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Disabled Students and Education in the U.S.A

← Critical Laws, Emerging Issues and Trends in EducationThe Impact of Education in Our Lives →

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Disability is a term that is used to refer to a set of conditions which may be medical, physiological or emotional/psychological which affect the day to day functioning of a person, rendering unable to function at optimum capacity in the various spheres of their lives. Education is one of these spheres of a person’s life that may be affected by disability. However, disability should not be looked on as a complete failure of the disabled individuals to fit in an integrate into the society, but as merely a setback that can be mitigated by making available facilities, policies and guidelines that make the integration process of disabled students simpler. Indeed, disability is not an indicator of a person’s inability, but a case of lacking opportunities which would make the individual as productive as any other member of society. More often than not, disabled people are generally looked down upon and thus afforded fewer opportunities to prove their worth to society.

 A study conducted by Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Statistics and Demographics concluded that the handicapped are only afforded about 39% of the nation’s total working force, and the bias is especially pointed against those with major disabilities such as total sensory deficit such as total blindness or deafness, mental instability or emotional disabilities. Helen Keller (27 June 1880-june 1 1968) was a political activist and author was the first deaf blind person to earn a degree in Bachelor of Arts. Having been rendered deaf blind by a disease she contracted as an infant, Helen Keller was taught to read and write by her instructor Ann Sullivan.

Being disabled, Helen Keller was able to achieve a lot more than her disabled peers since she was lucky enough to find continued support for her education, although her own personal effort and initiative no doubt enabled her to rise to her position of fame.  She effectively demonstrated that given enough opportunities, disabled people can be as productive as their contemporaries who are not disabled. Education has a crucial role to play in the empowerment and elevation of the disabled, as well as removing the negative stigma that surrounds disabled members of society.

Education system in the United States has paid considerable attention to the plight of the disabled students that require an education, and to that effect has outlined various laws and policies that are meant to streamline the integration of the disabled into society. The United States has approached the issue of educating the disabled from two distinct approaches. The first approach involves ensuring that the disabled individuals are not deprived of their right to free education by passing federal laws that safeguard this right.

One such federal approach to ensuring education for the disabled is the individuals with disabilities education act (IDEA) that was passed into law in 1990 and reauthorized in 1997. A major amendment of the law was carried out in 2004. IDEA is meant to safeguard the rights of all students who have disabilities, a student being defined as anyone between the ages of 3 to 21 years. IDEA is“spending clause legislation”, meaning that only participant states will receive funding for it from the federal government, and they in turn are meant to uphold the act.

Currently, all states are participating in the individual with disabilities education act. A cornerstone of the IDEA is the provision of free appropriate public education (FAPE) as well as the provision of educational facilities and services that will raise the level of education of the disabled to be at par or as close as possible to the level of education received by their non-disabled peers. IDEA 2004 proceeded to extend its scope to ensuring that the disabled students can readily integrate into mainstream society after their education, and maintains that one of the goals of the FAPE is to prepare the disabled student for further learning, education opportunities as well as employment and independent living.

As of 2006, over 6 million children have benefitted from the special education services being offered through IDEA. IDEA caters for individuals who suffer from 13 specific types of disabilities, including but not limited to mental retardation, hearing handicaps such as deafness, visual impairments such as blindness as well as language and speech impairments, orthopedic challenges, autism, learning impairments and other impairments which necessitates the use of special education as well as other related services .individuals who do not qualify for the services afforded by IDEA may benefit from complementary laws such as the rehabilitation act of 1973  as well as the Americans with disabilities act.(ADA).

An important point to note is that as long as a disabled person meets the qualification criteria set to determine eligibility for services provided under IDEA, the service(s) have to be provided by the school even f the student may be in a totally vegetative state and thus unable to benefit fully from the services, under the zero rejection rule that was passed by the court in two landmark cases, namely Parks v. Pavkovic, 753 F.2d 1397 (7th Cir.1985) and Timothy W. v. Rochester School District 875 F.2d 954 (1st Cir. 1989).

IDEA works by ensuring that each individual is assessed independently in order to develop an individualized education program (IEP) since different individuals may have different needs, thus making it difficult if not impossible to develop a curriculum that will encompass all disabled students. The IEP is developed with the help of the parents of the disabled individual, regular teachers, educational professionals who are able to determine the implications of the education program as well as representatives from the committee of special education. The individualized education program must take into consideration the integration of the disabled individual into contemporary society, and to this effect, it is meant to operate at the least restrictive environment, which is the environment closest in condition to the environment in which a disabled individual’s contemporaries are operating in. the incorporation of the concept of the least restrictive environment is key to the successful implementation of IDEA.

A second approach to providing education for the disabled is implemented at the local and state levels. Whereas the IDEA is a federal government initiative, local governments have also come up with legislation which is meant to make the education of disabled individuals easier. These local initiatives receive all their funding from local government, and all controls are exerted from the respective educational departments of the local governments. One of the features for these state initiated approaches is that they may or may not deal directly with disabled students, but by recognizing and addressing some of the problems that face the disabled within a society, the quality of life for disabled individual, including disabled students improves.

Such initiatives includes such diverse events such those carried out by the state of Idaho which entailed renaming the various bodies that deal with disabled individuals as well as renaming specific disabilities to reduce bias and negative connotations as well as creating new bodies to deal with disabled individual’s needs. the states of Idaho and Oklahoma increased the parking fines associated with handicapped parking spaces, and the funds that are accumulated from fines is used to develop or improve access facilities for the mobility disabled.

The state of Kentucky recently introduced the American Sign Language as a foreign language in post-secondary and tertiary level education order to enhance communication between the deaf and other members of society. By making these as well as other seemingly small and insignificant changes to the society’s approach to disability, the society at large is enabling more and more disabled individuals to live lives which are meaningful, productive as well as independent. As Helen Keller once said, it is by making these seemingly small and insignificant steps that “advocates and policymakers can achieve the great and noble goal… through the smaller victories we continue to pursue.”

In conclusion, disability is defined as merely a lack of opportunity and not necessarily as an inability to live a fulfilling and productive life. Education plays a key role in ensuring that disabled individuals are productive ad fully integrated members of society, as was clearly outlined by the case of Helen Keller. Various approaches have been taken to safeguard the right of disabled individuals to free and meaningful education. One of the major policies that shape way in which the United States approaches the issue of educating the disabled is the individuals with disabilities education act. It is  a federal approach to ensuring that disabled individuals receive an education as per their current level of need as outlined by the individual education program which is tailor made for all the disabled students.

IDEA has a twofold goal, which is to provide an education to the disabled individuals as well as ensuring their integration into mainstream society as well as readying them for an independent life. IDEA is funded by the federal government, and currently, all states are participating in this education policy. Another approach to educating the disabled is whereby the various states formulate their own education policies in order to cater for the needs of their disabled individuals. As small and insignificant as some of the actions taken by the local governments, they are steps in the right direction.

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