Reflecting on Thirty Years of Progress and the Work Still Ahead of Us

Last month, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the New York Times and other news outlets ran stories about how far we’ve come since the days when people with disabilities were systematically denied basic human rights. The thirtieth anniversary of the ADA is certainly a moment to celebrate the progress that has been made for those with disabilities, but as with all important milestones, it is also a moment to think critically about the work that still needs to be done.

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected people on the margins (see further reading below), we’re trying to reckon with racially charged police brutality (it’s worth noting that a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement are also disabled), and we’re making hasty plans to reopen our schools. The ADA has helped millions of Americans, yes — but millions more will continue to struggle this fall, especially in an education system strained by related problems, racism, and ableism.

Reimagining a future of educational equity

We believe this is an important moment. As we deal with the coronavirus in this country, we have an opportunity to reimagine the future and create a more equitable education system for students like 15-year-old Grace, who sat in a juvenile detention center for over a month because she failed to complete some online coursework. Grace is a person of color who has ADHD and hasn’t been getting the help she needs, and of which she has a legal right. She was being punished right now, but she isn’t a criminal. She’s the victim of racism and ableism, an education system that wasn’t designed for her, and a legal system laden with bias.

Grace and students like her should remind us that schools haven’t just been closed over the last several months. For certain learners, schools have always been closed. Brown v. Board ended segregation in America, but racism continues to affect even our youngest learners. Similarly, the ADA has offered protections for students with disabilities, but these students still flounder in learning environments that don’t meet their needs and drop out of high school at nearly three times the rate of their non-disabled peers.

This is a time to remember that schools, and even school buses, have been instruments of racism and ableism throughout our nation’s history. Think about the obvious: schools before Brown v. Board. Segregated schools were instruments of racism. Think about the “short bus” still used in many school districts throughout America to transport people with disabilities to and from our schools. (Yes, if you have a disability, you may have to ride a different, smaller bus). “Short buses” are instruments of ableism. For years, self-contained classrooms have also functioned as instruments of ableism. These classrooms, often in basements, hallways, or trailers, are where children with disabilities, separated from their peers, are expected to get an equal education.

All three of us struggled in self-contained classrooms in the 1980s and ’90s. LeDerick Horne sat at a desk in Franklin Township, New Jersey, David Flink in Atlanta, Georgia, and Marcus Soutra in Springfield, Massachusetts. Although we hailed from different parts of the country and had different upbringings, racial and religious identities, and socioeconomic status, we all knew that something was wrong with how our disabilities were being treated.

We now have more equitable strategies and resources for helping students with disabilities. But we need educators and other caring adults to use these strategies and resources and imagine new ones. Over the last several months, we’ve seen what can happen when we think creatively and make our schools and buses instruments of equity. Last March, when schools were closed due to the coronavirus, educators had to move their classrooms online and begin offering virtual learning opportunities. Some educators believed we wouldn’t be able to move online, but we did it. Interestingly, some students with disabilities found they learn better this way (or at least they found their virtual classrooms more equitable). And school buses? Many were turned into hotspots to help overcome the digital divide. Others were used to deliver food to families who are food-insecure.

The work of countering ableism to help students with disabilities succeed

As members of the learning disability community, the three of us have been working since we were students to make a difference in the lives of those who are struggling in segregated and otherwise inequitable learning environments. We formed Eye to Eye, a non-profit organization that works each day to bring visibility, diversity, and equity to the label “learning disabled.” We knew other students were faced with the same struggles, like Eye to Eye participant Samantha Williams, who summarizes the experience: “Growing up with a learning difference is so hard. I felt ostracized from others. People thought I was not capable. I saw my [learning difference] as my greatest weakness.”

Now, as adults, we continue our work training young people with learning disabilities to own their education and to use their voice to advocate for what they need to succeed. After two decades, Eye to Eye is active in schools in half the country, providing programs and services that create educational spaces that are supportive environments for all students. We empower students and educators to understand and advocate for effective accommodations, and we facilitate the development of strong social and emotional skills. As another Eye to Eye participant, Joseph Letteri, put it, “It was through Eye to Eye, a community rooted in pride which honored the students’ voice, that I learned how not only to advocate for myself but more importantly advocate for others. Eye to Eye has allowed [me] and others to see people like us — people with learning disabilities — who could be successful, and to see beyond the walls of the school.”

