By Kalisha T. Miller, Director, Special Education
When people use wheelchairs to navigate ramps to get to work, do feelings arise in you? Use of ramps allows some to arrive to work and give an honest day’s work while demonstrating how accommodations allow someone to achieve similar desired results as others.
Unfortunately, in 1970 we only educated one in five students with disabilities. In 1975, Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law was created with the intent of providing services for students with disabilities to access a free and appropriate public education thereby giving these students the same opportunity as their non-disabled peers.
Some believe that students with disabilities are given unfair advantages when modifications and accommodations are provided. Some students with disabilities use calculators to compute because they have a processing disability that affects calculations but not reasoning. Some have scribes write what they dictate due to a physical, sensory, or learning disability. Some students with disabilities have human readers because this allows them to access instruction and assessments when otherwise it would be nearly impossible.
As outlined in Maryland’s Accommodations Manual, accommodations assist students with disabilities in their setting, presentation, response, timing, and scheduling with the intent of dismantling the disadvantage that disabilities often create. When effectively provided, these same accommodations diminish and sometimes eradicate the effects of a student’s disability. Accommodations DO NOT lower learning outcomes. So when you observe a student with a disability receiving accommodations, an unfair advantage is not being created.
During the 2012 Summer Olympics, the world had an opportunity to witness an accommodation that dismantled a disadvantage. Oscar Pistorius competed in the 400 meter sprint although his legs were amputated before his first birthday. Using prosthetic blades, he was able to qualify for the semi-final heat. The magnitude of this historic event was not based on his inability to win, but the fact that the world and the Olympic committee got it right. Initially they would not allow Pistorius to compete because they stated that “he had an unfair advantage.” Equity is not about all conditions being the same; it is about providing supports that allow equal access. We are a society that is better when more participate in the process; the example of Pistorius illustrates that principle.
Although this story is not in the educational arena, it parallels the situation many students with disabilities face attempting to obtain a quality education. A disability that is physical and easily seen is no more or less a disability than a disability that is not readily visible.
In Baltimore County Public Schools, we are cultivating and spreading a systemic belief that special education is a service and not a place. All students have a right to a free and appropriate public education, and it is our responsibility to dismantle disadvantages and create learning environments that foster opportunities for students to maximize their educational potential.