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New secretary of education must uphold IDEA

| Friday, February 10, 2017

As a sophomore in high school, I became a member of Best Buddies International, an organization that works to promote inclusion for people with disabilities. I was matched in a one-to-one friendship with my best buddy, a student with an intellectual disability, who to this day is one of my best friends. She is a dancer and a music lover, and, while words can sometimes confuse her, music is a language in which she is fluent. At her high school, she had the opportunity to take dance classes with her peers and eventually choreograph routines for the rest of the class. Despite the challenges she faced with verbal and written communication, she worked tirelessly to improve with the help of her teachers. Every time I would see her, she would always remind me that she would be in the class of 2016 with me, and that we would graduate within weeks of each other. Watching her walk down the aisle of the auditorium in her blue cap and gown was one of the proudest moments of both her and my life.

Her educational success story is a result of the back-breaking work of the disability rights movement. Prior to 1975, only one in five children with disabilities received appropriate and quality education. In 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) set a legal precedent for making space for students with disabilities in the public school system. It required that all students with disabilities be provided with a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible. As a result of IDEA, according to data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2013, 62 percent of students with disabilities spend 80 percent or more of their school day in a general education classroom with their peers. IDEA allows students around the nation, like my best buddy, to participate in and contribute to the global community of learners. It upholds the human dignity of students with disabilities and allows the world to benefit from their insights and talents.

Earlier this week, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as our nation’s next Secretary of Education in a historically close vote. At her confirmation hearing, Secretary DeVos not only declined to assure the hearing committee that she would enforce IDEA, but also expressed confusion on whether IDEA was a federal law. As the soon-to-be point person on educational issues for our nation, the fact that Secretary DeVos was not aware of one of the most foundational pieces of disability legislation to date is more than concerning. Having witnessed the positive effects of special education first hand, I cannot support a Secretary of Education who will not embrace her role as protecter of all students, including students like my best buddy, and who is so deeply uninformed on the history of special education.

Being a Notre Dame student is a privilege, a challenge and a call to action. While the time to oppose Betsy DeVos’s confirmation has passed, it is now more important than ever to listen attentively to the needs of all students, specifically students with disabilities. It is important to recognize that we have a responsibility as members of the global community of learners to uphold every student’s inherent dignity, and right to learn and to be included. We have the obligation to join our peers with disabilities on campus and around the country in urging our new Secretary of Education to uphold IDEA, educate herself on the history of special education and support the inherent worth of every student.

Alice Felker
Feb. 9

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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