My daughter Maggie was a toddler the first time I heard “presume competence.” She was already diagnosed with complex disabilities. Her doctors described her as severe and profound: severely delayed, profoundly autistic, severe auditory processing disorder. We were bewildered and afraid, and didn’t know what we were supposed to do. One doctor said, “take her home and love her.” He said it kindly, but he implied “don’t expect her to learn much.”
The least dangerous assumption
Then, through an advocacy program called Partners in Policymaking, I heard the mantra “presume competence.” The term evolved after Anne Donellan argued that, in the absence of conclusive proof about a student’s capacity to learn, the least dangerous assumption is that the barriers holding a student back from learning are in the instruction, not in the student. Rather than question what a complex student is capable of learning, we should focus on removing the barriers to learning. What can we change in the opportunities, environment, instruction, experiences, and technology that our complex students have access to? Her argument was simple: if we presume that the student is too disabled to learn, then we will stop trying to teach, and that is very dangerous. It is more dangerous to presume the student cannot learn, than to presume the student can learn if only we teach more effectively. The presumption of competence - the presumption the student can learn with quality instruction and appropriate support - is the least dangerous assumption.
For complex students like my Maggie, this was revolutionary advice.
Her diagnosis did not have to be a life sentence. I was excited. I had no control over my daughter’s genes and chromosomes, but I could maximize her opportunities and experiences, provide assistive technology, and advocate for quality instruction. As she grew, Maggie attended regular schools and classrooms, developed strong friendships, loved Girl Guides, traveled widely, and had play dates and sleepovers. She developed a love for various pop music stars, train and bus travel, window shopping, and lazy afternoons spent in a hammock with her iPad. She still had significant disabilities, but her life was rich and stimulating and fun.