• By Laurie Posner, MPA • IDRA Newsletter • September 2007

Disability Rights – Coming of Age

Laurie PosnerThe 1980s and early 1990s could arguably be considered the most significant periods of progress for disability rights in the United States. In these two decades, many civil rights successes of the 1960s and 1970s, from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to Education of All Handicapped Children gained traction and achieved impact.

The United Nations declared 1981 as the Year of Disabled Persons. This urged governments around the world to initiate programs that would bring people with disabilities into the social and economic mainstream. In 1984, Ted Kennedy, Jr., raised the issue of disability rights at the Democratic National Convention. That same year, the National Council of the Handicapped became an independent federal agency. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. In August of 1995, the First International Symposium on Issues of Women with Disabilities was convened in Beijing, in conjunction with the Fourth World Conference on Women.

The drive to secure educational quality and access for children with disabilities paralleled the disability rights and independent living movement (Grizzard, 2004). The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975 and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990, called for a free and appropriate public education for every child with a disability to be delivered in the least restrictive environment.

With laws in force, the nation had new resources to understand and address the barriers that people with disabilities faced. We learned that only one in three young people with a disability graduated to a job or advanced education (National Council on Disability, 1986), and youth with disabilities were at greater risk of dropping out of school than their non-disabled peers (Kaufman, et al.,1997). Adults with disabilities were three times as likely as people without disabilities to live in households with total incomes of $15,000 or less (Taylor, 1998).

But beyond identifying specific barriers and seeking new remedies for them, disability leaders recognized that if the disability rights movement was to secure lasting change, it must transform basic perceptions of disability and construct a new collective identity. They recognized that casting children as polio victims to raise money and to address persistent job discrimination were all of a piece. If a child was a problem to be pitied, how would teachers and employers picture her as a future civic leader, a CEO or an engineer Pity, advocates saw, strengthened a mainstream belief in the “pathos of disability.” In this formulation, a person is pitied (or feared) in direct proportion to his or her distance from a non-disabled norm.

In The Second Phase: From Disability Rights to Disability Culture (1995), historian Paul Longmore chronicles this recognition as a watershed in the movement toward disability rights: “The first phase sought to move disabled people from the margins of society to the mainstream by demanding that discrimination be outlawed and that access and accommodations be mandated. The first phase argued for social inclusion. The second phase has asserted the necessity for self-definition. While the first phase rejected the medical model of disability, the second has repudiated the nondisabled majority norms that partly gave rise to the medical model.”

Redefining Difference

Longmore points out that self-definition is an imperative where individuals and their cultures are devalued for inherent differences from others: “In order for people with disabilities to be respected as worthy Americans… they have been instructed that they must perpetually labor to overcome their disabilities. They must display continuous cheerful striving toward some semblance of normality. The evidence of their moral and emotional health, of their quasi-validity as persons and citizens, has been their exhibition of the desire to become like nondisabled people. This is, of course, by definition, the very thing people with disabilities cannot become” (1995).

Disability rights activists cast light on the link between devaluing perceptions of disability and limited social and economic opportunities and outcomes. With this clarity, a community and culture of disability pride flourished in the 1980s and 1990s. Artists, poets, dancers and choreographers with disabilities founded new organizations like WryCrips, a disability theater group presenting poems, skits and dramatic readings by women with disabilities, and AXIS Dance Company, an integrated disabled/non-disabled company that performed contemporary dance in the United States and abroad. National Public Radio broadcast Beyond Affliction, an award-winning series on the culture of disability and the evolution of changing attitudes toward people with disabilities. Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, won an Oscar for her performance in the movie, Children of a Lesser God. Mobility International USA promoted international exchange by and for people with disabilities through the National Clearinghouse on Disability Exchange. Jerry’s Orphans staged its first annual picket of the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon, and Gallaudet University students succeeded in their demand for a deaf president.

The Road from Here

Looking back at this legacy, how far have we come in achieving a vision of disability rights and equity in education?

Students with disabilities are more integrated, but not all students. IDEA made a difference. And the efforts of parents, educators, community members and students who advocated for inclusive, nonsegregated learning realized a significant achievement. Thirty years ago, only one in five students with disabilities attended regular schools rather than separate facilities or state institutions. Today, 96 percent of children with disabilities attend regular schools (American Youth Policy Forum and Center on Education Policy, 2001).

Compared to 1995, far more students with disabilities in 2005 spent the lion’s share of their school day in a general classroom. According to NCES, “between 1995 and 2005, the percentage of students with disabilities spending 80 percent of more of the school day in a general classroom showed an overall increase from 45 to 52 percent” (2007).

But White students with disabilities were far more likely to benefit from the press for inclusion than were students of color: “Black students with disabilities were more likely than students of any other race/ethnicity to spend less than 40 percent of their day in a general classroom and were the most likely to receive education in a separate facility for students with disabilities” (NCES, 2007). Also, minority students continue to be over-represented in special education, particularly in the broadest and most subjective categories of disability (e.g., “emotionally disturbed”).

Graduation rates are worse for students with disabilities than any other subgroup. School holding power is weakest for minority students. In 2000-01, fewer than one in two students with disabilities (47.6 percent) graduated from school with a standard high school diploma (OSERS, 2005). And 41.1 percent of students with disabilities dropped out. School holding power is generally weakest for minority students with disabilities. In 2000-01, compared to 33.9 percent of White students, schools lost 52.2 percent of American Indian/Alaskan Native students, 44.5 percent Black students and 43.5 percent of Hispanic students before their high school graduation (see table below).

