Trump is less of a threat to me than he is to the average American. My socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation and race all exclude me from forms of institutional persecution. Rarely do the decisions made on Capitol Hill and in the Executive Branch harm me. But on Wednesday, one of his decisions presented itself in crowded Senate committee room and punched me in the face.
I am dyslexic. If you do not know what that means I entreat you to learn more. This NPR piece does a better job explaining than I could in the space provided here. Given that anywhere from one in five to one in 20 people have dyslexia, it is highly likely that some of your friends and relatives share this disability and gift with me. As a dyslexic, I have a learning disability that has impaired my reading and writing ability throughout my entire school career. Because of this, government decisions on what disability rights entail have always affected me personally.
For those of you who do not obsessively follow politics, the confirmation hearing for President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, was held Wednesday. DeVos has a long record of advocacy for school voucher programs, charter schools and state control of education. She also has no direct government experience. This last fact was evidenced Wednesday.
When questioned about key federal disability rights laws, DeVos responded with an astonishing level of confusion for the person tasked with implementing federal disability protections for students. She first stated that enforcement of equal education standards is “a matter that’s best left to the states.” When pressed further, she back-tracked by saying that schools must comply with federal law when federal funding is in place, and that she “may have confused it.” “It,” in this case, is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the main federal legislation regarding equal education for students with disabilities.
DeVos represents a threat to decades of progress on disability rights. Relegating the issue to the states will inevitably cause a decrease in the quality of education available to those with any type of impairment. Some states simply won’t offer services to students with certain disabilities, citing budget constraints or expensive private alternatives as justification for not providing this crucial service.
By making this a states’ rights issue, DeVos implies, in the words of Tim Kaine, that families should “just move around the country if they don’t like how kids are being treated.” If you think no state will make this necessary, I envy your optimism. Accessible, individualized education is expensive. If it were not for the legislation DeVos threatens, many parents would not be able to provide their children with even an adequate education, let alone a good one. Without a federal mandate, programs will be cut, leaving children in their most vulnerable stages of development without the individualized education they need.
I also fear Devos’ impact personally. Though Stanford is a private institution, it is still subject to federal disability law that the Department of Education must enforce. Any future education I pursue will be subject to similar standards. Any reduction or lack of enforcement of these standards will doubtless lead to insufficient resources for disabled students such as myself and many of your classmates.
DeVos’ attitude towards disability rights is even more insidious. The best possible interpretation of DeVos’ hearing performance is that she was almost completely unaware of what IDEA entails. DeVos’ confirmation can, at best, represent a de-emphasis on disability rights in a time where the struggle for equal opportunity – not to mention the struggle against stigma – is far from over.
As Jay Ruckelshaus wrote this week for The New York Times, disability needs to be politicized. Current educational standards for students with disabilities are far from adequate. We need to bring people with disabilities, especially students with disabilities, out of the shadows of politics. We need public debate on how we must serve a community that is chronically underserved in all areas, not just education. DeVos represents an existential threat not only to disabled students but also to the chance of having that much-needed debate.
Ruckelshaus is right: We need to politicize disabilities. But not like this.
– Bryce Tuttle ‘20
Contact Bryce Tuttle at btuttle ‘at’ stanford.edu.