Celebrating a Disability Rights Pioneer

Ed Roberts is one of the most important pioneers of the disability rights movement. Roberts was a talented athlete with dreams of playing professional baseball when he was disabled by polio in 1953 at the age of 14. Having a disability taught him many things, not the least of which was the importance of a good education. He could only move a couple of fingers and a couple of toes, yet he attended three years of high school by phone while lying in his iron lung at home.

After a senior year back in the school building, Roberts still had to fight to be allowed to graduate, but eventually he received his diploma with his mom Zona by his side. When he went to college and graduate school, he had to find a place to live on campus that could accommodate the iron lung he slept in every night.

Roberts also started using a power wheelchair while he was in graduate school. If you’ve ever used a curb cut to help you cross a street with a stroller, a rolling suitcase or a wheelchair, you can thank Ed Roberts and his allies with disabilities. His iron lung and his power wheelchair are now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington, D.C.

Besides his advocacy for educational rights, Roberts was a founder of the Independent Living (IL) movement and director of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) in California. Both IL and VR have been part of the Department of Education since it began, and the programs operate in all 50 states and DC. Later in his life, Roberts took time to speak to hundreds of young adults with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities across the US. That’s where I met him, when my son Charlie was only seven years old. Roberts taught what nobody else did: that people with disabilities belong everywhere; that a student with the most profound disabilities has a lot to offer in any classroom; and that my job as a parent was to ensure that my son could make his own choices, and make his own voice heard, even if he couldn’t speak. Ed showed every day that charisma is not limited to able-bodied people, and that just being present is a form of advocacy. No wonder he won a MacArthur fellowship “genius” award: he helped us all understand that learning to thrive with disability was about expectations, education, employment, and empowerment above all else.

In January, the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services invited current and emerging leaders of the civil rights movement of people with disabilities to celebrate Roberts’s life. Guests discussed their own experiences in the civil rights movements of people with disabilities, the impact Ed Roberts had on their lives, and the importance of sharing his story with future generations of students.

Many students and families still don’t know about the civil rights movement of people with disabilities. Empowerment comes with knowledge. Learning about Ed Roberts is a great place to start.

To learn more about Ed Roberts and the civil rights movement of people with disabilities the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities website.

Sue Swenson is deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Building a High Quality Early Learning System

As part of the Secretary’s Strong Start, Bright Future back-to-school bus tour, I had the opportunity to meet with early learning providers, parents, and children in Las Cruces, N.M. Las Cruces, situated near the Mexico border, has a large Hispanic community and is surrounded by small rural farming villages. It was chile harvest time and the smell of roasting green chile was in the air.

Michael Yudin during school visitLas Cruces and Doña Ana County are served by three early intervention agencies under contract with the New Mexico Department of Health, Family Infant Toddler (FIT) Program. The FIT Program is the lead agency for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Part C) and ensures that families of children birth to age three with, or at risk of, developmental delays and disabilities have access to quality early intervention services, no matter where they live. In New Mexico, that can mean serving families in large urban areas, rural towns and small villages, tribal communities, and those families living on ranches separated by long dirt roads. I was thrilled to personally witness the passion, commitment, and dedication of the individuals and organizations involved in making sure that families get the supports and services they need, in the language and culture appropriate to the family.    

Of course, children receiving Part C services are children first, and have the same need for high-quality early care and learning opportunities as their nondisabled peers.  Fortunately, for the children and families in Doña Ana County, providers of Part C services, Head Start, Early Head Start, home visitation, child care, and the public preschools all work together to ensure that some of our most vulnerable babies have access to high-quality early learning.

For New Mexico, it starts with rigorous outreach, public awareness, and home visitation to identify infants and toddlers who are eligible for early intervention services.  According to Andy Gomm, the State FIT Director, “we make sure families know that early intervention can make a lifetime of difference.” Part C early intervention services provide critical supports and services to our youngest children with disabilities or delays so they too can enter kindergarten ready to succeed.

But Part C services are not an educational placement. Young children with disabilities need these services as part of their early learning experience. To be most effective, these services should be delivered in inclusive early care and education settings.

With scarce resources, the providers in Doña Ana County work collaboratively and share those resources, tools, professional development, and training to make sure that families get the early care and education their children need. Parents expressed how important it is for these providers to work together so their children can experience seamless, high-quality early learning.

During the trip, I also had the opportunity to visit with the amazing folks at “Jardin de los Niños,” who provide early care and education, as well as parent support services, to homeless families. One of the highlights was playing in the sand box with a little girl who offered to “bake me a chocolate cake” out of sand. These educators and other providers are truly creating new possibilities for homeless and near homeless children and families.

