Autism Awareness: Education is Everything!

Author Bio: Emily Malabey, President of the ICAA.

This article is shared with permission from the website of The International
Coalition for Autism and All Abilities (ICAA). This article and many others
related to education, advocacy and autism support, can be found on the ICAA
website: www.icaaonline.org . Visit the website to read community news,
learn about various ICAA projects and services, or listen to the ICAA Radio.

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“In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

We’ve been very active in efforts to end systemic practices in our nation’s public schools related to separate school schedules, shortened school days, and separate physical placements for students with autism and other disabilities. It is one thing for an IEP team (which includes the student and/or parents, and all relevant professionals) to determine a specific need for an individual to have certain different placements or schedules. But as a systemic practice, this is absolute discrimination.

ICAA members have been taking major steps to ensure people with disabilities have access to the education, supports and services they are entitled to by law. Some people along the way have asked why it matters so much. As parents, it matters because children depend on us for everything, and that includes their education. In fact, it is the law that parents enroll their children in school. It then also becomes part of parents’ duties to ensure that schools are not only teaching our children, but following the law. As advocates, we are concerned with social issues and the communities we serve.

Educators strive to guide and educate students to the best of their abilities, but sometimes they do not know the law, or children’s rights. Not too long ago in our nation’s history, people with differences in ability weren’t even “allowed” into the public school systems to obtain an education.  Advocates before us worked diligently to change that. Significant laws were passed to ensure more equal access for students with disabilities. How can educators, parents, advocates and the community adequately serve or guide students with different abilities when the law is so often ignored?

So many of us take our education, even our access to higher education,for granted. People with different abilities are still being left behind in school systems throughout our country,years after the passage of such laws as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which guarantees a student’s right to be in his/her “least restrictive environment”, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act which guarantees all students with disabilities a “free, appropriate public education.” While many advocates and parents approve of and appreciate the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), it was not specifically designed for ensuring students with disabilities weren’t left behind, but concentrated on the “soft bigotry” of leaving minority students or underprivileged students behind, and attempting to close that gap. Regardless of what one thinks of the law’s positive and negative aspects, the intention to help ensure students with racial differences or those struggling with poverty, can still achieve in education, is a worthwhile endeavor.  As a nation, we have still failed to look out for those with certain challenges or differences in ability.

Every  single day a new incident will come across my desk regarding students with disabilities being dismissed from school sometimes hours earlier than the official end of the school day. Sadly, this is not the only ongoing issue pertaining to the discrimination and abuse we see our children, friends and loved ones with disabilities facing in school.  But it is the one aspect we are focusing on right now. It stuns me how many people will make excuses for outright discrimination, or how many people don’t seem to care. I call this the apathy hurdle. I have included some of the most common questions or comments I have received from people who don’t understand why this issue matters, or who seem to want to remain apathetic.

1. What about the cost (of transportation, aides, supports, etc)?
The federal government and the local and state levels of government already provide funding to schools for students with disabilities. The law is that all students with disabilities have certain rights and protections in the area of education. There is no excuse to ignore the law and fail the students with disabilities. If schools are struggling, and need more money, they can let parents and the community know and organize fundraisers for extra supports and help to meet their students’ needs. We see this happen so that schools can have field trips, buy new computers and other equipment, so why not fundraise for children who need some additional help?

2. What about the needs of the others kids who aren’t disabled?
The needs of non-disabled children are certainly not being met when they are taught to participate in unlawful, abusive discrimination practices. The students without disabilities are not being helped when they are distracted by a significant portion of their classmates being dismissed earlier than everyone else. The students with disabilities are also being shortchanged out of getting to know their fellow students with differences when they are segregated from them. Students with disabilities are not going to burden their non-disabled peers, harass them, bully them. Segregation, and discrimination does not serve or protect any of the students.

3. I don’t have a disabled child. Why should I care about separate schedules, shortened school days or segregation?
Your child is being taught that discrimination is acceptable practice. Your child’s education matters and so does your child’s peers with differences in ability. Would you want your child being taught that the segregation of racial minorities is acceptable or that girls and boys shouldn’t get the same equal access and number of hours of education?

4. The “short buses” have to come and go at different times. It’s for the safety of all the students.
This is no excuse to violate the law. There are teachers, principals and aides at most schools. A plethora of staff who are competent enough to help direct all student traffic out to buses, and their parents in an orderly fashion.

5. The autistic kids have problems with noises and too much commotion. They have to leave earlier.
No, they do not have to leave earlier. In fact, the law is there to protect all students from such discrimination and segregation. Autistic people have the potential to overcome their challenges, and adapt to their surroundings, even when it is a struggle to deal with sounds, crowds and commotion. Besides, teachers, and other staff can regulate the hallways and organize dismissal time to benefit all students and ensure they are dismissed safely and appropriately. There is no reason autistic students should be singled out or shortchanged of even ten minutes of their educational time via the excuse that due to their disability it is for “their own good” to be dismissed apart from everyone else. Students with disabilities can also have specific supports put into their IEP (perhaps headphones or music for dismissal time, which was suggested by a fellow autistic advocate).

6. I am scared to say anything, because I have heard of schools retaliating against parents and workers.
I understand this is a serious problem and it seems to be a common fear. You can anonymously report acts of retaliation to the Office for Civil Rights. You can connect with local advocates,and various groups. For more information on resources near you, see the ICAA Resources guide or contact us.

Remember, your child’s school is responsible for following the law, providing adequate education, and you, as the parent, are responsible for your child for his or her lifetime. The future is in your hands. If you are a worker, the students depend on you to guide them, and to lead by example.

Education is the foundation for everything, and without it, we are cutting our chance of reaching our goals and achieving our dreams. Denying education to some, based on their differences, is against the law. For more information on the movement to more adequately respect and enforce educational and civil rights for people with all different abilities, please see this timeline document.

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