Life With a Disability in America: Educating the Young

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA.   I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus.  Today we begin a series of reports about living with a disability in America.

Our series will explore a number of subjects.  These include laws that are meant to give people with disabilities the same chances that able-bodied people have to succeed.

We will talk about employment and about technologies designed to assist people living with disabilities.

But first we look at special education programs for children with disabilities.


Years ago, children with mental or physical disabilities were usually kept at home or in a hospital.  Mental hospitals especially were often dirty, horrible places.  Early reforms demanded better care for the people who had to live in them.

By the second half of the twentieth century, however, these laws were not enough.  There was a movement to demand not just better care but human rights for people with disabilities.  All they wanted, people said, was fair treatment and an equal chance to succeed.

These efforts continue.  On December thirteenth, the United Nations General Assembly approved a treaty, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  This is the first treaty designed to protect the rights of the world's estimated six hundred fifty million disabled.

It includes rights to education, health care, work and other protections.  For example, it says people with disabilities have the right to free expression.  It says they have a right to privacy and justice, to live independently and to take part in sports and daily social life.

The treaty calls on nations to pass laws and other measures to improve disability rights.  It also urges them to end any legislation or customs that discriminate against persons with disabilities.

The treaty will be open for signing beginning March thirtieth.  It will come into force after twenty countries have approved it.

For a long time, many schools in the United States refused to admit children who were blind, deaf or mentally delayed.  In nineteen seventy, only twenty percent of American children with disabilities attended public school.

It was nineteen seventy-five before the nation had a law to require a free and appropriate public education for all children with disabilities.

The words "free and appropriate public education" have become very important in American education.  Appropriate means that the education is designed to meet the needs of an individual student.

The law is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or I.D.E.A.  New versions are approved by Congress every few years.

The newest version of the law requires schools to increase the number of students with disabilities who receive a diploma.  This shows that a student has successfully completed high school.  Schools must also increase the number of students with disabilities who take and pass the same examinations all other students take.


Today more than six million children in the United States receive special education services from public schools.  These services are available from birth to age twenty-one.

Schools also provide testing services to help parents decide if their children need special education.

Susan is a young woman who lives in the state of Maryland.  She was not talking very much by the time she was two years old.  Tests showed that her hearing was fine, but her ability to speak was delayed.  So she attended a special private school when she was three and four years old.  Her family did not have to pay for it.

At the school, Susan learned to communicate with her hands, using sign language the way deaf people do.  But remember, she could hear just fine.  Little by little, she learned to use her voice and not her hands to communicate.

When Susan was five years old, she started going to the same public school as her brother and the other children in her community.   Susan spent part of each day with a teacher who was trained to work with children with delayed speech.  And she spent another part of the day with children who were developing normally.

Educators call this "inclusion" -- having disabled and non-disabled children study and play together.

Many educators and parents believe inclusion is important.  At Susan's school, music teacher Teri Burdette directed a group of hearing children and deaf children.  All the children sang with their voices and with their hands.


TERI BURDETTE: "When I am hearing this body of sound that is quite normal hearing sound, and then I'll recognize this high floating voice either above all the rest or below all the rest, and I recognize that voice to be some of our deaf voices and that gives me goose bumps."


Susan, the young woman in Maryland, had more tests as she got older.  These tests found that some of her mental abilities were also delayed.  She could not think very clearly.

Sometimes she was taught only with students who had delays like hers.  Other times, she was with groups of children of different ability levels.  In these groups, the teachers sometimes asked Susan to do work that was different from what other students had to do.

For example, while some children wrote a paper about a book they had read, Susan would complete an art project.  This way she could show that she, too, understood some parts of the book.

Susan received special education services from the time she was two years old until she was nineteen.

Now she goes to a small college in her community.  All of the students in her classes share something in common -- they all have disabilities like hers.  They are learning simple mathematics.  They are also learning better reading skills, and how to find a job.


Schoolchildren who need special services have what is called an individual education plan, or I.E.P.  It describes what the child needs to learn during the school year.

For example, with children who have severe disabilities, the goal could be to help them learn to feed themselves or hold a pencil.  For other children, the plan could require that the student receive extra help in reading or math.

Creating an individual education plan for each child who needs one takes time and effort.  Parents and educators do not always agree about the services that a child needs.   Parents can go to school officials to try to settle a disagreement.  They also have a right to go to court.  Some special education cases have gone all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

It costs a lot for schools to provide special education services.  The teachers usually work with a much smaller number of students than teachers normally do.  Schools must also provide services like transportation for students in wheelchairs.

American public schools currently spend an average of almost eight thousand dollars a year to educate one student.  But the cost for a special education student can be thousands of dollars more -- especially if it includes placement in a private school.

Over the years, the federal government has promised to pay forty percent of the costs of special education.  But the National Education Association, a teachers union, says that by two thousand four, the government was paying less than twenty percent.

As a result, state governments and local schools must find billions of dollars to pay for the services that the federal government requires.  This can create disagreements in communities.  Schools may find they have to cut regular education services so they can have enough money to pay for special education.

But these programs have enabled many more young people with disabilities to attend college, find jobs and live life more independently.


Jobs will be the subject next month in the second part of our series on living with a disability in America.

Our program was written by Karen Leggett and produced by Caty Weaver.  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus.  Transcripts and MP3 files of our programs are at  Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.