The Wrong Idea

This past September, when Betsy DeVos reversed Obama-era policy on campus sexual assault investigations, students took to the streets to protest. When DeVos rolled back protections for transgender students, the media covered the story until nothing was left unsaid. Last month, DeVos rescinded over seventy guidance documents protecting the rights of students with disabilities. Among other purposes, these guidelines outlined how schools must spend federal money for special education and translated complex legal language to allow parents to advocate for their disabled children. Without the rescinded documents, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) becomes less clear, leaving both schools and parents unsure of the extent of disabled students’ rights protected under law. The IDEA is vital to student success because it ensures that students with disabilities are able to learn in the least restrictive environment possible and mandates that these students receive assistance that allows them to reach their academic goals. Unlike these earlier civil rights rollbacks, however, this newest move by DeVos received little media coverage and nearly no discussion on social media.

One in every five American women report that they have experienced sexual assault. According to the U.S. Census, the same numbers apply to Americans who have some form of disability; once again, one in five. While litigation surrounding sexual assault is often questioned and analyzed, particularly by college students, many do not take the time to educate themselves about the rights of their disabled peers. Why, if the reach of these two phenomena are comparable, do we turn a blind eye to issues facing the disabled community?

Though the litigation surrounding sexual assault is often questioned, particularly by college students, many people do not take the time to educate themselves about the rights of their disabled peers.

Earlier this week, we had a conversation with David, an incredibly talented student at Washington University who also happens to have cerebral palsy. In his schooling years prior to coming to Wash U, he had to move between three different school systems, and each move created new challenges. His mother researched what accommodations he could receive at different schools (like physical therapy, a note taker, or extra time on tests) before each move. She used some of the recently rescinded documents, which clarified what schools had to provide for David, to advocate for her son. No person with a disability is guaranteed to have an advocate like David’s mother to fight for their academic success. The recently rescinded guidance documents make it especially difficult for people without strong advocates to thrive in public schools.

Students with disabilities knew that they were in for some potential changes when they heard DeVos state during her confirmation hearing that the IDEA “confused” her. She also refused to answer questions regarding whether or not schools should meet IDEA standards. Though DeVos is correct in saying that some of these guidelines are outdated, there is a difference between rescinding a guideline with a new plan in mind and rescinding a guideline without establishing structures to help students and their families navigate a now uncertain future. DeVos argues that a voucher system is best for American students. Many experts agree that this move that would leave disabled students without options.

Just as students took a stand for victims of sexual assault even when they themselves had not experienced it, students must start to have conversations about this issue and think about ways to take action.

Voucher programs grant students who have needs that cannot be met by public schools a certain amount of money to go towards paying for a private school education. Though this seems like a sensible solution, it is important to consider that by accepting a voucher, parents waive the rights covered in the IDEA, accepting consequences like the denial of admission from schools based on their child’s disability and giving up their right to due process should the student’s needs go unmet by the school. In addition, the vouchers rarely cover the full cost of a private education. This system would erase decades of hard work and steps towards inclusion by disability advocates and is not a viable solution for disabled students. DeVos is not trying to make education more accessible, but instead is giving up on the schooling system that most benefits disabled and other marginalized students: public schools.

As a university, we must realize that by making education more difficult for our disabled peers, we make our student body less diverse and inclusive.

It should not be the burden of parents of students with disabilities to call for action and demand a better system. They have enough on their shoulders as they work through these uncharted waters of education for their children. Just as students took a stand for victims of sexual assault or transgender rights, students must start conversations about this issue and take action. Since attacks on the rights of people with disabilities aren’t properly publicized in mainstream media, it is even more important to educate yourself on the realities of policy’s impact on people with disabilities. Start small; have conversations with friends about your thoughts on campus accessibility, or stop into an Ability or Best Buddies meeting. You can also contact your senator and make your voice heard. As a university, we must realize that by making education more difficult for our disabled peers, we make our student body less diverse and inclusive. It is time for us to support disabled students with the same passion and drive we show when supporting other issues faced by our community.

Katy Brainerd ‘19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at Daniel Grossman ’19 studies in the School of Engineering & Applied Science. He can be reached at

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