Originally published in The Daily Iowan
I attended public schools in the Johnston School District in my hometown of Johnston, Iowa, which is the home of ChildServe, an organization that provides many services for people with disabilities up to the age of 21. As someone with a disability myself, I used services from ChildServe when I was still living at home and under the age of 21, mostly physical therapy and coverage of personal-care services. ChildServe provides group homes for people with disabilities and all of these homes are in or near Johnston, meaning the public schools had many students with disabilities.
Our high school was split level, and up until my junior year, the elevator was not up to code. It was incredibly small — there was another student in a wheelchair whose chair was bigger than mine and it couldn’t fit. It was rickety — before I got to high school, a teacher got stuck in the elevator halfway between the first and second floor. It was illegal — it inhibited all students from equally accessing our school, which is covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
On Tuesday, Congress confirmed Betsy DeVos as the U.S. secretary of Education. In DeVos’s Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, she suggested each state should be able to choose whether it would enforce IDEA and later claimed she had been confused about what IDEA entailed. DeVos has also championed private schools over public schools, which is alarming for many reasons, foremost in my mind being that IDEA does not apply to private schools, because private schools do not receive federal funding.
On Jan. 23, DeVos sent a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, in which she claimed to fully explain her “position on the importance of protecting the rights of students with disabilities and ensuring they receive the quality education they deserve.” Her letter went on to say she would enforce the federal law and give students with disabilities more choices. What she means by this is anybody’s guess. I, for one, have no faith in her ability to protect education for all.
We have an incredibly long way to go as a country in regard to education for people with disabilities, and Tuesday, we took a giant step backwards. I am thankful I am no longer in K-12 school, and I’ve been thankful I’ve been out of high school for four years now, but for starkly different reasons than being concerned about my ability to access free and equal education. And while I may have made it out safely, there are still about 20 percent of students who have disabilities who will have to reconcile any decisions DeVos may implement. The rights of people with disabilities have once again been swept aside, and for me, this is met with equal parts heartbreak and outrage.