Tuesday, October 19, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 33

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on September 22nd, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 22, Issue 30 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 22, Issue 30

Communication challenges complicate process for providing resources to multilingual learners with disabilities


Mariana Murillo learned about her son’s special education needs through an interpreter. For two to three years Murillo sat through Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings that she couldn’t understand. 

“I remember having my first IEP meeting, and for me it was just a meeting. I don’t remember if someone explained the importance of the meeting or if I understood everything,” said Murillo, whose son is now 23. 

When Oscar Lopez, 23, was young, his mother, Mariana Murillo, set up her son’s IEP (Individualized Education Program) for cerebral palsy, severe disability, and English learning special education needs through an interpreter.

School district and county representatives worked with Murillo via an interpreter to set up a contract for her child to receive district resources for his cerebral palsy and severe disabilities, and to learn English. Now, as a family resource coordinator for Alpha Resource Center—a nonprofit that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities through familial support, adult and youth services, and other resources—Murillo helps other families navigate the challenges of IEP meetings and other resources. 

“We offer monthly parent meetings where we try to present different topics, and there’s a lot to discuss, including Social Security benefits, special education workshops, and organization of records or documents,” she said.

Currently there are more than 8,616 students in the county with IEPs, and of those, 2,106 are multilingual, according to Ray Avila, director of the county’s Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA).

In the Santa Maria-Bonita School District alone, more than half of the students with disabilities are also multilingual, according to Erik Thompson, the district’s director of special education. That means 824 students have IEPs and language needs, and some come from families that speak neither English nor Spanish.

On Sept. 17, a Mixteco-speaking mother called the Alpha Family Resource Center confused after she had a meeting with the school district to set up services for her multilingual learning (formerly known as English learning) child with disabilities. 

“It’s complicated for the Mixteco families. They cannot read Spanish and they cannot read English, causing a lack of communication between families and providers due to the language barrier,” Murillo said. “When there’s an IEP meeting, we [parents] get intimidated because there’s a lot of professionals and technical terms. A lot of emotions are involved.” 

Alpha Resource Center partnered with SELPA––a county agency that serves students with disabilities and provides resources for families and teachers––on a collaborative approach to better serve multilingual learners with disabilities in the county’s 25 districts through parental outreach. They collaborated to host a back-to-school workshop where the county’s Public Health Department spoke and provided interpreters at the event, but SELPA’s sign-up process was difficult, Murillo said. 

“The registration forms were not in Spanish, and people could only register online. When you finally found the link to register, it wasn’t easy because all the questions were in English only. There was no phone number to call and register either,” she said. 

Oftentimes, the families Murillo works with don’t have internet access or own a computer, she said, and navigating a website on a phone can be difficult. 

“It’s just frustrating when you’re inviting and encouraging Spanish families to participate but then see how hard it is to register,” she continued. 

Alpha Resource Coordinator Norma Puga said that SELPA needs to refine its initial contact with non-English speaking parents. 

“SELPA needs to improve in their way of reaching out to the families, making sure that every family in their county is informed of town meetings and training and making sure it’s in their language. Having all their materials in both English and Spanish is something SELPA is lacking right now,” Puga said. 

SELPA’s main webpage is only in English, making families navigate through the site to find Spanish resources, and there’s no bilingual staff member to answer phone calls if parents have questions, Murillo pointed out. 

SELPA Coordinator Jennifer Connolly said the agency is currently working on interpreting its website in multiple languages and hiring a bilingual staff member. 

“It takes time and manpower; we are juggling a lot and we have a very small staff at SELPA. We wear a ton of hats,” she said. 

Getting feedback from families is a barrier Connolly said SELPA faces when it comes to making improvements within the organization. 

“There’s almost 9,000 students in our county with an IEP. If it doesn’t come across an administrator’s desk, there’s no way we can fix it,” she said. 

Puga said Alpha often works with parents to overcome cultural barriers when it comes to raising concerns about their child. 

“A lot of our Spanish-speaking families are embarrassed or too proud to ask for services. They may be afraid as well for their legal status; we want to make sure those barriers are not stopping them from receiving services their child needs,” Puga said. “We talk to parents and encourage them that everything is important in terms of kids receiving services and they should share the information with other parents. The more people that are aware of disabilities the better.” 

Puga and Murillo coach families prior to meetings and workshops by helping them make a list of questions and pulling together resources for families to read. If county resources were available in the family’s first language, they would be more comfortable advocating for themselves, Puga said. 

“It’s a more welcoming environment and makes parents feel more open to share their family situation,” she said. 

Murillo said interpreter services also need to make meetings and workshops more welcoming for parents who don’t speak English very well. 

“There’s a lot of technical words, and if they are not familiar with the terminology, it makes things even more difficult. Sometimes they don’t use the right words to translate, or they get lost because they are thinking about what word to use,” she said. 

Connolly said SELPA is working to improve communication through a translator and interpretation workshop that will give interpreters the tools they need to break down information and learn the education world’s terminology, specifically for IEP meetings. 

“We’ve been doing this training for a while, and the interpreters gain a lot from this time. Many of our interpreters moved from in-person to Zoom, which was a huge feat,” Connolly said. “You want everyone to understand and the message to be very clear. We want to break everything down into terms that families can understand while giving them the respect they deserve. It’s absolutely important to gain that familial feedback.” 

An interpreter’s clear explanation is crucial if the county wants feedback, Puga said.

“If someone doesn’t take the time to teach them about the disability or how it affects their child, they don’t have the whole picture. If it’s not explained to them, they are not going to know it’s an issue,” Puga said. 

It’s also important for parents to learn about their child for themselves, she continued. 

“That’s how we help our families, to give them ideas and to teach them to learn their kids’ strengths. Parents have to learn about the talents and passions of their child,” Puga said. “Getting to know your child is a huge benefit to the IEP to get those services. The key point is communication.”

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at toconnor@santamariasun.com.

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