Decades After Laws for Students With Disabilities, What Have We Learned?

I was barely out of my sixth-grade year in middle school when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush.

The rules and regulations of what would make the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was signed 40 years ago this year, weren’t even a glimmer in my eye. Since I went to religious private schools from pre-K through my 12th grade year, I did not observe any “special” accommodations provided for people with disabilities.

It wasn’t until my last semester in college that I even knew there was something called special education. One of the last classes I had to take to fulfill my psychology degree was called the “Psychology of the Exceptional Child.” I thought I was going to be learning about gifted education. It was there that I learned about ADA, IDEA, the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), special education classrooms, and psychoeducational assessments with funny names. After a short run as a behavior therapist for children with autism and a one-on-one paraprofessional, I decided to get my teaching credential in special education.

IDEA, ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act are similar in the fact that they attempt to improve living conditions for people with disabilities, but it is important to point out where they overlap and where they don’t. In addition, it’s essential to consider what should be done in the coming 25 years for people with disabilities and their access to education.

A Brief History of Legislation Affecting Individuals With Disabilities

(1964): Disability rights became a national issue for the first time when the late United States Senator Hubert Humphrey proposed that people with disabilities should be a protected class along with racial and ethnic minorities under the Civil Rights Act. Unfortunately, people with disabilities were excluded from the law so that it would get enough votes to pass.

(1973): The Rehabilitation Act (specifically Section 504) prohibited agencies or organizations that receive federal funds from discriminating against qualified individuals solely on the basis of disability.

(1975): The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) finally gave children with disabilities specific legal rights to an education. Until this time, many students with disabilities were not allowed to attend school at all. The act also contained a provision stating that disabled students should be placed in a school with the least restrictive environment (LRE) that allows the maximum possible opportunity to interact with non-disabled peers. Separate schooling may only occur when the nature or severity of the disability is such that instructional goals cannot be achieved in the regular classroom. The law also contained a due process clause that guarantees an impartial hearing to resolve conflicts between the parents of disabled children and the school system.

(1990): The EAHCA was reformulated as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which further elaborated on the inclusion of children with disabilities into regular classes, but also focused on the rights of parents to be involved in the education decisions affecting their children. IDEA required that an Individualized Education Program (IEP) be designed with parental approval to meet the needs of every child with a disability.

(1990): After IDEA and decades of campaigning and lobbying, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. This ensured the equal treatment and equal access of people with disabilities to employment opportunities and to public accommodations. The ADA was intended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, services rendered by state and local governments, places of public accommodation, transportation, and telecommunications services.

(1997): IDEA was reauthorized in 1997. In addition to upholding the rights outlined in previous legislation, the act now also emphasized academic outcomes for students with disabilities. This involved raising expectations for students, supporting students who follow the general curriculum, supporting parents, and helping states determine appropriate outcomes. With the focus on outcomes, school-to-work transition planning gained new importance.

What We’ve Learned After Four Decades of Legislation

Students with disabilities are being educated with their non-disabled peers more than they ever have before in history. But the numbers on inclusion are still bad.

Even though access to inclusive schooling has improved, there is still work to do. According to the Office of Special Education Programs, out of the nearly 6.5 million students who receive services under IDEA, about 17 percent (approximately 1.1 million) of students are eligible under "low incidence disability," which is defined as a severely disabling condition with an expected incidence rate of less than one percent of the total statewide enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade. This means that students with the most significant disabilities are separated from their typically developing peers on a routine basis, when thirty years of research shows that when all students are learning together — including those with the most severe disabilities, who must be given the appropriate instruction and supports — then all students can participate, learn, and excel within the grade-level general education curriculum.

It has also become evident that students with disabilities are being disciplined and suspended in disproportionate rates.

A report released by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project earlier this year found that about five percent of elementary-school children with disabilities during the 2011–2012 school year were suspended more than two times the overall rate of suspensions. In addition, 18 percent of kids with disabilities in middle and high school were suspended, versus 10 percent overall. Finally, 33 percent of children in any grade with emotional disabilities were suspended at least once.

