PERSPECTIVES | Disability rights and school vouchers

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017
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How far we’ve come with disability rights, and how far we have yet to go
April 5th marked the 40th anniversary of the historical disability discrimination protest in front of the San Francisco Federal Building, led by renowned disability rights activist Judith Heumann. In 1977, Judith and around 150 other protesters took over the fourth floor until Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act — legislation protecting individuals with disabilities against discrimination — was signed into law on April 28th.

In addition to Section 504, several federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have been crucial in securing the rights of people with disabilities in the United States.

But there is still work to be done, as people with disabilities continue to face accessibility issues with private businesses not yet in compliance with the law. Representative Ted Poe [R-Texas] recently introduced an act — the ADA Education and Reform Act 2017 — that would place the burden of proving these businesses are out of compliance on the people with disabilities who cannot access them, not on businesses themselves. It would also limit the ability to take civil action if the businesses do not comply.

What do school vouchers really mean for students with disabilities?
With the current administration’s emphasis on the importance of “school choice” and the voucher system, concerns have been raised about what school choice means for students with disabilities. In many states, private schools are not obligated under voucher laws to provide the same types of special education services that public schools are obligated to provide by law.

According to the results from the National Assessment for Educational Progress administered by the federal government, the performance of students with disabilities in Florida’s voucher school program has improved. Yet it is concerning that students enrolled in many states’ voucher-supported schools forfeit their educational rights under IDEA that are guaranteed to those enrolled in public schools under federal law.