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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Education: The Key to Equality

I am often asked by professionals that I meet the first time how I became successful. What the are really asking is not about success in the conventional sense of the term. The question really is why am I capable of being ordinary, that is I earned a PhD, got married (divorced too), fathered a child, own a home, am active in the community etc. I do not like this sort of question as it presumes I am unusual. Sadly, this is may be true and for the last week I have been thinking about why it is so hard for people with a disability to lead a "normal life". To me, the primary obstacle people with a disability in the broadest sense of the term encounter is access to education. Education is the key to success as an adult. One's intellectual ability is not relevant. Education is all about understanding the world to the best of your ability and getting the most out of the abilities you possess. Thus there is no difference between someone like myself, a highly educated paralyzed white man and a person with profound physical and cognitive deficits that will be dependent upon care givers. We each have something to offer the world and our families.

My concern with education has been on my mind because of a recent and important U.S. Supreme Court decision. Here I refer to Forest Grove School District v. T.A. In a 6-3 ruling the court ruled that a child identified only as T.A. parent were entitled to be reimbursed for the cost of sending their child to a private school. The private residential academy cost $5,200 a month and the parents sought $65,000 in tuition reimbursement. The Forest Grove School District refused to pay this because they did not think a special education was required for the child in question. The case wound its way to the Supreme Court where the court firmly established that when public schools fail to provide an appropriate education and required services parents can seek to be reimbursed for the cost of private education. In short, the court ruled that public schools cannot seek to escape their legal responsibility to educate all children. In ruling in favor of the parents the court emphasized that the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) required public schools to provide a suitable educational experience. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that "We conclude that IDEA authorizes reimbursement for the cost of private special-education when a school district fails to provide a free, appropriate public education".

Let me repeat those last few words--"a free and appropriate education". Is this not why we Americans pay school tax? It is why I live in my town where the public school is supposedly outstanding as are most schools in the wealthy suburbs of New York City. Why then were the parents of a child with a disability forced into court and push their case all the way to the Supreme Court? To me, the answer is simple: the education of children with profound and multiple disabilities is perceived to be an onerous burden. School districts begrudgingly accept the fact they must educate students with disabilities. Given the number of children diagnosed with learning disabilities public schools have no choice. But this does not mean public schools want to spend on children with learning disabilities. How do I know this? At every school board meeting I attend I hear complaints about the cost of "special education". Why do we need to spend so much on special education teachers, aides for students with disabilities, or worse yet, making the school accessible to students with a physical disability? I try to be polite when I hear how angry parents are when "normal" and "gifted children" are "suffering" as a result of the money spent on "special needs kids". I really do try to keep my mouth shut as I hope my presence as a person with a disability will remind others that so called "special needs children" become adults and, like me, tax payers. My presence however is not nearly enough. I point out that a public education is the right of every child living in the district. In addition the district is legally required to educate all children, those with and without a disability. When I state this I feel better but know my words are not well received. I also know when budget decisions are made the first cuts made slash special education. Sadly, special education, a term I truly hate, is not valued. Indeed, it is the least valued part of the budget. Parents will happily spend millions of dollars on turf fields, a new gym and locker rooms, and lavish money on athletes but do not ask these same people to spend a dime on a wheelchair lift or additional aides for special needs kids.

It is not just parents that do not want to educate children with disabilities. School administrators nationwide have blasted the Supreme Court decision. School administrators fear parents will opt to send their special needs children to expensive private schools thereby costing districts millions of dollars. Well, parents will not choose this option if school provide an appropriate education for so called special needs children. If a child with a disability, physical or cognitive, is valued and welcomed, parents would have no reason to send their child to a private school. School administrators are not alone in their critique of the Supreme Court decision. News papers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and a myriad of local papers have been equally critical. For instance the Desert News has stated "Utah can ill-afford siphoning off resources from its already lean public school resources". Meanwhile the New York Times noted the decision will "undoubtedly add to public schools financial woes". Since I made reference to money spent on athletics let me end with this comparison: there is no doubt great value is placed on physical education and sports at the public school level. Many parents spend thousands of dollars a year on sports without complaint. This, of course, is their right and I am not in any way opposed to athletics. I merely want to point out that public school are obligated to educate all children--it is their primary responsibility. In my estimation we do a particularly poor job educating those students with learning and physical disabilities because we as a society do not value the expenditure of time and resources. Thus every time I go to my son's public school I do not admire the millions spent on expensive turf fields. Instead I think the children who play on those lovely fields are treated with deference and respect. Good for them but I sure wish children with disabilities enjoyed the same social stature and resources.

4 comments:

Full Tilt said...

I get it too, and got it in spades in my school when teachers would voice their complaints in front of me as though I were deaf. We are not valued, nor are we considered a resource. We will be considered thusly until our social and moral constructs change...probably not in my lifetime or yours, sadly. I don't think people know what "right thing" means...

william Peace said...

The lack of value placed on the education of people with disabilities is interesting in that there is also a dichotomy between college and public schools. The public schools resent the resources spent on children with disabilities and will make every effort to limit their expenses. Colleges on the other hand acknowledge that students with learning and physical disabilities have a legal right to an education. Colleges do not want to get sued and follow the letter of the law placing the "burden" of responsibility on professors. These professors, a liberal lot, resent this and bitterly complain abut providing accommodations like extra time on exams. As for the physical environment, the ADA is adhered to but campuses are grossly inaccessible. Sure one might me able to get into a building but good luck trying to find a bathroom.

Full Tilt said...

I know a student that worked in a building in which none of the bathrooms were accessible to him. The college re-modeled the bathroom but those who did the work failed to account for turning radius, so once he got in, he was essentially trapped without help to get out...

Another area of inaccessibility on campuses is often the library. Most of my MLS program was spent trying to convince faculty at my school about the need to educate librarians about this and producing a class and various papers on the subject. Few were really interested and when I think of going forward with a doctorate, few would fund this as an area of research and teaching, a situation that angers me no end!

william Peace said...

Full Tilt, Most universities but certainly not all are hostile to the presence of students and faculty members with a disability. Access and accommodations are made only because they are required by law. When possible, the law is ignored and broken. This never ceases to amaze me. How can smart people be so narrow minded in their thinking? How can scholars be so close minded and yet open to and supportive of the rights of all other minority groups? This boggle my mind and indicates how deep rooted the prejudice is toward disability.