The dedicated and passionate early care and education providers of Doña Ana County are working together to meet the diverse needs of young children and families in their community. They’re building a high-quality early learning system, giving our children the best opportunity for a strong start and a bright future.

Michael Yudin is acting assistant secretary for ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Increasing Access Through U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools

I spend a lot of time thinking about students with disabilities, their families and their schools.  In fact, I believe the disability topic is a natural part of most of our work here at the U.S. Department of Education.  I really like finding the connection. Last week, I had the opportunity to travel with U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) Director Andrea Falken to visit honorees in southeast Wisconsin, where I learned that disability is, indeed, a real part of the whole ED-GRS initiative. Connected to disability? As we say in the Midwest: You betcha!

Duck Release

Students at Purdy Elementary, in Fort Atkinson School District, release the ducklings hatched in the school courtyard at their constructed boardwalk and wetland.

First, ED-GRS is about facilities. Any advocate worth their salt knows how facilities affect students with disabilities. When schools think about sustainability, it is natural to think about ways to improve accessibility, whether that means level access for a wheelchair, or natural daylight for students who are hyper-aware of the “buzz” made by fluorescent lights, or reduced chemicals for students and adults with specific sensitivities.

During our visit to Fort Atkinson School District, we visited Purdy Elementary School and the boardwalk and wetland that the school constructed across the street. The wetland was deep enough to allow life other than just cattails to thrive there. The boardwalk provides students or visitors in wheelchairs access to the teeming ecology all around. Imagine using a wheelchair and being limited to paved surfaces or buildings. With access to the wetland the biology books can come alive. To ensure level access, I suggested that the school extend the walk just a few feet on each end.

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Increased Access to Print Materials for Students Who are Blind and Print Disabled

On June 27, 2013, delegates representing over 160 member states of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), finalized an international treaty that, once ratified, will allow cross-border exchange of published works in specialized formats — braille, large print and audio — increasing access to the content of print materials for persons who are blind and print disabled.

Child ReadingThe Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or otherwise Print Disabled is unique in that it represents an international effort to address an issue affecting persons with print disabilities in all parts of the world. The treaty is a first step to eliminating the “book famine,” a phrase first used in a 1970 UNESCO study that addressed the lack of access to print materials in developing countries, but more recently used to describe the dire shortage of accessible texts for persons with print disabilities.

If ratified, the Marrakesh Treaty promises to benefit students and other persons with print disabilities in the United States. Among the potential beneficiaries of this treaty are the over 255,000 students with print disabilities, K-12, currently receiving accessible books through Bookshare, an online library of digital books for people with print disabilities, supported in part through a cooperative agreement with the Department’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).

The Marrakesh Treaty would also permit authorized entities, like Bookshare, and individuals with print disabilities to locate and obtain accessible books from holdings in other countries, including for example, materials in foreign languages, accessible versions of rare books, and specialized STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) texts and materials. Increased availability to a wide range of materials in accessible formats raises the floor for students and others with print disabilities by providing equal access to information, knowledge and education, the keys to meaningful careers and employment and full inclusion in the community.

The final treaty language and additional information about the Marrakesh Diplomatic Conference can be found at http://www.wipo.int/portal/index.html.en

Information on eligibility and accessing materials at Bookshare can be found at https://www.bookshare.org/

Glinda Hill is an education program specialist in the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education

Join the Conversation to Improve Transition from School to Work for Youth with Disabilities

Today’s young people must graduate from high school with the skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century global economy.  And that certainly includes youth with disabilities.  To that end, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy are working closely together to create opportunities for youth with disabilities to graduate college and career ready.

Our economy demands a talented and diverse workforce.  President Obama has called on the Federal Government to hire an additional 100,000 workers with disabilities by 2015.  Senator Harkin joined with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in setting a goal to increase the size of the disability workforce from under five million to six million by 2015.  Delaware’s Governor Markell, as Chair of the National Governor’s Association, has called on state governments to identify business partners who will work with them to develop strategic plans for the employment and retention of workers with disabilities.

We believe that all youth, including youth with disabilities, must graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills to be successful in the workforce. While in school, students with disabilities must be held to high expectations, participate in the general curriculum, be exposed to rigorous coursework, and have meaningful and relevant transition goals and services aligned to college- and career-ready standards. Research has shown that effective transition services are directly linked to better postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities. Research also tells us that to flourish in the workplace youth with disabilities must also be provided with the opportunity to develop leadership skills, to engage in self-determination and career exploration, and to participate in paid work-based experiences while in high school.  With only 20.7 percent of working age people with disabilities participating in the labor force, compared to 68.8 percent of those without disabilities, we must do better!