This year, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) sent a letter to Georgia’s Attorney General, accusing the state of segregating thousands of students with emotional disabilities from their peers in decrepit buildings or far-removed classrooms that severely limited their access to fair educational opportunities. The DOJ determined that the vast majority of students in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS) program could participate — with additional aids, services, and supports — in the educational opportunities available in general education schools. Since the DOJ is using ADA (and not IDEA) — paired with previous court cases (like *Olmstead v. L.C.) — to press for desegregation of the Georgia program, it will force individual school districts to determine whether they are unlawfully segregating students with disabilities. Their findings will certainly have an impact on whether Georgia ultimately seeks to reverse statewide discriminatory practices, which may result in schools across the nation re-examining their special education policies and practices. The DOJ has threatened to pursue legal action if the state does not resolve the concerns outlined in the letter.

While it’s clear that students need further support and resources, so too do teachers of special education. There is no question that it is hard work being a special education teacher.

In the first place, the paperwork in special education has become almost unbearable. It is getting harder to recruit and retain quality educators in special education. Schools leave little time for special and general education teachers to collaborate. Furthermore, for special education teachers who believe in the spirit of IDEA and in educating their students in the LRE, their general education colleagues are significantly lacking in the philosophy and practice of Universal Design for Learning and Differentiation, an important and effective framework for teaching. There are near-weekly stories of educators jumping the proverbial ship for less demanding and more economically sustaining jobs. These systemic changes are not going away on their own.

We are still using outdated funding models that severely inhibit educators from doing their jobs correctly. For instance, the formulas that govern how special education money is distributed have not been adjusted in almost 20 years.

What the Next 25 Years Will Bring

This year, the National Council on Disability issued its progress report reflecting on the 25 years since the passage of the ADA and on what the next 25 years might look like. The organization made some key recommendations for education:

1. Universal Design for Learning should be the main framework for how we give access to all students.

School districts must implement evidence-based practices, such as Universal Design for Learning principles. This should be the main discussion as we encourage Congress to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and facilitate the authentic inclusion of all students with disabilities. There will no doubt be more hurdles as authority returns to the states, given that No Child Left Behind has itself been left behind for the Every Student Succeeds Act.

2. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) frameworks should be essential for school district to implement in order to keep everyone safe.

Have you heard of the school-to-prison pipeline? Let’s get rid of that. Social skills instruction and individualized wraparound supports to connect students with disabilities to community services should become the norm. Zero-tolerance disciplinary policies should go by the wayside, and agencies should adopt positive behavioral systems.

A very real concern of some of my colleagues is how to keep everyone safe if students with emotional disabilities are reintegrated with their typical peers. What is hard to explain — and what my colleagues often don’t like to hear — is that the system has to change to accommodate those with disabilities. It also means that teachers are going to have to change how they teach and how they handle students with challenging behavior.

What my colleagues sometimes hear when I say that is: Students aren’t going to be punished for their misbehavior. What I mean when I say that, however, is: Everyone will be safer — and feel safe and accepted — when we learn what is at the root of each person’s behavior.

3. High expectations and outcomes from students with disabilities should become even more important.

When students with disabilities are fully included in all educational opportunities, the achievement bar for everyone will rise. This is a win-win. Students with and without disabilities benefit from high expectations. What is most important is that school districts are provided with the correct supports so students can meet those expectations. In addition, those who need assistive technology should be provided with these supports, as well as all other accommodations specified in their IEPs.

A Final Word

We clearly have a long way to go before students with disabilities are fully supported within the education system. It is time for a significant change in special education law — one that is not ambiguous about making education inclusive to all learners. The world has looked to the United States as a leader for groundbreaking legislation such as the ADA and IDEA, and now it’s time to continue leading with much-needed reform.

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