Families and disability advocates this year are marking the 50th anniversary of historic legislation that made Washington state the first to require public schools to serve students with developmental disabilities. It wasn’t until Gov. Dan Evans signed what became known as Education for All in 1971 that schools opened their doors to disabled students, finally giving them the constitutionally guaranteed public education given to their peers.
For this achievement, as with many in our nation’s history, we have a group of determined mothers to thank.
In the mid-1960s, four moms here in Washington refused the common notion of the time that their children could not be taught or that harsh, distant institutions that cut off disabled children from their families were the only option. They started their own school, which still serves Washingtonians, hiring their own teachers to offer programming specifically for children with special needs. They then took their fight to Olympia and Washington, D.C., convincing lawmakers and President Gerald Ford that public schools must teach all children and that doing so would benefit children everywhere.
But a half-century later, some of the promises made in these historic civil rights policies have yet to be met. That includes significant shortfalls in funding.
For example, Congress has never given school districts the funding it promised to support the additional costs required for serving developmentally disabled students. The national Education for All legislation is now known as the Individual with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). IDEA calls for the federal government to compensate districts for 40% of those costs. Currently, the average is around 14%.
Here in Washington, lawmakers implemented an arbitrary cap on the amount of funding for special education a district can receive, which is currently 13.5% of a school district’s total population — no matter how many developmentally disabled students they serve. Legislators said the reasoning behind the cap was suspicion that districts were taking advantage of special-education funding, but all the cap has done is further limit smaller and rural districts, where support services for disabled people are already harder to access.
Despite Washington’s early leadership, our schools now also lag behind much of the nation in the amount of time children with disabilities are included in general education classrooms. Research shows classroom inclusion is critical for growth in all areas for disabled students, especially reading and math, without any negative impact on general education students. Inclusion also increases empathy, helps fight the stigma associated with the disabled community and rightfully raises the expectations of disabled students.
But, without needed state and federal funding, school districts cannot provide the training and other support teachers need to adequately serve and include every child. That leaves districts struggling to figure out where to use their already scarce resources, risking programs that serve all students.
Inclusion must also go beyond education. Washington employers must do more. Including and accommodating disabled employees should be part of every organization’s hiring practices and diversity, equity and inclusion goals. A large body of research has shown including employees with disabilities benefits all employees and a company’s bottom line — with higher productivity and higher revenues. Yet, fewer than 30% of companies strive to include people with disabilities.
As we reflect on progress over the last several decades, we cannot leave individuals with disabilities and their families to continue this long fight for equity solely on their own. We all have skin in this game. Achieving success will take a broad coalition of allies who educate themselves and engage in moving this work forward in our schools, workplaces and communities.
The parents of every child with a developmental disability have experienced the difficulty and exhaustion of fighting the system to make sure their child has a fair shot. That’s what led a group of mothers to change the education system in America 50 years ago. The disabled community and its advocates have made great progress standing on their shoulders. Imagine what more we could achieve with an even broader base of support.