That is why we’re currently hosting, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Social Security Administration, the first-ever national online dialogue to help shape federal agency strategies for helping young people with disabilities successfully transition from school to work. We know that we cannot do this alone. To bring about lasting change, we need educators, service providers, disability advocates, policymakers, and youth with disabilities and their families to provide input. We want and need to hear from you!

Akin to a “virtual town hall,” this dialogue invites members of the public to help us learn what’s working, what’s not, and where change is needed, with particular focus on how various federal laws and regulations impact the ability of youth with disabilities to be successful in today’s global economy. This “Conversation for Change” started on May 13 and runs through May 27th. More than 2,000 people have participated, and we want you to join-in also! We encourage everyone who is interested in improving transition outcomes for youth with disabilities to contribute.

We hope you will lend your voice to our efforts to ensure inclusion, equity and opportunity on behalf of America’s youth with disabilities.

Join the online dialogue!

Michael Yudin is the acting assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitative services.  Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy. 

Technology Gives Students with Disabilities Access to College Courses

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Program Coordinator Jennifer Lang-Jolliff (green sweater) speaks about Mission Middle College program with guest Michael Yudin, seated on right.

Last week, I met with a group of high school students with learning disabilities who attend a dual-enrollment high school/college program at Mission Middle College in Santa Clara, California. The program emphasizes the use of technology, including the Bookshare accessible library, to help students earn college credit while still in high school.

The Mission Middle College educational program is a collaboration of Santa Clara Unified School District and Mission Community College. The program takes on a student-centered learning environment where seniors can complete required high school courses while accumulating college credits. Each student focuses on individual educational choices and academic and vocational studies relevant to future goals. The idea is to provide learning choices and empowerment for students.  The program is inclusive of all students, with or without a disability.

Some of the students have print and learning disabilities that impede their ability to easily read and comprehend grade-level text and complex curricula in print. Many of these students felt stuck and considered dropping out of school. Their instructors believe in every student’s learning potential and set high expectations. They teach students first to choose appropriate reading technologies for their learning needs, and then to find the reading assignments in digital accessible format, such as DAISY text and DAISY audio.

“We expect high standards from all students,” said Jennifer Lang-Jolliff, the Program Coordinator at Mission Middle College. “And we provide them with the instruction, tools, and resources to rise to the challenge of learning rigorous curriculum. Individualized instruction and timely access to curriculum in digital formats enable many students to feel more confident and prepared. Our high expectations and the e-literacy services available to students helped to shift their views of themselves personally and academically. They see their way through to college, community service, and good careers.”

Indeed, I was pleased to learn that starting with the graduating class of 2009, 100% of graduates at Mission Middle College had a viable postsecondary plan that included a college or university. This is right in line with President Obama’s key goal of being first in the world in college completion by 2020, and Mission Middle College is helping America meet that goal.

The students at Mission Middle College with print disabilities (including visual impairments, physical disabilities, and severe learning disabilities) are empowered to find the right assistive technology, computer software application, or device to help them achieve academically.

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A senior demonstrates technology for Michael Yudin (center) and Benetech’s GM, Betsy Beaumon (standing). Kate Finnerty observes the tech demo.

The students I met are members of Bookshare, a free and federally funded online library from the U.S. Department of Education. Bookshare is an initiative of Benetech, a Palo Alto, CA-based nonprofit that creates sustainable technology to solve pressing social needs. Bookshare provides timely access to curriculum in digital formats and offers a large collection of eBooks (currently over 190,000 books and growing) as well as reading technologies to enable students to experience multimodal learning—the ability to see and hear text read aloud.

I met Kate Finnerty, a high school senior with dyslexia, who qualifies for Bookshare. Kate has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that requires technology accommodations to aid her in her studies. She told me, “The library is very helpful. I use it to keep up with reading and research. Without it, I would have fallen behind.”  Kate is pursuing graphic design—she received acceptance letters from five U.S. colleges!

