“I’m sorry, but we currently don’t accept students with IEPs.” This phrase has been told to me numerous times during my search for schools for my child. And each and every time I hear it, I am stunned and hurt by the discrimination.
Even as a seasoned parent of a disabled child, it still shocks me how openly and unapologetically schools discriminate against my child, especially considering all the work that has been done to stop blatant racism and racial segregation of students. And it is totally legal.
Recently, we celebrated the 47th anniversary of The Individuals with Disability Education Act(IDEA). IDEA was, and is, a ground-breaking law that made “free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities.” IDEA is one of the key civil rights laws in our country. It was forged and fought for by millions of disabled folks and their allies to force public schools to allow disabled students access to their local schools.
Since the law was passed, millions of children with disabilities across the spectrum, from those with visible physical disabilities to students with mental disabilities, have been allowed to go to school with their non-disabled peers. America, and the world, have been blessed because of the inclusion of disabled children.
Non-disabled students have been able to learn from disabled students who are blind, deaf or need a wheelchair, and it has been a gift to both the non-disabled and disabled children to experience the power of diversity in changing stereotypes and developing diverse leaders who will help America become “a more better union.”
So many of America’s greatest citizens were/are disabled: including many well-known folks like Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Walt Disney, President Franklin Roosevelt, Michael J. Fox, and Stevie Wonder, to name a few. The idea that these amazing folks would not have been allowed because they are/were disabled should serve as a spark to change the policy. Granted, because of the advocacy of inclusion in schools for policies like IDEA, many public school students are learning aside from their non-disabled peers and they are both thriving, it is still not enough. Many public schools are failing disabled students, but at least they are allowed to enroll.
Today, most students have always gone to school with disabled children and might be shocked to learn there was a time when disabled children had to go to “segregated schools” because the public schools didn’t have basic accommodations like ramps or speech therapists.
I will not deny we have come a long way in the disability community in great part due to IDEA, we still have a long way to go. I am unapologetically in support of school choice for parents. If a school is failing my child or failing any child, I believe it is my right to choose another school.
Unfortunately, as the parent of a disabled child, parental choice is not enough: schools can still legally choose not to enroll my child simply because she is disabled.
There are valid “reasons” why they discriminate, the number one being the cost often associated with accommodating schools. Many private schools, in particular older Catholic schools, are in buildings that are not accessible, and the costs to update these schools are too high for schools already functioning on lean budgets.
There is also the cost of providing non-physical accommodations to disabled students. Many students, like my child, need additional staff support, like speech, occupational, and social work therapy to help them in school. And many private schools do not have the budget to meet these additional staffing needs.
As a Christian, there are certain concepts that are primary to my faith. One of those concepts, “love your neighbor,” is a critical part of my faith. When Jesus was asked what the most important part of our religion is, He said, “Love God and love your neighbor.” And discriminating against people, for whatever reason, no matter how valid and costly, is not love.
There are numerous reasons to support disabled students in all schools. First, when schools have full inclusion, of disabled and nondisabled students, there are researched benefits in overall student outcomes. Further, thanks to laws like IDEA, there is a legal precedent as to why we should not discriminate against disabled children. Lastly, the USA is the richest country in the world, surely, we can find money to provide accommodations for students with disabilities.
Logically, I understand there are high costs and hurdles to make all schools inclusive for disabled students. But, this isn’t about logic; this is about morality, and it is morally wrong, whatever the reason, for schools to discriminate against disabled students.
And as we are in the Advent season, celebrating the miracle birth of Jesus Christ, I have miraculous hope for my Christmas gift: I hope for a day when all children will have access to schools. Especially our private Christian schools.
Instead, I want to ask for full inclusion in all schools, especially our Christian schools, because it is our duty as people of faith and as Christians to love one another. And, if our children go to private Christian schools because the private Christian school is best for our child, then, as Christians, it is incumbent on us to make these schools available to neighbor’s child(ren).
Advent is the season of hope: to mirror the hope that Mother Mary had in anticipation of the birth of her child. As the parent of a disabled child, my hope is that Christian schools will reflect on the words of Mother Mary and her declarations in the Magnificat and change the policies of “discretionary acceptance” of students with disabilities.