U.S. Disability Rights Advances and Setbacks: 2017 Year in Review

January 17th: Future Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shows lack of knowledge about the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)Betsy DeVos special education

During her confirmation hearing for education secretary, Betsy DeVos frustrated many special education advocates by stating that enforcement of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires public schools to provide “free appropriate public education” to children with disabilities, was “a matter best left up to the states.”

In response, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) said, “So some states might be good to kids with disabilities and other states might not be so good and, what then, people can just move around the country if they don’t like how kids are being treated?”

In the moment, Secretary DeVos simply reiterated that she thought it should be left up to the states. Near the end of the hearing, she said that she didn’t understand that IDEA was a federal law (1).


January 20th – February 16th: Trump administration removes disability information from white house website

Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump’s administration removed several of the most visited disability-related pages from the white house website, including a page on federal policies regarding disability rights, a contact page for the Disability Issues Outreach Team, and a page on the government’s commitment to support persons with disabilities (2), as well as a button users could press to find accessibility features of the website (such as closed captioning options and alt tags to enable the use of screen readers).

On February 8th, a resource website for IDEA also disappeared. This website, which was launched by Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, had been continuously updated by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) with any changes in legislation or important Supreme Court rulings.

In an open letter to Secretary Betsy DeVos, Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Patty Murray (D-WA) wrote that, “The Department’s failure to keep this critical resource operational makes it harder for parents, educators, and administrators to find the resources they need to implement this federal law and protect the rights of children with disabilities” (3). This website was restored on February 16th; a statement from Secretary DeVos attributed its disappearance to technical issues (4).  

The disability rights pages and accessibility button removed in January, nearly a year ago, are still missing. If you click on the links (above), you will be directed to a page that says, “Thank you for your interest in this subject. Stay tuned as we continue to update whitehouse.gov.”


January 28th: Secretary DeVos expresses support of controversial school voucher program

Secretary Betsy DeVos published a letter clarifying her position on IDEA, stating that she is aware it is a federal law and wants to do more to advance educational opportunities for students with disabilities. In the letter, she also expressed her support for a voucher program that gives funds for special education students to attend private school (5).

While some were satisfied with this response, others have argued that funding private school education and essentially giving up on public school for students with disabilities is not the way to go. Private, religious schools are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which means that they do not have to accept or provide accommodations to students with disabilities. In many areas, the only private schools around are religious institutions. Therefore, special needs students may not be able to benefit from school of choice vouchers. Senator Maggie Hassan (Da-NH), whose son has cerebral palsy, told NPR that, “Many of us see this as the potential for turning our public schools into warehouses for the most challenging kids with disabilities or other kinds of particular issues” (6).


February 22nd: US Supreme Court affirms right to bring service dogs to school

In a case called Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a girl named Ehlena Fry, who has cerebral palsy, had the right to bring a hypoallergenic service dog named Wonder to her school. The school argued that they could prohibit Wonder’s entry because a human aide could also help Ehlena with the tasks he performed, such as opening doors and picking up dropped items.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (Ehlena’s representation) argued that Wonder enabled Ehlena’s independence a fundamental right under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In a press release, the ACLU said that denying a service dog entry because an aide was available “would be like saying that a school had no obligation to build a wheelchair ramp so long as volunteers were willing to lift students who used wheelchairs up and down the stairs every day.” The Supreme Court justices agreed, ruling unanimously in Ehlena’s favor (7).


March 22nd: US Supreme court determines that schools must try harder when it comes to special education

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District case determined that schools must set higher educational standards for children with disabilities. The case began after the parents of Endrew, a boy with autism, pulled him out of public school because they did not believe he was receiving the free and appropriate education he was entitled to under IDEA. The Supreme Court ruled that Endrew’s school was providing “merely more than de minimus” education, and that schools must set “appropriately ambitious” goals for special education students (8).


May 4th: House of Representatives passes the American Health Care Act

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act (AHCA) of 2017 (HR 1628), with the aim of partially repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly referred to as Obamacare. This act proposed major cuts to Medicaid, a government insurance program that many people with and without disabilities rely on for healthcare (these cuts to Medicaid would have also impacted special education programs). Many disability advocates spoke in opposition of this bill.


July 28th: Senate rejects a similar bill to eliminate many benefits guaranteed by the Affordable Care ActCapitol Building - Senate rejects "skinny" bill

The Senate rejected a scaled-back plan to reverse parts of the Affordable Care Act. This occurred in a dramatic upset in which Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and John McCain(R-AZ) sided against President Trump and other GOP leaders. McCain’s “no” vote was particularly unexpected given previous statements he had made, and elicited gasps and applause from some audience members (9).

Protesters with disabilities, many from the organization ADAPT, galvanized the resistance to this bill. Some were arrested, but their efforts were not in vain. As Laura Chapin wrote in a column for US News & World Report, personal stories from people with disabilities made it “impossible for Republican senators to talk about it in the abstract” (10).