During the roundtable discussion, students, educators, parents, and administrators explored how Mission Middle College’s use of assistive technologies (AT) helps each student face their learning challenges with individualized approaches, which include digital books and reading technologies. Roundtable takeaways include:

  • The emphasis on self-advocacy. The students set clear goals and high expectations for their future.
  • Teachers give each student individualized attention, creating plans for their future and how to get there.
  • Students who qualify with print disabilities can receive timely access to curriculum and feel more independent and empowered in the reading process through Bookshare and the AT it provides.
  • Many of the students will be doing internships at Benetech this summer and will get work-based experience that will help prepare them for college and career.
  • Technologies can deliver flexible instruction based on learning needs and preferences, including multimodal reading (to see and hear text aloud) that may unlock the reader’s ability to decode words and more fully comprehend information.

Programs like this at Mission Middle College are about making sure every student graduates from high school and is college and career ready. Students who once had to wait for books now receive timely access to the curriculum in alternative formats. Many activities are streamlined for students who may not fit traditional models, and those who once felt like academic failures are now completing high school courses and are on track to college.

I often speak about the broad values of inclusion, equity, and opportunity for youth with disabilities to actively participate in all aspects of school and life. Programs like that of Mission Middle College, which use assistive technologies and digital accessible books provided by Bookshare, are truly models for others. They promote high academic standards for all, enabling more students to be college and career ready.

Michael Yudin is acting assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.  

We Must Provide Equal Opportunity in Sports to Students with Disabilities

Playing sports at any level—club, intramural, or interscholastic—can be a key part of the school experience and have an immense and lasting impact on a student’s life. Among its many benefits, participation in extracurricular athletic activities promotes socialization, the development of leadership skills, focus, and, of course, physical fitness. It’s no secret that sports helped to shape my life. From a very early age, playing basketball taught me valuable lessons about grit, discipline, and teamwork that are still with me to this day.

Duncan signs a basketball

Secretary Duncan signs a basketball before a stop during the 2012 back-to-school bus tour. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Students with disabilities are no different – like their peers without disabilities, these students benefit from participating in sports. But unfortunately, we know that students with disabilities are all too often denied the chance to participate and with it, the respect that comes with inclusion. This is simply wrong. While it’s the coach’s job to pick the best team, students with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities, and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices, or stereotypes.  Knowledgeable adults create the possibilities of participation among children and youth both with and without disabilities.

Today, ED’s Office for Civil Rights has released guidance that clarifies existing legal obligations of schools to provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate alongside their peers in after-school athletics and clubs. We make clear that schools may not exclude students who have an intellectual, developmental, physical, or any other disability from trying out and playing on a team, if they are otherwise qualified. This guidance builds on a resource document the Department issued in 2011 that provides important information on improving opportunities for children and youth with disabilities to access PE and athletics.

Federal civil rights laws require schools to provide equal opportunities, not give anyone an unfair head start. So schools don’t have to change the essential rules of the game, and they don’t have to do anything that would provide a student with a disability an unfair competitive advantage. But they do need to make reasonable modifications (such as using a laser instead of a starter pistol to start a race so a deaf runner can compete) to ensure that students with disabilities get the very same opportunity to play as everyone else. The guidance issued today will help schools meet this obligation and will allow increasing numbers of kids with disabilities the chance to benefit from playing sports.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

Read the “Dear Colleague” letter from the Office for Civil Rights

Transitioning Students with Disabilities into College and Careers

Scott Rich is a prime example of how a student with disabilities can be successful. Rich was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, and behavioral problems affected him throughout elementary school. He had difficulty engaging to the point that he was expelled on several occasions, and during middle and high school, he suffered anxiety and time management issues.

Graduation CapsToday, life for Rich is an entirely different story. At age 29, Rich has earned his M.A. in Special Education, a B.A. in Geography, and a Minor in Special Education. Rich now works as an outreach advocate and is mentoring students with special needs and autism.

“If it wasn’t for parental involvement, the IEP [Individualized Education Program], and IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], it would have been very difficult to complete my education,” said Rich.

During a roundtable discussion as part of ED’s back-to-school bus tour, Sue Swenson, deputy assistant secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative services, and Melody Musgrove, director of Special Education programs, joined Scott Rich and other advocates and parents of children with disabilities to collaborate on some of the challenges, success stories, and experiences of transitioning students with disabilities, from high school to post-secondary education. “Parents have to advocate for students until students can advocate for themselves,” said one parent.

Passionate parents at the summit voiced their opinions on the challenges students with disabilities face as they transition to college and careers, including:

  • The need for an IEP as soon as a child enters elementary school.
  • A lack of knowledge, information and resources about disabilities.
  • The need for better training for schools, districts and staff.
  • Better access to vocational skills and training for students.

