Policy, Social Justice

These two Supreme Court rulings are hugely important for disability rights

These court cases were ultimately victories, but there are still reasons to worry and stay active in the fight for disability rights.

Supreme Court Case Ruling: Endrew F.  versus Douglas County

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The Supreme Court ruled in favor of individuals with disabilities on February 22nd of this year when it decided unanimously that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students with special needs must offer “substantive” opportunities to succeed academically, rather than receiving the bare minimum and being expected to achieve only the bare minimum. While we should definitely celebrate this victory, we should all find it appalling that this consensus has only just been reached by the Supreme Court. 

Why is this ruling a victory?

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This is a huge victory for students with disabilities, because a teacher’s expectations have been proven time and time again to influence student performance.

For example, a Harvard professor named Robert Rosenthal conducted an experiment in which he told elementary school teachers that some of their students were about to experience a dramatic increase in their IQ; in other words, these students were more likely to grow intellectually and succeed academically. What the teachers did not know was that these students were chosen at random and the teachers were intentionally misinformed.

What happened next? Those same students who were perceived to be more likely to grow intellectually were the very same students whose IQs did actually increase! Essentially, what this study proved is that the beliefs a teacher holds about his or her students is expressed thousands of times a day in the ways they react to each child, thereby shaping that child’s idea of themselves and either motivating or demotivating the child.

With information like this being widely accepted by the those in education, it is imperative that special needs children are given the same courtesy. In fact, it is even more important. Too often, children with special needs are seen as unable to grow or learn or succeed, but if we simply do not assume where a child’s limitations are, we will almost always be proven wrong. Every child, regardless of perceived limitations or real ones, deserves a chance to reach their potential, whatever their circumstances.

Are there any problems with this ruling?

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Unfortunately, yes. It’s great to hold schools responsible and accountable for how they treat special needs children, but let’s not set them up to fail; what about offering financial and other support or resources to schools and teachers to help them do what we’re asking them to do? When we defund public schools in accordance with Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’ plan to promote school choice, one of the first things to go will be special education services.

We cannot allow this to happen. We cannot allow children of marginalized communities and children with special needs alike to fall to the wayside. Children with special needs are not charity cases that schools teachers volunteer to help alongside their other students; they are students with the same rights to an education as any other student.

Supreme Court Case: Fry versus Napoleon Community Schools

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Although it seems like a case having to do with the right of a child to a bring his or her service dog to school, this supreme court case was about something much bigger; Fry v. Napoleon led to the unanimous ruling that children with disabilities who encounter discrimination in schools could sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a decision that essentially paved the way for Endrew F versus Douglas County.

Why is this ruling a victory?

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This is especially important because so many children with special needs have behavioral issues and their IEP ask aides and educators to use methods such as restraint and seclusion, methods which can easily be used as punishment or abuse if not carried out correctly and carefully by trained professionals.

Because children with special needs who suffer from behavioral issues may also be unable to communicate verbally, caregivers often worry that their child will not be able to tell them about incidents of abuse. This ruling helps keep children with disabilities safe and gives a sense of relief to the people who love these children.

There are still reasons to worry and stay active in the fight for disability rights:

1. Neil Gorsuch 

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Although Supreme Court Judge, Neil Gorsuch, ruled in favor of disability rights in Endrew F. versus Douglas County, his record is inconsistent, to say the least. Prior to the Endrew case, Grouch took the opposite stance in regards to IDEA (in a case called Thompson School District versus Luke P.), ruling in favor of “de minimum” or minimal education only for students with disabilities.

Why does this worry me? This means we do not necessarily have individuals in office who are genuine and sincere allies of children with disabilities. This means we cannot really be sure if favorable rulings will be the norm or of they will only occur when it is convenient.

When asked about this directly, Gorsuch explained his initial decision merely followed precedent and in no way reflected his own beliefs. He did not take responsibility for the effects that his decision had on children with disabilities, nor did he apologize.

2. Potential Medicaid cuts: 

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Potential cuts to Medicaid, which the current administration would seemingly love to make, are going to make it impossible for many people with disabilities or “pre-existing conditions” to afford the services they need. These individuals will be forced to go to, or in some cases, return to, nursing homes in order to access those services. In other words, all of the efforts that have been made to integrate people with disabilities and people without disabilities, which is beneficial for both parties, will be negated

3. Betsy DeVos: 

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Sigh. Need I say more?