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Schools have an obligation to help not just students, but parents who have disabilities, like making sure that deaf or blind parents can communicate during parent-teacher conferences. At least that's what the law says. But what happens when children are learning at home? That's uncharted territory. Reporter Kristin Gourlay learns more from a parent who is deaf about what it's like to help her young children, who can hear.
KRISTIN GOURLAY, BYLINE: Rosabella Manzanares is in first grade, and she has a spelling test today. Her teacher, Peggy Perry at Betsy Ross Elementary, just outside Chicago, is trying to corral a screen full of wiggly 6-year-olds on Zoom.
PEGGY PERRY: Rosabella is here, so we can go ahead and take our spelling test.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Cakes - chocolate cakes are delicious.
ROSABELLA MANZANARES: I bake a cake.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Who loves chocolate cakes? I do.
GOURLAY: Rosabella sails through the last of the 10 words.
PERRY: Rosabella, how'd you do? I see Mommy grading your paper. Thumbs-up?
ROSABELLA: Ten out of 10.
PERRY: Woohoo. Good job.
GOURLAY: Rosabella can hear. Her mother, Chantelly Manzanares, is deaf. Manzanares uses American Sign Language, or ASL, which is different than English. It's a visual language. It has its own grammar. It uses different sentence structure. Rosabella and her siblings grew up using ASL. But while they've become fluent in English, Manzanares is not. She can grade this spelling test, which Rosabella holds up to the screen with a big smile, but it can be tough for Manzanares to help with other work in English. Manzanares tells me through an ASL interpreter that before the pandemic...
CHANTELLY MANZANARES: (Through interpreter) The neighbor would help us, which was great because my English isn't - you know, it's not my first language. Between the school and the neighbor, everything was covered.
GOURLAY: Now that the kids are home all day, Manzanares says she can't provide the same benefits as the physical school environment.
C MANZANARES: (Through interpreter) So being out, hearing people speak, using their voices, that becomes a more rich - English-rich environment.
GOURLAY: For extra support, she's found a volunteer to read to Rosabella over Zoom. But there's another challenge. Manzanares wants to keep up with what's happening during class in case she needs to jot down a reminder or help her daughter. So Rosabella says, as her baby sister wobbles by, that she interprets for her mom.
ROSABELLA: She asks me what they're saying 'cause she can't hear, and I tell her what they're saying.
GOURLAY: Manzanares signs that she doesn't want to burden Rosabella with too much interpreting. Nor does teacher Peggy Perry.
PERRY: A lot of times, what I'll do now is before we hang up, I'll say, you know, Rosabella, I want to see you tell Mommy that we have, you know, science at 1:30. And that seems to be working really well because we can't expect 6-year-olds to remember everything, right?
GOURLAY: Manzanares can text Perry if she needs to. And Manzanares says she feels more supported now than when the pandemic began.
But not all parents are feeling that way. Robyn Powell is with the National Research Center for Parents with Disabilities at Brandeis University. She says even before the pandemic, schools haven't always lived up to their commitment to accommodate parents and caregivers with disabilities.
ROBYN POWELL: So the pandemic has really - I think two things - exposed some really long-standing inequities that have always existed. But really, the pandemic has brought them to light. And it's also shown us what we don't know.
GOURLAY: Like what a deaf parent might need to help her hearing child at home. Powell's center recently hosted a Twitter chat for parents with a range of disabilities. She says participants expressed frustration over what schools are expecting of them, like this parent.
POWELL: It was from a blind mother. And she talked about one of the biggest challenges she had was now she was supposed to be teaching her child how to write - handwrite. And she can't see the handwriting.
GOURLAY: Robyn Powell says, keep in mind this is on top of the stress of living through a pandemic for parents and kids and schools. She says she sees how the Americans with Disabilities Act might be used to make an argument for providing parents more support during online learning, but that argument hasn't been tested.
For NPR News, I'm Kristin Gourlay.
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