Advocate, Act! AB & Accessibility
BY GRACE CHAI '23
Forty-seven years ago, President Gerald Ford signed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), guaranteeing in federal law equal access to public education for disabled students. It promised every child the right to education, whether by full inclusion in mainstream education classes or through specialized learning plans tailored to their abilities. Yet, if equal access to education is federally protected, why is it still so important to spread awareness about these programs at AB? While federal change is pivotal to creating ripple effect changes, it’s critical to shed light on accessibility issues in fulfilling every child’s right to a high-quality education. Awareness about disability rights is important for disabled students and allies alike so that everyone can be informed and advocate for the disabled community’s education.
Before investigating this topic at AB, however, it’s important to recognize how the disability rights movement gained momentum and led to the passage of IDEA. Pre-World War II, accommodations and special programs were atypical for a school district; due to stigma around mental and physical disability, disabled people were often institutionalized. Administrators and employers regularly denied disabled people opportunities like education and access to public facilities and jobs. As injured veterans returned home with mental illnesses and physical disabilities, though, attitudes shifted since people respected soldiers who had fought for the country abroad. The 1960s and 70s yielded a fresh wave of activism, with disabled activists partnering with other movements fighting for social change. They challenged the notion that disability prevents someone from having basic rights such as an education and access to public facilities. The work and advocacy of these activists paved the way for IDEA, which declared that disabled children deserved the right to full participation in school or specialized education that fit their needs.
A quick search on the ABRSD website reveals how AB has made progress towards inclusion since the passage of IDEA. Currently, the district serves over 800 students with disabilities, from preschool to age 22, emphasizing independence within a student’s learning. Programs are supported by special education teachers, speech pathologists, school psychologists, occupational and physical therapists, and more, proving that in order for disability education programs to be successful, many people must work together.
Aside from adult professionals, students have brought awareness to issues that affect the disabled community. The Accessibility Alliance (AA), for instance—founded by Biz Brooks ‘23, Raaga Pulya ‘23, and Evvy Shoemaker ‘24—raises awareness for the experiences of disabled students and advocates for their needs. When asked about how AB has made progress with accessible education, AA students commented that some teachers have made efforts to make their classrooms a comfortable learning environment, such as turning some lights off, putting captions on, and turning the volume down on videos, which can benefit students with sensory processing issues. Moreover, they agree that the school is good about students knowing how to use 504s and IEPs, which are plans that the school creates to support disabled students and individualized learning plans.
However, they also believe that the problems, such as the school layout and stereotypes around disabilities can ostracize disabled students. AA member Shri ‘23 mentioned an issue that resonated with many others: elevators. Currently, AB has two elevators, situated on opposite sides of the school, which harms students who need to access them for various reasons. Biz highlighted the necessity of elevator accessibility, citing the various people who need elevator access to navigate the school: “General accessibility to elevators is important too…[while] I understand the need for keys in the elevators…it makes it really difficult for people with hand and wrist mobility issues to use the elevators, which they also need to use, and for a parent coming outside of the school to use, or for someone who has recently gotten injured, or for someone who has not disclosed their disability to the school.”
As for problems in the classroom, Raaga highlighted that education around disability to teachers and students is also critical for promoting a safe learning environment. Some teachers continue to use outdated terms or fail to call students out when they use that language, which sends a message to the students that using said words is okay. Moreover, the AA mentioned that presentations with bright, clashing colors and hard-to-read fonts can make keeping up with the class difficult for color blind students and students with dyslexia. The group hosted a presentation on terms and ways to make the classroom more accessible, but many teachers were unable to make it due to scheduling conflicts; therefore, the AA hopes to eventually present at a faculty meeting sometime to convey this message to all staff.
While the challenges that affect the disabled community at AB seem daunting, the AA mentioned some simple ways that can make a big difference for disabled students in the classroom. Whether it be consistently making classrooms sensory-friendly with dimmer lighting, lower volumes, turning on captions, or introducing flexible seating, many of the changes the group proposed are relatively low-cost and simple to integrate. Beyond that, supporting the disabled community can also manifest in bringing spirit and encouragement to events like the Special Olympics, which is usually a small event with disabled students and their mentors. However, the club hopes to make the Special Olympics a bigger event to celebrate physical activity in any shape or form, encouraging students to support their peers. Another unique way to get involved is to mentor in special education. “It’s such a fun and cool class and you learn a lot and get unique experiences in mentoring, whether you’re disabled or nondisabled,” Biz said. The benefit of individualized education, they continued, was that there is a lot of community building in the process of learning.
The AA recognizes that community and understanding are important concepts to being an ally to the disabled community. “Being disabled isn’t a bad thing. It shouldn’t be stigmatized,” member Kyle ‘23 said. Biz agreed, stating: “People have this complex towards disabled people where they heavily pity them…this is just a person’s life, so I think [people should get] over that complex of like disabled people almost being infantilized…and recogniz[e] that these are people your age. These are your peers. Respect them in the same way you would your friends, the other people in your class.”
Equal access to education should be the norm, not the exception, and moreover, it should be just as adequate. Education has been championed as the stepping stone to opportunity, growth, and fulfillment, and it should be accessible to all students. Having compassion and respect for everyone will only benefit the greater school community and foster a caring, supportive school environment.