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Learning Disabilities Researcher Brings Attention to Overlooked Asian American Students

When Dr. Lusa Lo began teaching elementary school in Oakland, Calif., in the mid-1990s, she felt ill prepared once she discovered that about one-fourth of her 30 students had some kind of special need or disability.

 At least one of her third-graders had attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); another had dyslexia. Others had speech impairments. Some of their emotional and behavioral issues resulted in frequent outbursts interrupting class and upsetting their peers. 

 While continuing to teach in urban schools, Lo pursued graduate studies in special education. “I didn’t have a clue how to teach the children my first year. The one course on disabilities I had as an undergraduate simply wasn’t enough.”

 And just as quickly, she discovered a dearth in special ed research of minority students and their families, particularly among Chinese- and Asian-Americans. Now, as an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, Lo contributes to an emerging body of research into a demographic that has been stereotyped as so high-achieving that it is implied that Asians are inexplicably immune to any disabilities that would impede learning.

 In Massachusetts for instance, Asians represent 5 percent of public school enrollment but less than 3 percent of special ed enrollment, suggesting that some students may not get the services they need.

 Lo has found that Chinese-Americans historically have been much slower in seeking special ed services for their children than Whites. The reasons are complex. Some Chinese, especially immigrants, mistakenly believe their kids lag behind in school because they know less English than their classmates and that they will catch up by studying harder. Furthermore, teachers are so highly respected in traditional Chinese culture that people hesitate to ask, much less openly doubt, whether school officials have a student’s best interest in mind. Even a parent who senses that a child has special needs often hesitates to reach out to the school, fearing a loss of face for the whole family.

 Chinese parents who join support groups tend to have an easier time, Lo says, but convincing them to participate can be the biggest challenge. “If there’s a guest speaker offering important information at a meeting, there’s a better chance the parents will show up than if the only thing offered is to network with each other.”

 Yet the benefits are immeasurable, says Lo, who grew up in Hong Kong and came to this country as an undergraduate.

 “Some family members don’t understand what the parents of special ed students go through, especially if the child appears no physically different than others,” Lo explains. “One parent told me that a relative criticized her for attending school board meetings (because) she was stirring up trouble. So the support group reassured the woman, told her not to worry about her relative’s criticism.”

 A native Cantonese speaker, Lo assists Boston community groups in educating parents about their rights and those of their children in school. She often gives bilingual presentations explaining state and federal laws governing special ed and how parents can advocate for students.

 “In Asia, there was hardly any such thing as special ed. Here, the parents are so grateful for speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, transportation for a disabled child. They don’t realize that here, they are entitled to much more,” Lo says.

 Dr. Peter Kiang, a longtime professor of curriculum and instruction at the university, says Lo “contributes a much-needed reality check through her combination of educational expertise and linguistic and cultural competence.”

 Lo teaches courses to future educators such as Inclusive Interdisciplinary Curriculum Development Building and Collaborative Partnerships with Families of Children with Disabilities.

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