Academic outcomes lag. Higher in-grade retention rates predict graduation gaps. “On the eighth-grade NAEP reading assessment, the proportion of students with IEPs [individualized education plans] who scored at or above basic appears to be less than half of the proportion of students without IEPs who scored at or above basic” (U.S. Department of Education, 2003).

In-grade retention is highly correlated with student attrition. Based on an analysis of National Education Longitudinal Study data, Lehr and Williams-Bost, report that being held back was “the single biggest predictor of dropping out” (2005). Over one third (36 percent) of students ages 13 through 17 with disabilities are retained in grade at least once (OSERS, 2005).

Valuing Youth as a Compass-point for Leadership

If the nation is to achieve better educational outcomes, it is time to revisit this notion: equitable outcomes have everything to do with how starkly we see the difference between equity and charity, between value and pity. Excellent outcomes have everything to do with translating these in-the-bones beliefs into practice.

In “Effective Approaches to Increasing Graduation Rates for All Students,” a teleconference on recent findings from best practices research, Lehr and Williams-Bost emphasized: “There needs to be a basic philosophical belief permeating the school: we do persist with all students, we do believe that all students can be successful… There is mounting research evidence showing the importance of caring relationships between teachers and students in terms of keeping them in school” (2005).

Disability culture, which flourished alongside national social and economic gains in equity, can help to point the way. Like other expressions of culture, disability culture has been described as an aim to “create… positive self-images, and building a society which not only accepts, but also celebrates, diversity” (USIA, 1999). And it is this bold, basic idea – that categorically rejects pity and asserts that it is not enough to tolerate human differences as one tolerates a foul-tasting cough syrup – that shakes off complacency.

The disability rights movement and culture were key catalysts in the late 20th century. The questions are equally germane today: Do we believe that good schooling must be a birthright for all, or quietly hold that for some it is a charitable idea, or just a fantasy? Is access to a quality education the promise each generation of adults issues to every child, or only to some?

A valuing perspective demands respect for children’s diversity. It implies that from the earliest years, youth with disabilities are academically, socially and cognitively engaged in learning, that education builds on each child’s strengths, and that school-family-student-community partnerships nourish and reflect a shared vision of each student’s success.

Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program Model and Dropout Prevention for Students with Disabilities – Coming Soon!

Centered on a model of valuing youth of all backgrounds, IDRA’s Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program has, since 1994, kept more than 25,000 students in school, young people who were previously considered at risk of dropping out. Since its inception, the program has always served students with disabilities. In the last two school years, about one in 10 Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program tutors was also enrolled in special education.

This year, through its partnership with the National Dropout Prevention Center for Students with Disabilities at Clemson University, IDRA is collaborating with selected school sites to expand the recruitment of students with disabilities to specifically assess program design, accommodation needs, services and outcomes for tutors with disabilities. In addition to analyzing outcomes, through this planned variation, IDRA will host a teleconference on inclusion of students with disabilities in the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program model and produce a practitioners guide with tools and resources on accommodating students with disabilities as valued youth tutors.

For more information on the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, contact Linda Cantu at IDRA (210-444-1710, linda.cantu@idra.org) or visit the IDRA web site.


Additional Resources

Dropout Prevention for Students with Disabilities: A Critical Issue for State Education Agencies

Disability History and Timelines

Education for Disability and Gender Equity

National Dropout Prevention Center for Students with Disabilities

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
This act outlawed the exclusion of otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities from federally-funded programs.

The Education of All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142)
Later named the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), required free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive setting.


American Youth Policy Forum and Center on Education Policy. Twenty-five Years of Educating Children with Disabilities: The Good News and the Work Ahead (Washington, D.C.: American Youth Policy Forum and Center on Education Policy, 2001) http://www.aypf.org/publications/special_ed.pdf

Grizzard, R.W. “Impact of Disability History, Identity and Community – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” Remarks at the National Youth Leadership Conference (July 26, 2004) by the Assistant Secretary of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor.

Hershey, L. “Disability Renaissance Brings Art and Culture to the Forefront,” Crip Commentary online (July 13, 1998).

Kaufman, P., et al. Dropout Rates in the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1997) NCES 1999-082.

Lehr, C., and L. Williams-Bost. Teleconference: National Dropout Prevention Center for Students with Disabilities Effective Approaches to Increasing Graduation Rates for All Students (October 5, 2005).

Longmore, P.K. “The Second Phase: From Disability Rights to Disability Culture,” Disability Rag & Resource (September-October, 1995).

National Center for Education Statistics. The Condition of Education 2007(Washington, D.C.: NCES, U.S. Department of Education, 2007) NCES 2007-064.

National Council on Disability. “Toward Independence: An Assessment of Federal Laws and Programs Affecting Persons with Disabilities – With Legislative Recommendations,” A report to the President and to the Congress of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Council on Disability, February 1986).

Taylor, H. “Americans with Disabilities Still Pervasively Disadvantaged on a Broad Range of Key Indicators,” The Harris Poll #56 (October 14, 1998).

Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. 25th Annual (2003) Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2005).

U.S. Department of Education. Twenty-Fifth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2003) https://www2.ed.gov/about/reports/annual/osep/2003/index.html.

U.S. Information Agency. “The Disability Rights Movement: A Brief History,” Access and Opportunities: A Guide to Disability Awareness U.S. Society & Values Electronic Journal of the U.S. Information Agency (Vol. 4, No. 1, January 1999).

Laurie Posner, MPA is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2007 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]