Parents and advocates also shared things that are working, including:

  • The availability of resources and information for legal assistance and rights for students with disabilities, as well as workshops for training and employment assistance.
  • Well-documented IEPs.

The event also highlighted the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) which runs a Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) that advocates for both parents and youth.  PTI’s serve families with disabilities from birth through age 21.  Through their training sessions, workshops and one-on-one assistance, they have been able to assist millions of parents and families. The program is funded in part by the Department of Education and more information on the PTI’s can be found at www.parentcenternetwork.org

Linda Pauley works in ED’s Office of Communication and Outreach in the Seattle regional office.

Duncan & Posny Join CEC for Twitter Town Hall

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), Alexa Posny, joined the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) yesterday for a Twitter town hall to address topics ranging from IDEA funding, social inclusion and ensuring that all students have accessible technology.

Check out all the questions and answers below, or at Storify.com/usedgov.

For more information from OSERS, click here.

Duncan and Posny Join CEC Convention for Twitter Town Hall

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Alexa Posny, will join the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) during their 2012 Convention and Expo, for a Twitter Town Hall on Wednesday, April 11, at 3:00 pm ET.
 
Duncan and Posny will discuss and answer questions via Twitter on the importance of early learning, great teachers and leaders, high student achievement, and college and career readiness as we strive to improve results and outcomes for all infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities.
 
CEC’s Annual Conference and Expo in Denver will bring together experts and stakeholders in the field of special education to share and discuss current topics, research and practices related to children and youth with disabilities.
 
How to get involved:

    • Ask your questions before and during the event using the hashtag #CECTownHall.
    • Follow the conversation on April 11, at 3:00 pm ET, with the #CECTownHall hashtag and by following @usedgov, @arneduncan and @CECMembership

If you miss the Twitter Town Hall, a summary of the event will be posted on the Department’s Homeroom Blog following the town hall.

Improving the Lives of Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities and their Families

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

On Tuesday, I had the great opportunity to be on a call with Secretary Duncan and Kareem Dale, Special Assistant to the president for Disability Policy, a call in which we announced the release of final regulations for the early intervention program otherwise known as Part C.  The intent of the regulations is to improve the lives of infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families.

Kurt Kondrich, Pennsylvania State Interagency Coordinating Council Chair and parent advocate with Alexa Posny in Erie, Pa., during ED's Midwest Back-to-School Tour.

To further spread the great news, we held a roundtable event at the YMCA in Erie, PA and along with Maureen Cronin, Bureau Director of Early Intervention Services for the state of Pennsylvania I was able to share and discuss more about the IDEA Part C regulations.  At the YMCA I spent time in the classrooms and played with some of the children, met local parents from the community and provided information regarding those regulations with parents, early intervention service providers, service coordinators and lead agency personnel.  I spoke about a few of the changes that were made to ensure that the administration’s reform goals were addressed; reducing burden; increasing flexibility and most importantly—striving to improve outcomes for our infants and toddlers with disabilities. I believe we’ve done that.

It was exciting to share this information in Pennsylvania, a state that Secretary Duncan praised for their commitment to early childhood education, and as Maureen noted, one of the first states to effectively pair early intervention with early childhood and put all programs “under one roof.” Among the approximately 40 attendees at the roundtable discussion were parents and families, who were able to share some of their experiences and urged others to advocate for their children to ensure they receive the best services possible.

I was thrilled to see that everyone shared a common goal and that all were able to recognize the value of Pennsylvania’s early childhood programs, including the early intervention program serving infants and toddlers with disabilities.  As one parent noted, in a time of strained budgets, investment in early childhood saves money in the long term. As a final thought, it is through collaboration that we are able to make these programs successful for our youngest populations of learners. I want to offer my thanks to all those who participated in the event and for everything they do to help meet the needs of our youngest populations.

Read the press release for the announcement of these regulations and learn more about the IDEA Part C regulations.

Alexa Posny is Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.

Hold Fast to Dreams: Helping All Students Succeed


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Enjoy this great new video highlighting Secretary Duncan’s visit to Beers Elementary last Monday and his speech to the American Association of People with Disabilities Conference the following night.  During his speech, the Secretary explained:

For too long, the answer to educating students with disabilities was to isolate them and to deny them the same educational experiences that others were having, and thankfully, those days are over. The fact is 60% of our students with disabilities spend 80% of their time in the regular school environment. That’s real progress, and there’s absolutely no reason that those numbers should not continue to rise as more and more teachers know how to effectively work with students with disabilities.