October 17th: Senator Tammy Duckworth criticizes a bill that, if passed, will reverse some of the rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) published a column in the Washington Post criticizing bill HR 620, which would repeal part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was signed into law in 1990, by President George H.W. Bush, and was a bipartisan effort to stop legally-sanctioned discrimination against people with disabilities. At the time, President Bush stated, “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

In her op-ed, Senator Duckworth notes that “Decades later, the forces of discrimination are working hard to rebuild that wall.” HR 620 would allow businesses to wait until after they have received formal complaints to begin making reasonable efforts to accommodate people with disabilities; she stresses that businesses have already had 27 years to comply with the ADA, and that people with disabilities need to be accommodated now, not later. Senator Duckworth, who lost both of her legs while fighting in Iraq, writes, “I understand that not everyone thinks about these things because, for most of my adult life, I didn’t either. But the truth is that everyone, whether they realize it or not, is just one bad day away from needing accessible options to help them get around their community” (11).


October 27th: Secretary DeVos rescinds 72 policy documents that clarified rights of students with disabilities

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded 72 policy documents focused on the rights of students with disabilities. According to a Department of Education statement, these documents were “outdated, unnecessary, or ineffective.” Many civil rights groups disagreed, saying that they offered important clarifications of rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Rehabilitation Act. While both acts are technically still in effect, many fear that without these guiding documents, the rights they confer may not be respected in court (12).


November 2nd: United States Government Accountability office releases a report stating that over 80% of polling places have accessibility issuesPolling Station Accessibility

A report from the United States Government Accountability Office revealed that in the 2016 election, less than 20% of polling places were fully accessible. Issues included a lack of accessible parking spaces, paths, and entrances, as well as voting stations that could not accommodate wheelchair users without personal assistance. The researchers conclude that, “Our work examining the accessibility of polling places for voters with disabilities during the 2000, 2008, and 2016 general elections points to the need for additional progress to help voters with disabilities enter and move through polling places, access voting systems, and cast a private and independent vote” (13).


Also on November 2nd: Bill is introduced to Senate that aims to increase safety of people with developmental disabilities

Bill HR 4221 was introduced by Senator Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). It is called “Kevin and Avonte’s Law,” after two children on the autism spectrum who wandered off and drowned (click here to read more about Avonte). If passed, it will provide funding for a) wearable tracking devices and other resources to help people keep tabs on family members with developmental disabilities, and b) efforts to educate law enforcement agents on how to respond to wandering cases. Bill HR 4221 would expand on an existing program aimed at protecting people with Alzheimer’s disease (14).


November 16th: House of Representatives passes controversial tax bill

The House of Representatives passed Republican-led tax reform legislation (HR 1). This bill proposes widespread changes that would affect people with disabilities. These include, among many others, raising the cost of health insurance and medical care, getting rid of incentives for pharmaceutical companies to research drugs for rare conditions, and eliminating tax credits that help small businesses increase their accessibility to customers and employees (15).


December 2nd: Senate passes similar tax bill; begins working with House to settle differences amid ongoing protests of both versions

The Senate narrowly passed a similar tax reform bill negotiators from the House and Senate began meeting to merge the two bills into one law. Over a dozen disability rights groups protested these tax reform plans, citing concern that it will lead to cuts on vital programs that help people with disabilities to obtain medical care, housing, and employment (16).


December 21st: Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinds 25 ADA guidance documents

In a move highly reminiscent of Betsy DeVos’s elimination of policy documents clarifying students’ rights under IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act, Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked 25 guidance documents that explained rights under the ADA. He called them “unnecessary, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper.” However, many disability advocates feel differently. The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities and the Collaboration to Promote Self Determination (two umbrella organizations encompassing dozens of advocacy groups) released a statement saying they are “extremely concerned” (17, 18).


December 22nd: President Trump signs a finalized tax bill

President Trump signed the final tax reform bill (19). Exactly how it will impact people with disabilities remains to be seen, but activists have expressed concern that it may affect crucial programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.


Sources:

  1. Betsy DeVos apparently ‘confused’ about federal law protecting students with disabilities
  2. Trump White House takes down website pages about disabilities
  3. Cantwell, Murray Seek Answers From Betsy DeVos After Resource Website for Federal Law Protecting Students with Disabilities is Taken Down, Redirects to Inadequate Source
  4. Federal special-ed website appears to be working after being down for more than a week
  5. The deep irony in Betsy DeVos’s first speech on special education
  6. The Promise and Perils of School Vouchers
  7. Ehlena and Wonder the Service Dog’s Incredible Journey to the Supreme Court
  8. Supreme Court Expands Rights for Students with Disabilities
  9. Senate rejects measure to partly repeal Affordable Care Act, dealing GOP leaders a major setback
  10. Refusing to Be Dismissed: Disabled activists are forcing the conversation to be about people, not just numbers
  11. Congress wants to make Americans with disabilities second-class citizens again
  12. DeVos rescinds 72 guidance documents outlining rights for disabled students
  13. Observations on Polling Place Accessibility and Related Federal Guidance
  14. Autism Wandering Bill Advances In Senate
  15. The Congressional Republican Tax Plan Is a Tax on Disability
  16. Tax Bill May Threaten Disability Services
  17. Attorney General Jeff Sessions Rescinds 25 Guidance Documents
  18. Justice Department Scraps ADA Guidance
  19. In Signing Sweeping Tax Bill, Trump Questions Whether He Is Getting Enough Credit

2017 Year in Review - Disability Legislation