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Celebrate the IDEIA: A Global Perspective

September 28th, 2012

By Marion M. Walsh, Esq.

As we begin a new school year, we must all remember that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (“IDEIA”) is a revolutionary civil-rights statute, unparalleled in any other country or at any point in history. In re-enacting the IDEIA in 2004, Congress found that:

Disability is a natural part of the human  experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to  participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.

A glimpse of other countries offers a different picture.  This past year, my daughter traveled in Kolkata, India to volunteer for Daya Dan, an orphanage for  children with disabilities run by the Missionaries of Charity.  My daughter tutored a boy who was approximately 11, who was just leaning his letters and to read, but had no formal diagnosis, no formal teaching, except the volunteers and the nuns.  She tried multi-sensory techniques, sang songs about the letters of the alphabet and helped him with writing and art projects.  He grasped a lot but became easily frustrated.  Yet he was one of the lucky ones, since he had attention, care, shelter and food. But an IEP?  Special education and related services provided all school year?  Not a chance.    By some estimates, only 2% of children with disabilities in the world attend school, with the remaining 98% excluded.

As Americans, while we are rightfully critical of much of our educational system, we should be proud of our progress.  The IDEIA findings note that, before the date of enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, school districts were not meeting the educational needs of millions of children with disabilities because, among other reasons, the children were excluded entirely from the public  school system and from being educated with their peers or  undiagnosed disabilities.  The law has been successful in helping to ensure that children with disabilities and the families of such children have access to a free appropriate public education and in improving educational results for children with disabilities.

Of course, we have a long way to go.  Because the IDEIA represents a model for the world, we have to make sure it is working.  Appreciation of the law does not mean that we should not continue to advocate for its continued improvement or settle for less than strict compliance and meaningful progress.  Clearly, the implementation of the IDEIA has many challenges, but let us not forget how fortunate we are to live in a country that protects the educational rights of every student and sets an affirmative duty on every school district in the country to identify students with disabilities and provide a free appropriate public education to each student identified.  In fall 2010, I heard former New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner speak, who described the IDEIA as a model and envy of the world and noted that no other country went to such lengths to protect the substantive and procedural rights of its most vulnerable students.  He stated that in his view, every child should have an IEP.  This is a vision worthy of contemplation.  However, given the political environment, as exemplified by the New York State tax cap and the burdens on schools in doing so, it seems unlikely that such legislative measure would pass.  Still, the IDEIA creates a model of differentiating instruction and serving all student needs. It also important to remember that the IDEIA protects every child and every parent, because, disabilities can develop or become identified at any point during a child’s educational career and every child needs a safety net.

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