Organizations and agencies across the country are also trying to do this crucial work with us. Take, for example, Jennifer Kane, who is an Education Program Professional at the Nevada Department of Education’s Office of Inclusive Education and leader of the Nevada Student Leadership Transition Summit.

Over the last 12 years, Kane has helped the Student Leadership Transition Summit grow into a day-and-a-half-long event that feels like a professional development seminar with the communal energy of a comic-con. The summit brings together teams of high school students with disabilities and members of their school’s staff. Kane says that the summit’s mission is “to help youth develop self-advocacy and self-determination skills so that they can become leaders within their own lives.”

After attending the Student Leadership Transition Summit, students go back into their communities and use what they have learned to apply for college, begin vocational training, find employment, or seek out an independent living arrangement. Kane points out that “within the past year or so the focus has really narrowed…to help [students] become self-determined, self-advocates [who are] really active in their own IEP meetings, and directing their IEPs.” The IEP, or Individualized Education Program, is a document developed by school staff, family members, and the student with a recognized disability. This document helps the student reach short-term and long-term goals.

Last year, as part of the shift toward helping students with disabilities take more of a leadership role within their own IEP meetings, Kane hired a group of 28 young adult facilitators with disabilities, many of whom were past attendees of the Student Leadership Transition Summit. When asked why the Department of Education chose to hire young adults with disabilities to train high school students with disabilities, Kane says, “we believe so strongly in the fact that there’s nobody who can help students that are currently transitioning navigate those waters, and understand lessons learned, like people who have very recently traveled in their footsteps.”

Nevada is not the only state that employs adults with disabilities to support youth with disabilities. Jen Randle, who works at the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council, is the coordinator of the state’s Youth Leadership Forum (YLF). Each summer, YLFs take place at college campuses across the United States. They generally run as a week-long summer camp for students with a wide range of disabilities and mental health needs. Randle’s staff at the YLF includes nurses, interpreters, counselors, and a significant cohort of YLF alumni who have disabilities. Randle believes that there is value in the new campers (who are referred to as delegates) working with young adults who have similar challenges to their own. She notes that the young delegates have someone they can look up to after attending YLF. And the delegates can see that alumni have acquired the skills they need to keep a job.

“Having community changed my opinion of myself and I now see [my difference] as my greatest strength.”

— Eye to Eye participant Samantha Williams

A time to reflect and redouble our efforts

All of this is to say that we can’t just have policies that protect against discrimination and engage students with disabilities. We must create environments and a culture that welcomes students with disabilities and empowers them to have a voice. Williams reflects, “Having community changed my opinion of myself and I now see [my difference] as my greatest strength.” It shouldn’t take a pandemic and nationwide protests for us to begin thinking outside the literal box of a school and taking actions to level the playing field for our kids. Equity and inclusion should always be priorities, and a fair education system should be a right, not a privilege.

We hope that the thirtieth anniversary of the passing of the ADA will be a moment to reflect on where we are and to imagine where we want to be in another thirty years. We don’t have all the answers yet, but we do know that the future will be brighter if we listen to our most vulnerable populations, adjust learning environments to meet the needs of diverse groups of learners, and find better ways to support the adults dedicated to providing the best education for all students.

If we want a more equitable world, we need to take radical steps over the next thirty years to ensure that students who learn differently are seen, heard, and valued. Our work isn’t done. We can do better.

About the Authors

David Flink
Chief Empowerment Officer, Eye to Eye
Author of Thinking Differently: An Inspiring Guide for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities

LeDerick Horne
Poet, Speaker, and Advocate
Co-author of Empowering Students with Hidden Disabilities: A Path to Pride and Success
Founding Board Chair of Eye to Eye

Marcus Soutra
Chief Empowerment Officer, Eye to Eye
Learning Disability Advocate and Speaker

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As Founder and Chief Empowerment Officer of Eye to Eye, David Flink is an author and social movement leader on the front lines of the learning rights movement.

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David Flink

David Flink

As Founder and Chief Empowerment Officer of Eye to Eye, David Flink is an author and social movement leader on the front lines of the learning rights movement.

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