access his education in Spanish, but also needs special Ed support.

  2. #2 by Elizabeth D. Peña on September 15, 2016 - 2:07 pm

    I hope that this information is helpful. What your son’s district is doing is not allowed. I’d start by bring this to their attention.

  3. #3 by Janet Beatty on September 20, 2016 - 4:19 pm

    The laws are clear that children have a right to both special education and ESL/EL/ELD services if they qualify for both. However, I am not aware of any legal right to receive instruction in Spanish or any language other than English. The district has no obligation, as far as I know, to send the child to a dual language immersion school for the purpose of providing instruction in Spanish, if his IEP cannot be met in that particular setting, even if Spanish is his stronger language. The situation shared in the comments is different than the one described in the original posting, that is, that children must receive English language instruction in addition to special ed if needed.

  4. #4 by sandra wagner on September 22, 2016 - 9:35 am

    Hi and I was wondering: may I post this entire blog article with your permission? I work for a school system and we, the SLP department have a monthly newsletter, and this article would be a great submission. I have said it over and over again, and our district is very good about continuing EL services if the IEP team agrees, but a “refresher” would not hurt. Thanks!

  5. #5 by Elizabeth D. Peña on September 22, 2016 - 3:24 pm

    Sandra– you may absolutely post this blog– I’m happy that you found it helpful.

  6. #6 by Mads @Learning Liberation on January 15, 2017 - 7:07 pm

    The pending SCOTUS decision about the boy with Autism in Georgia may have a direct impact on your son’s opportunity to attend the immersion school….

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