By Ben Mattlin
In mid-October, disability-rights activists were justifiably outraged and dismayed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ latest action. According to the Washington Post, the Trump appointee had rescinded seventy-two policy documents related to the rights of students with disabilities.
So heated were the reactions on social media and elsewhere that, a few days later, the Education Department tried to allay fears by explaining that the intent was merely to eliminate redundancies and outdated language. The changes, a department spokesperson said, would have zero effect on students with disabilities.
But if they had zero effect, why bother?
To be sure, the changes might have been reasonable. The administration says it’s on a mission to eliminate inefficiencies. I, for one, would rather it exerted its energies and influences on improving situations—improving outcomes for students with disabilities, say—not on rescinding documents designed to clarify protections. But what do I know?
I do know enough, however, to be apprehensive. Once upon a time, I was a student with a disability. I still have my disability, but I haven’t been a student in ages. Born with a congenital neuromuscular weakness called spinal muscular atrophy—and, consequently, a lifelong wheelchair user—I’m too old to have benefited directly from the regulations that DeVos slashed. But I remember what life was like before such regulations existed.
In case you don’t know, the primary rule affecting disabled students in public education is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It’s a complex piece of legislation that guarantees equal access to an appropriate public education in what’s termed the “least restrictive environment.” For each student who is covered by the law, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is painstakingly composed and periodically updated by the student’s parents or guardians, teachers, and administrators.
When I started elementary school, in 1968, such a plan was unheard of. It was still legal to discriminate against kids (and adults) like me. Many kids with disabilities stayed home or were sent to live-in institutions. After all, the only alternative was a separate, segregated special-ed school. Some states even had statutes specifically excluding kids who were deaf, blind, or mentally retarded from public schooling.
Not until 1975 did Congress pass the Education of all Handicapped Children Act, the seed of what was later renamed IDEA. I was already twelve. By then, my parents had managed to get me “mainstreamed” in a private school. They knew separate wasn’t equal.
The modern form of IDEA, which finally set clear terms for full integration in public schools, didn’t happen until fifteen years later. But by 1990, I was already six years out of college.
Knowing this background gives me a particular appreciation for the efforts of those who went before me. No wonder no one wants to see accomplishments such as IDEA dismantled!
The seventy-two documents that were excised consisted of sixty-three from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and nine from the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). Altogether, they explained and elaborated on how the law is implemented, how federal money can be spent, and the extent of students’ rights.
Even if these documents were superfluous, as the Department claims, there’s still cause for alarm. DeVos and the Trump administration have chipped away at individual civil rights in the education system before and seem intent on doing so again. In February, for instance, they overturned Obama-era guidance on allowing transgender students to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity. In September, they rescinded rules about how sexual-assault allegations should be investigated, seemingly favoring the accused over the alleged victims.
What’s more, disability rights advocates haven’t forgotten DeVos’ shameful testimony last January during her Senate confirmation hearing. When Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va) asked if she supported the federal requirement for protections of students with disabilities, DeVos answered that it should be “left to the states.” Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) later asked if she knew that IDEA was a federal law. DeVos acknowledged that she may have “confused it.”
All right, maybe she was confused. But now the Education Department has reportedly been considering postponing or even overturning a rule designed to prevent overrepresentation of minorities in special-education programs. Under IDEA, states must identify school districts with disproportionately high rates of minority students who are placed under special disciplinary or other restrictive settings. The Obama-era rule was designed to impose a uniform standard nationwide. Why would anyone want to upend that?
The disability community hasn’t forgotten last summer’s proposed Medicaid cuts. They may have had nothing to do with DeVos, but they had everything to do with the majority party’s attitudes and intentions. Recall that in June, some sixty activists from the group ADAPT—mostly people with disabilities—protested outside Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky) DC office in what they called a “die-in.” The idea, ADAPT’s Stephanie Woodward later explained, was to represent “the harm that the bill would do to so many disabled people.”
So, in a way, no one was really surprised to have DeVos emerge as an apparent opponent of regulations that protect kids with disabilities. How this pans out remains to be seen, but I’m not optimistic. And I’m not the only one. “It seems Betsy DeVos is on a mission to decimate basic protections for students at all levels,” tweeted Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa) after the story broke.
Scary? Well, Happy Halloween!
About the Author
Ben Mattlin is the author of Miracle Boy Grows Up and the forthcoming In Sickness and In Health: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance, and a frequent contributor to Financial Advisor magazine. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and Vox, and on NPR. He lives in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter at @benmattlin and visit his website.