News & Perspectives

PCG at SXSW EDU: The transformational power of “presuming competence” in every student we teach

1. March 2019 Ashley Quick Education

By Ashley Quick, Education Consultant, Public Consulting Group

A friend of mine has what would be considered a significant disability: Mindy uses a wheelchair, has limited mobility, and communicates primarily by utilizing device she controls with the movement of her eyes to create text and speech output. She requires assistance from others to eat, get dressed, and complete other activities of daily living.

By now, you may have made some assumptions about how connected Mindy is to the world around her and how productive and happy her life is.

What if I told you: Mindy is a college graduate. She works as an independent contractor who provides social media and marketing services. And she’s a wife and a mom.

Mindy is where she is today because, decades ago, her parents and her teachers made a critical decision: They presumed that Mindy had competence and the capacity to grow in her capabilities, notwithstanding the physical and communication challenges she faced. In the shorthand of education experts, Mindy’s teachers “presumed competence” in their approach to educating her.

The transformational power of presuming competence in students with disabilities is a subject I am excited to be presenting about in March at the SXSW EDU conference in Austin, Texas. I attended SXSW EDU for the first time last year and was so inspired by the knowledge, experience, and drive to improve student outcomes across the board that I left determined to be chosen as a presenter this year. My session, titled “Think Big: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know,” encourages attendees to broaden their views on how educators can impact student outcomes, especially for students with significant cognitive disabilities, simply by presuming competence. (If you are heading to Austin for SXSW EDU 2019, I would love to have you join me for my Future20 talk on Wednesday, March 6th, from 3:30 – 3:50 p.m. at the Hilton Austin Downtown, Salon J.)

Presuming competence is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. When I presume competence (about a student with disabilities, or anyone for that matter), I don’t make assumptions based on limited or narrow information. I assume the student has capabilities, and I recognize that I may have to think outside the box to tap into those capabilities.

Closely linked to presumed competence is the “least dangerous assumption.” Put most simply, this concept means that an educator should do what will ultimately cause the least harm to the student if, in fact, the educator’s assumption was incorrect.

Consider a student who has limited communication. A teacher might assume this student also has limited understanding if they aren’t able to express their understanding in traditional ways, and therefore might restrict the student’s exposure to academic content. In this case, the least dangerous assumption would be to assume that the student understands more than they are currently capable of expressing and to include the student in exposure to grade-level academic content.

If, years down the road, the student increases in ability to communicate, and it’s found that they understood all along much more than they were able to express, the student will have benefited from the exposure to the academic content. If the student had not been exposed to academics during that time, they would have missed out on years of content, learning, and maximizing their potential. Therefore, it’s least dangerous to assume that the student is capable of understanding content, even if they’re not able to communicate that understanding to others.

One of the most common misconceptions about students with significant disabilities is that grade-level academic content is not appropriate, and that the student’s educational plan should focus primarily on functional life skills. While the development of functional skills is a critical piece in helping students become as independent as possible, it should not come at the expense of engaging in academics. Research shows that career and community readiness is improved when students are supported to increase academic competence as well.

Another widely held misconception is that a student’s physical appearance or abilities reliably indicate their intelligence or intellectual abilities. Often students have difficulties with expressive communication due to the effects of physical disabilities, processing difficulties, or other barriers. With augmentative and alternative communication, many students are able to make their needs, wants, and ideas known. The deficit in expressive communication is not and should not be an indicator of a student’s ability to learn. In short, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The assumptions we choose to make about what we think we know about our students’ competence and capacity to learn can have profound, lifelong impacts on them. Some assumptions can truly change the trajectory of their lives – for better or worse.

Presuming competence, and committing to the least dangerous assumption about what students with significant disabilities are capable of, can unleash their full potential—and transform their lives for the best.

Ashley Quick is a Special Education subject matter expert (SME) at Public Consulting Group (PCG) and a field associate for Project SUCCESS in Indiana. Project SUCCESS is a resource center that supports higher academic achievement for students with disabilities by building local capacity to ensure that students with significant cognitive disabilities achieve higher academic outcomes and leave high school ready for post-secondary options. Prior to PCG, Ashley was a special education teacher for 10 years in the elementary setting. More information about Ashley’s session as well as PCG’s other SME-led sessions can be found here: