At the IDEA: 35th-year Anniversary Celebration
November 18, 2010
Russell Senate Office Building
Henry David Thoreau once wrote: "Things do not change; we change."
Every person in this room is part of a civil rights movement that has produced changes once unimaginable. Some of us chose to be a part of this movement. For others, the movement chose us. But all of us have worked to fulfill an indelible truth set forth in a piece of legislation we celebrate today: That every child in this country has a basic right to learn and having a disability does not alter that right.
I began my career in special education before that truth was set down in legislation. I knew at an early age, when my neighborhood playmate who had Down syndrome didn't get on the bus with me on my first day of kindergarten, that something wasn't right. And I, like many others in this room, later began a career dedicated to changing what was possible for students with disabilities.
Joel Barker once said: "Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world." We have changed a lot since Nov. 29, 1975. We have transitioned into one of the most diverse societies in a world with far fewer boundaries.
We have developed materials, strategies, and technologies that have changed the way we do almost everything, including educate students with disabilities. For example, we can use technology to measure how well students understand concepts, to translate a teacher's voice into Braille, to help students with dyslexia learn to spell and write well, while keeping pace with class content.
In 1975, P.L. 94-142 gave students with disabilities access to public schools. But access was not enough. And so, we changed those rules as well to ensure students with disabilities now are educated to the same high standards as all other students.
Following are a couple of notes that students wrote about one of their classmates, who has a disability.
"The reason it's a good idea for kids like Mikey to be with us is because if all the kids like Mikey were in the same class, they wouldn't get to know many people and we wouldn't get to know anybody like Mikey."
"He needs the same things we do ... food and comfort ... love ... friends ... a cozy bed to sleep in."
What we know is this: Students are more alike than different. With effective educational practices, schools can educate well—and together—a wide range of students with better outcomes for all.
Students with disabilities have become more meaningfully included in general education classrooms. Educators, parents, policymakers and peers expect more of students with disabilities than ever before. And these same students, with appropriate supports, not only reach but often exceed the bar set before them.
Last April, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: "President Obama and I believe that every child deserves a world-class education. When the president says every child, it is not just rhetoric—he means every child, regardless of his or her skin color, nationality, ethnicity, or ability."
I will add that we know that, given the right supports, every child can thrive. I'd like to highlight a few other things that we know:
- We know that parents are a child's first teacher and that families need to be engaged in a child's learning and schools.
- We know that learning doesn't start when a child starts kindergarten, and so we've invested in Part C programs to identify children who need help reaching developmental goals early on and provide them with appropriate support.
- We know that teaching is the top in-school determinant of student success, and so we continue to recruit, train and retain special education teachers, related services personnel and paraprofessionals who are at the top of their craft.
- We know that adults must be held accountable for helping students reach the bar set before them.
- We know that 80 percent of students with learning disabilities are categorized as having a reading disability, and so we continue to develop reading programs that help all children gain reading proficiency.
- We know that transitions are tough, and so we've paid extra attention on transitioning students with disabilities from early childhood programs to kindergarten, from middle school to high school, and from high school to college and the workforce.
- We know that the lines between the effects of poverty and disability can be blurred, yet, regardless of etiology, we have developed strategies to overcome both.
- We know that technology represents a gateway to learning for many of our children and thus we continue to invest in assistive technology that improves access and achievement for students with disabilities.
This list is familiar to any educator—special or general. Family engagement, early childhood programs, great teaching, high expectations, literacy, accountability, technology: These are key components of learning for all students, including students with disabilities.
Over the past 35 years, we've worked to change a system that helped a select group of students succeed into one that can be molded to meet the nuanced needs of each of our nation's 50 million K–12 students. Like others before it, this change has not been easy. Even within the disability community, we have discussed the merits of different educational tactics. We have questioned where we fit within the bigger picture. But in 2010, at more than 12 percent of the overall student population, students with disabilities are truly a part of—not separate from—the diversity of American public schools. As such, we want to make certain, as Arne pointed out, that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) includes children with disabilities and that Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) programs provide extra supports to help students with disabilities achieve challenging standards. We want to make sure that ESEA and IDEA programs and other Department initiatives are coordinated, so that, for example, our TEACH.gov initiative, which attracts new talent to teaching especially in high-need areas like special education, and our Part D Personnel Prep programs work together to prepare great teachers and related services personnel through as many channels as possible.
Abraham Lincoln once said: "The best way to predict your future is to create it." We must continue to create the future. As we continue to work toward education goals, we must refine our systems, policies and practices to make certain that we educate all students to the highest possible standard; that we prepare all students for jobs in the 21st century; and that we promote the countless ways in which we are more similar than different, while also recognizing, respecting and addressing our differences. And, in so doing, we will continue along a trajectory of change set into motion nearly 35 years ago. We will continue to change what's possible.
I want to thank each and every one of you for your contributions to these changes. Helen Keller said: "True happiness... is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose." We can all be truly happy today, for our purpose is worthy and we are faithful in our pursuits of it. Thank you for your dedication, your work and your passion.
Thank you for being here today and for all that you do each day to improve the lives of students with disabilities.