Like most Civil Libertarians, we were thrilled when the US Supreme Court recently issued its Decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, which finally made marriage equality the law of the land.
As professionals who are in the Civil Rights advocacy business, we were especially savoring these words of Justice Kennedy: “(t)he nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.” Beautiful words, but we couldn’t help but wonder: when will the Civil Rights of individuals with disabilities be fully realized?
There are federal laws protecting children and young adults with disabilities; they have been on the books for 40 years. But can we say they have met their goals? Not by a long shot. The IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 should be strong protections for students with disabilities. Yet, we know that neither of these statutes are being fully enforced (let alone fully funded) by state or federal governments. Instead, enforcement is left to parents of children with disabilities, and only those rare few who are able to understand and access “the system.”
Several decades after these key Civil Rights statutes were enacted, why should we still be having discussions about which public schools are wheelchair accessible? Shouldn’t they all be?
Why do so many students with disabilities in our middle and high schools have to “choose” to forgo electives, or worse, classes like science and social studies, in order to receive special education support? If that sounds discriminatory to you, it does to us too.
Why are so many students with serious emotional disabilities routinely slipping through the cracks of our public schools, being graduated with no functional or coping skills? Even worse, why are so many being sent out into the world with deteriorating mental health and growing rage, when their educational records are replete with warning signs that they need help? See the IDEA failures outlined in the State of Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate Report on the Shootings at Sandy Hook, http://www.ct.gov/oca/lib/oca/sandyhook11212014.pdf
Why are we spending millions and millions of public dollars opening charter and magnet schools, only to have students with disabilities removed from these schools because they won’t address their special education needs? Charter and magnet schools were originally designed to desegregate and breed diversity. We have to believe that this “diversity” includes diversity of ability; yet these schools are in fact breeding segregation for many students with special education needs.
Why do we have a “school to prison pipeline,” with experts estimating that as much as 70% of the students in the juvenile justice system are those with undiagnosed or under-addressed learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, and mental illness? All of these disabilities should be addressed by school districts through the IDEA or Section 504.
Why is it that, 40 years after Congress stated that one of the key purposes of special education for students was to prepare them for transition to adulthood, in the current words of the IDEA to ensure that schools “prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living” the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that as of 2014, only 17.1 percent of adults with disabilities are employed? Of those, about a third are only employed part-time.
It took the United States Supreme Court approximately 30 years to move from a case which permitted the criminalization of consensual homosexual sex, to the landmark Obergefell case. There is no doubt that the public’s perception of the issue of marriage equality as a Civil Rights issue contributed largely to the sea change.
We need a sea change for individuals with disabilities. The days of treating individuals with disabilities as “second class citizens” should be long over, but they’re not. They’re not.
As we celebrate this Civil Rights milestone, let’s remember, we have one last wave to see to shore.
Jennifer Laviano & Julie Swanson