English Language Learners (ELL) and Disabilities

While apparent disabilities are usually easily recognized and accommodated among students whose first language is not English, adult basic education programs, contractors and partnering agencies should be aware that it is possible for a student whose first language is not English to have a non-apparent disability, such as learning, attention, brain injury, cognitive or mental health disability. It is critical for programs to ensure that students whose first language is not English have universal access to the same program activities and services as a student experiencing difficulty who is a speaker of English. This means that when viewed in entirety, all service delivery systems within the programs (e.g., point of contact, recruitment, enrollment, placement, instructor-supported identification of a disability, instructional procedures and methodologies, accommodation identification, etc.) are universally accessible by students whose first language is not English.

Programs should explore the student’s educational background, using care and thought to the types of questions asked, as sometimes questions can be culturally inappropriate. Additionally, the term “disability” may be negatively perceived in translation. When a student whose first language is not English is experiencing difficulty learning English and showing little or no academic gain, programs should consider doing the following:

  • Gain knowledge about background and history (nutrition and medical needs)
  • Find out the student’s prior learning experiences and whether problems acquiring or using the native language were present
  • Find out if the problem has persisted over time
  • Evaluate the previous and current instruction
  • Ask enough questions to determine whether there are true patterns of significant strengths and weaknesses
  • Determine whether the difficulty is preventing success and severe enough to warrant further evaluation

Programs should exercise caution when referring a student whose first language is not English for a formal testing evaluation. The most accurate assessment of a non-native speaker of English is usually done by a bilingual evaluator who speaks that language or medical provider and translator.

If a formal diagnosis or testing is not perceived to be needed or desired by the student, then informal assessments that focus on learning styles and characteristics should be used. Instructional procedures and methodologies should be based on a solid understanding of the student’s background, predominate learning styles and learning characteristics that promote the most success.