Advocates of disability rights are savoring the significance.
For the first time in an election cycle, nearly every major U.S. presidential candidate has put forth policy plans that focus on the largest minority group in the United States: people with disabilities. One in 4 adults has a disability.
When Pete Buttigieg released his 19-page plan in the fall of 2019, titled “Dignity, Access, and Belonging: A New Era of Inclusion for People with Disabilities,” it caught the attention of disability and inclusive-education advocates alike. Among the key proposals were ending sub-minimum wages for over 100,000 workers — typically those with significant disabilities — and making inclusive education a “national expectation.”
Along with Buttigieg, other Democratic presidential candidates — including Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang — have proposed fully funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When the law first passed in 1975, Congress promised to pay 40 percent of the cost of special-education services. And yet the federal government ultimately only covers 14.6 percent of the additional cost.
Regarding Buttigieg’s plan for inclusive education, one of his goals is to “ensure that 85 percent of students with intellectual and multiple disabilities are in general education classrooms for 80 percent or more of the day by the end of the 2025 school year.” For this special-education teacher, the goal sounds like it was written for an Individualized Education Program. It is specific, measurable and time-based. Whether it’s achievable is another matter.
While other candidates outline how they would support special education, Buttigieg has a plan that specifically addresses priorities that inclusive-education advocates have been talking about for decades, including: Ensuring students with disabilities can learn in a safe and supportive environment by reducing bullying and ending corporal punishment, restraint and seclusion; improving student mental health, which has deteriorated at an alarming rate; building on the promise and success of the Autism CARES Act, and strengthening Title IX protections and support for students with disabilities who face sexual assault in college.
Even Elizabeth Warren, who has put forth the most comprehensive disability policy to date, barely mentions inclusion in K-12 schools. In her plan, she notes that she would “fight to require states to include steps toward inclusion in their [Every Student Succeeds Act] state plans and to invest in technical assistance for schools and teachers toward true inclusion.”
You don’t have to look far to find examples of authentic inclusion happening all around the United States. CHIME Charter School has included students with autism, multiple and intellectual disabilities, and ADHD, among the other 10 disability categories under IDEA, in which students have received services since the 1990s. From 2013 to 2017, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs provided funding to the SWIFT Center, which included partner sites in Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oregon and Vermont. SWIFT was designed to be a national K-8 technical assistance center for schoolwide inclusive education.
Most recently, the state of Washington has agreed to “provide $25 million for professional development, including coaching and mentoring classroom teachers on best practices for inclusion, called the Inclusionary Practices Professional Development Project.” The TIES Center is partnering with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to increase the meaningful inclusion of students with significant disabilities in general education from kindergarten through 12th grade.
But what about the “least restrictive environment“? Doesn’t this assume that some students with significant disabilities will need a setting other than general education? According to the most recent data, students with intellectual disabilities and multiple disabilities participated in general education classes at 17 percent and 13 percent, respectively. No matter how you look at this, the percentages are appalling. Buttigieg’s goal of 85 percent looks unreachable in light of current numbers. People will balk at this aspirational increase, assuming nothing will change in the educational landscape.
Moreover, there are already strong feelings about the suitability of students with multiple and intellectual disabilities in general-education classrooms. Frankly, most of these objections are ableist. I can hear the choruses of naysayers with notions of “What are they going to get out of learning about Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets?” Let me ask you a question: What does anyone get out of them?
One thing that people who are firmly planted in the status quo cannot argue with is the plethora of research that says inclusive education benefits all students. The mystery that has eluded inclusive-education advocates, like me, is how to convince the rest of the country to pay attention.
Regardless of how one feels about Buttigieg, the renewed focus on disability rights during the 2020 U.S. presidential election is already making them a mainstream issue. Inclusionists, like myself, hope that conversation around Buttigieg’s education policy will sway other candidates to detail how to engage with families of nearly 7 million children receiving special-education services in the United States. Special education was never supposed to be a place but rather a service. The way that we implement special education across the nation doesn’t match the spirit of IDEA. If we can get beyond the mindset of whether or not inclusive education should be a priority, we can get down to the business of how to make it a reality.
By the time the 2020 election results are in, all of this conjecture might be moot. What I am holding onto is that, even if only for a moment, inclusive education was a national policy talking-point. That might be the spark to spur on an inclusive-education movement for the next decade.
Tim Villegas is the founder/editor of Think Inclusive and host of the Think Inclusive Podcast. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, and writes mainly about inclusion and education.