May 31, 2004
Thirty years ago this June, I graduated from a state operated segregated boarding school for kids with disabilities.
This was a dismal place with a bare bones curriculum. Mainstream public schools were not required to accept kids like me who used wheelchairs or had any other disabilities, so my mother had little choice but to send me there.
The next year the landmark federal law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed. It declared the right to a free and appropriate public education for all students with disabilities. Leading up to the act, Congress noted that more than 1 million children with disabilities were receiving no education at all.
The act puts the onus on local school districts to make their educational facilities and programs accessible. But after all these years, millions of students with disabilities are still being segregated.
The latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that more than 1 million of the 5.6 million disabled students spend more than half their school days in segregated class rooms or attend separate schools like the one I attended. Only about 48 percent of students with disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their days in classes with at least some other students who do not have disabilities.
For some students with disabilities, not much has changed over the years. Only 14 percent of people with autism and those classified as mentally retarded spend more than 80 percent of their school days in classes with students who are not disabled.
This school year we commemorated the Supreme Court's historic desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and we were reminded that segregated education was inherently unequal. It still is today.
The legacy of exclusion of students with disabilities has shut us out from the full range of educational options available in our communities. It also has reinforced the myth that kids with disabilities can't succeed in the real world.
This breeds low expectations and lack of achievement academically and socially.
Many school districts still fight hard to avoid having to accommodate students with disabilities.
The cost of accommodation is sometimes also a concern, which is why the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires the federal government to fund at least 40 percent of what it costs to educate students with disabilities. But the federal government has not come close to providing enough money to meet even half of this obligation.
This has to change immediately if students with disabilities are ever to have the best possible education.
Mike Ervin is a Chicago-based writer and a disability-rights activist with ADAPT (www.adapt.org). He is also producer of "The Strength Coach," a nationally syndicated radio talk show (www.thestrengthcoach.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.