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  • Aaron Wright

Stupid Stall Tactics

To the detriment of disabled children (or vulnerable populations in general), we tend to compartmentalize or silo our understanding of certain issues based upon context or our own limiting biases; even when the issues clearly overlap or fall under the same general umbrella. Undeniably, disability rights are civil rights, but it is often difficult for nondisabled people to fully understand the impact improper access or accommodations can have upon the disabled person.

To reframe the debate and crack those silos I would often ask school administrators, special education directors, and other people in positions of power to consider educational access/accommodation issues as if they were something more easily conceptualized; such as a physical disability. Equating educational access to wheelchair ramps or Braille makes disability more tangible, and for some, once the disability becomes “visible” it becomes harder to dismiss.

When my wife and I started navigating the special education process, we had a hard time understanding the “standards” that were being applied to determining if a disabled child would qualify for lawfully protected access to their education. IDEA has a “Child Find” mandate, meaning that it is the responsibility of the public schools to locate, identify and evaluate all children with disabilities from birth through age 21 (even if the child is in a private or homeschool placement). This mandate includes all children who are “suspected” of having a disability, including children who receive passing grades and are "advancing from grade to grade."

Fantastic, right?! But if there is no one policing or enforcing this part of the law, what good is that provision? Unfortunately, there is no IDEA policeman ticketing school districts for blowing past the first stop sign designed to protect vulnerable children.

On our parenting journey, the California Code of Regulations seemed like an arbitrary obstacle as opposed to an inclusive catchall, and we fought tooth and nail to ensure that under those rules, our daughter would be found eligible. But not everyone has the same access to resources or the time to become experts in the special education process; let alone become vocal advocates for their child.

I recently became entangled in a discussion with a long-time educator who exemplified for me just how easily she had become trapped in her silo of understanding the size, scope, and access requirements of the disability community. She felt strongly that even if someone has a “medical diagnosis” it does not mean that a child “needs” special education; and often “a little extra help” or a non-special education program like Response to Intervention (RTI) or a Student Study Team (SST) can help to reduce the need for special education referrals while still serving the child properly. But can they?

Programs like SSTs and RTI have been turned to by school districts all over the nation as a cost savings measure due to ever-shrinking revenues and increased expenses faced by schools. Support for these programs is often pushed down from superintendents and administrators as a positive thing for children and as a means of combatting the non-existent plague of “over-identifying” children into special education. These notions are also reinforced with teacher in-services or training programs that claim that special education testing is emotionally harmful to the child, or that labeling a child is harmful, or that if identified, the child will be routinely pulled out of the regular classroom and lose access to their fundamental aspects of their education – also incredibly harmful. Wait, what? Child Find and providing access is harmful? You have been gaslit.

If who is and who isn’t disabled can be determined based upon one’s own preconceived and predetermined notions about what disability means and what access disabled children require – that is discrimination. Over-identification, SSTs, RTIs, wait-and-see, fail first, is all code for advancing an ableist’s view of who public education should be serving. And it only serves to narrowly define disabled children as other, different, and undeserving.

Let’s suspend reality for a moment: Imagine if a child in a wheelchair had to climb up the stairs, pry open an ADA non-compliant door, and crawl to their desk – only to have to do that on a daily basis with every ring of the bell. And then imagine that it was not they themselves that got to say, “this level of access does not work for me,” but instead it was someone able bodied who had no idea what it took for that child to just make it into the classroom on a daily basis. Imagine how exhausted that child must feel. Imagine how physically and emotionally beat up that child must feel. Imagine how harmed that child must feel. Yet it is not difficult to imagine this scenario for non-physically disabled children; because it is happening to them every day.

Stalling the identification of a disabled child only serves the financial interests of an institution. It does not serve the child. How harmful is it to be identified as disabled late in life, or never? How many job opportunities are missed/denied? How many children slide into adulthood inside by way of the school to prison pipeline – into the largest fail-first system we have in this country?

Identification is access. Access is a right. To deny a child a part of their identity, and the access and accommodations that affords, is to deny that child their civil rights.

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