On July 27, 2020, I moderated a panel titled “Education and Skills for a Better Future” to mark the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a comprehensive civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities. This panel was part of a week-long “#ADA30 Summit 2020,” sponsored by RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization working to fight stigma and advance opportunity for people with disabilities. Four colleagues joined me in a conversation about the opportunities and challenges facing people with disabilities in our K-12 schools and higher education systems, before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ollie Cantos is a civil rights lawyer, blind Filipino-American, and longtime advocate for disability issues who currently serves as a member of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. As a professional, he explained how the ADA and other federal laws are on the books to support families and educators that work with students with disabilities. As a parent, he spoke about being the father of blind 21-year-old triplets who recently contracted and beat COVID-19. Cantos also discussed the challenges associated with educating his children in the school system — all of whom became Eagle Scouts.
Sneha Dave is a recent graduate from Indiana University and executive director of the Health Advocacy Summit, a nonprofit she founded to advocate for young adults with rare and chronic diseases. She explained how her diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis at age six impacted her academic career. Rather than allowing it to hinder her, she used her experience to found the Crohn’s and Colitis Young Adults Network, an online platform and international fellowship program to connect young adults with inflammatory bowel diseases around the world.
Nicole Homerin is an educator with years of experience working with students with disabilities. She discussed her journey from a para-professional to a classroom teacher to her current role as a doctoral student in special education at California State University, Los Angeles. She reflected on the importance of classroom teachers to special education students, and the devastating impact COVID-19 is having on both students and teachers. In addition to this work, Homerin is a National Leadership Program Fellow at RespectAbility, and co-author of RespectAbility’s Special Education During COVID-19 Toolkit.
Paul Luelmo is an assistant professor of special education at San Diego State University. He discussed the importance of looking beyond disability. Many see disability as the sole factor impacting education, but others such as ethnicity, poverty, and especially parental roles must also be part of conversations about special education. Luelmo is using his research to include a parent-to-parent advocacy intervention model to address autism service disparities in the Individualized Education Program (IEP), among other things. He is also working to improve special education para-professional training.
President Bush signed the ADA into law on July 26, 1990. At the time, approximately 43 million people had a disability. Only about 28.7 percent of working-age adults who reported a disability had a job, and but a third of youth with disabilities who graduated obtained a job or pursued postsecondary educational options.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the national employment rate for working-age adults with disabilities was 36.7 percent. Of the more than 20 million working-age people with a disability, only 7.5 million had jobs.
A combination of challenges has led to frustrating outcomes — even before COVID-19. Among the high school class of 2018, students with disabilities had significantly lower rates of completion than students without disabilities. The numbers for college are even bleaker — only 7 percent of students with disabilities manage to graduate from college. At the same time, thousands of people with disabilities are locked away and women account for a sizable portion of this population. These numbers show how far we’ve come, but they also show how much farther we have to go — things were clearly far from perfect before the pandemic.
However, COVID-19 has made things worse for those with disabilities. An April report from the Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire concluded nearly one million working-age people with disabilities had lost their jobs. According to the CDC, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are more likely to have comorbid conditions increasing their risk of severe illness.
As approximately 90 percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 have underlying conditions, it is clear that students with disabilities face unique health risks in restarting school. However, remote learning has also been challenging for students with disabilities from across the country.
As we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the ADA, let’s avoid narrowmindedness. The ADA is a disability law but also so much more than that: It is a statement about human flourishing. Let’s take a lesson from that and work together to improve the employment and educational lives of children and adults living with disabilities.
This article by Gerard Robinson first appeared in August 2020 on the AEI Ideas Blog.