Please no MORE, just the SAME for students with disabilities

In the early 1970’s the Pennsylvania ARC won a court case that allowed children with disabilities the right to a public education. Their attorney Thomas Gilhool used the precedent set by Brown v. Board of education in 1954 that separate but equal was inherently unequal. In 1973 the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed and people with disabilities were given legal protection for the first time. Section 504 of this Act prohibited discrimination based on disability in any program receiving federal funds. It took a lot of effort on the parts of advocates to get the regulations written and this finally happened in 1977. In 1974 the Amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act addressed issues related to students with disabilities and this led in 1975 to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act which provides for a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment for children with disabilities. This law was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990. Also in 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed finally giving full legal equality to people with disabilities.

While all of this history was being made there were still children being placed in institutions into the 1970’s. When a mother gave birth to a child with a disability the physician commonly recommended immediate placement into the institution and to forget about the child and go have more babies. If the parent did not take this advice the child was still relatively invisible even if you were a part of the parent movement. Even if you did not put your child away you eventually had to send them to the institution for their services because that was the only way to get specialized medical help. When you watch a film from the 50’s and 60’s about Oregon’s Institution the Fairview Training Center (Once called the Institute for the Feeble Minded) you see rows and rows of infants in cribs and nurses in crisp uniforms. You see children no older than 4 in a stark white room with a few dolls and some balls. Fairview Training Center did not close until 2000. I worked with people that had been placed in Fairview as young children and had lived there 40 years and often more. They had no friends and their family had been told to forget about them a long time ago. I read reports about people that entered Fairview walking, talking, and with skills and now this person was in a wheelchair, could not talk, and could not even do the most basic things for themselves.

When do we get to at least start having the conversations about implementing the ADA in public buildings and places? I often get asked, “What about buildings that were built before the ADA was made into law? That will cost a lot of money.” Well schools were supposed to be equalized by federal funding since 1973 and the ADA brought more regulation in 1990; how many more years can we get out of that excuse? When there is talk about minorities, diversity, and equity people with disabilities are not always included. Important, life changing decisions are made for people with physical, medical, cognitive, and acquired disabilities all the time without their consent or opinion. Parents hear, “Your child’s needs are going to be best served in this special classroom with other kids like them. I am a professional you know and evidence based best practices say that this is best for your child.” This logic sounds a little bit like those doctors back in the day that said, “This is the best place for your child with people like them. Go home, have more kids and forget about this one. “We already did that and it wasn’t very nice.

Special education pull-outs from general education are supposed to be a pit stop to gain some skills and quickly get back into the race; not a place you stay your entire school career. These pull-outs from general education currently are a door that closes once you step through it. These children might be sheltered and warehoused in separate wings, portables on the playground, converted locker rooms, basements. Their classrooms are prone to change to new buildings from one year to the next forcing children to transfer. Children with IEP’s do not have the same rights as other children to attend their neighborhood school. If you have a disability and live across the street from a school they will short bus you all the way across town anyway. They will have a variety of reasons for this. Some of them are ADA related or there simply is not a classroom that will meet the needs of the child according to the IEP team. A parent that wants something different has to seek due process. We are discussing transfer options at length and there are some students in PPS that would just like to attend their neighborhood school and they are told NO.

Don’t strategize how you can give people more services to “fix” them, throw more pots of money at them, plan how to give them “special” opportunities to be equitably distributed, and don’t immerse them with people of “their” kind and let them prove to you in segregation with lack of peer models that they “deserve” to be with everyone else. Please no MORE, People with disabilities (teachers, parents, students, staff, citizens) should have the same right to complain about their neighborhood school like everyone else. Students should be able to attend in the neighborhood. Parents in wheelchairs should be able to have access to their child’s school. Administrators, teachers, and staff in wheelchairs should have the opportunity to work in any school they wish.

Please do continue to give people with disabilities a voice in the forum that includes minorities and diversity but only the same, not more. Allow them to have similar joys and worries any student, parent, teacher, citizen might have.

Stephanie Hunter is a behavior consultant and the parent of a student at Ockley Green. She is active in local and statewide advocacy for children and adults with disabilities, which she writes about on her blog Belonging Matters.