By Joy Sebe, Advocacy and Civic Engagement Program Manager, Director of the Community Parent Resource Center, Open Doors for Multicultural Families
Investing in Student Potential Steering Committee member


Mahado Abdi, Youth Program Lead at Open Doors for Multicultural Families

In times like these, we are looking for inspiration. We are looking for strategies to help students with disabilities continue to learn while at home. Mahado Abdi, Youth Program Lead at Open Doors for Multicultural Families (ODMF), is making sure that youth of color with disabilities who are in her care are accessing their education and that families are developing the advocacy skills needed to support their children.

Mahado Abdi has worked directly with culturally and linguistically diverse youth with disabilities and their families for 4 years at ODMF. She understands the cultural, linguistic, and economic barriers that youth with disabilities and families experience, and she has helped them access their education, learn how to advocate for themselves, and find then sustain employment.

Since our communications with schools turned virtual, Mahado has been prepping families for Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. At an IEP meeting in March, she learned about Continuous Learning Plans (CLPs). CLPs are available to students with disabilities and serve as a bridge between school closures and when schools re-open. The plan is a document that targets the IEP goals and explains the frequency and the way in which the schools will support the student and family while they are at home. Since learning about CLPs, Mahado has reached out to her clients to first determine what type of emergency assistance they need, and next if they have a CLP. Now, 17 of the youth she serves have a CLP.

Who does Mahado support?

She also has a caseload of 25 clients who are 16-24 years old with a broad range of disabilities including intellectual disabilities, Autism, and mental health challenges. These youth are in both self-contained classrooms and more inclusive environments. They represent diverse communities, including African American youth and youth from families who speak Amharic, Chinese, Swahili, Arabic, and Somali. Youth are in the Seattle, Federal Way, Kent, Auburn, Highline, and Tukwila School Districts.

When Mahado is not working with clients, she supervises 3 staff who are providing virtual programming for youth with disabilities, case management, and gathering resources for families negatively impacted by COVID-19.

Supporting Behavior as Communication at Home

We know that behavior is communication. When we are stressed or anxious, we may communicate this through our behaviors. Mahado explained to families that their children may behave in a challenging way when youth are not able to communicate their needs, particularly if they don’t have access to the communication devices and the supports that they use at school.

Mahado has helped families work with school staff to create At-Home Behavior Intervention Plans. For example, a parent worked with a Behavior Technician to create an individualized behavior plan that worked for her child. In one case, the school sent an augmentative communication device home and the technician created videos to teach the parent how to use the device. The parent used these videos to teach her child how to communicate basic needs, such as ask for water or go to the restroom.

We also know that structure reduces anxiety and helps youth transition from activity to activity. Mahado has routinely asked for school staff to help families structure the student’s day. Some schools have provided visual schedules with Velcro tabs. Others have taught families how to create schedules using whiteboards.

Collaborations Among Bilingual Staff

Mahado works hard to earn and sustain the trust of families. While Mahado can communicate directly with Somali families, she uses phone interpretation when she doesn’t speak the family’s language. At ODMF, we rely on collaboration among our bilingual staff and across our teams to ensure that we are culturally responsive and can build trust with families. For example, Priscilla Tan, our Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking direct support staff, referred a youth to Mahado. Because Priscilla had earned the trust of the family and understood the family’s situation well, she described the family’s experiences and needs to Mahado and helped ease the transition to Mahado’s case management. Over time, Mahado built trust with the family and now uses phone interpretation to communicate.

What should educators keep in mind when working with diverse families?

Given their cultural background, many families view teachers as their leaders. Many do not think that it is their position to ask for anything that is not already provided, to ask questions, or to advocate for what they need. In addition to these cultural barriers, families routinely experience language access barriers. By now, Mahado’s families know to ask for an interpreter and Mahado reminds them to speak up if they don’t understand the conversation or the interpreter. Some interpreters speak different dialects of the same language or don’t understand the language of disability and the Special Education system.

Step-by-Step Instructions: Setting up CLP for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Families

Step 1: Check-in (30 min)

Call the family with a phone interpreter already on the line. Check in to see if the family needs any emergency assistance (food and rental assistance). Address these basic needs first. Ask the family if the school has communicated with them and if their student has a CLP.

Step 2: Email the school to request a CLP (15 min)

Ask to be cc’d on the email so that you can follow-up with the school and family.

Step 3: Review the CLP (30 min)

After the school has sent the CLP, call the parents to see if they understand it. If parents do not understand the CLP, schedule a CLP meeting to review it with parents and school staff. Ask the school for a translation of the CLP in advance and an interpreter.

Step 4: Prepare for the CLP meeting (30 min)

Schedule a 30 min pre-meeting with the family, with a phone interpreter already on the line, to make sure they can actively participate in the meeting. Emphasize that this is a time to build their self-advocacy skills.

Remind the family:

  • This is your meeting.
  • If you don’t understand the interpreter, say so.
  • If you don’t understand the materials, say so.

Create a meeting agenda that helps the youth and families ask the questions they have and work toward leading the meeting

Step 5: CLP meeting occurs with qualified interpreter (1.5 hrs)

Step 6: Follow-up (15-30min)

Check to see if the family understood the meeting.

Step 7: Check-in (15 min)

Two weeks after the CLP meeting, call the family with an interpreter already on the line to check that the family received the materials/devices that they need from the school.


Mahado’s work is just one example of the ways that ODMF is supporting youth and families. We have held inspirational and emotional virtual Parent Support Groups for 100+ Somali, Vietnamese, Latinx, Eritrean, and Ethiopian families with more on the schedule. Thanks to generous donations from Seattle Foundation, United Way of King County, Stolte Family Foundation, Cathay Bank, and TEW Foundation, we have provided food and rental assistance to 600+ families. Thanks to ongoing donations from the Pacific Coast Fruit Company, we are delivering boxes of fresh produce, dairy, and meat to the doorsteps of families who do not have transportation. We deeply appreciate all of our staff at ODMF who have stepped up not only to continue providing services but to provide emergency assistance to our youth and families. Our staff and families are a source of continued innovation and inspiration.

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