Celebrating 24 Years of the ADA – Keeping School Doors Open to All

July 24, 2014

This post appears courtesy of Eve Hill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights

Victor Hugo wrote, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”  The Civil Rights Division enforces federal civil rights laws to keep school doors open to all students and prevent discrimination on the basis of disability.  The Civil Rights Division enforces Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to require schools, as well as localities and state agencies that provide educational services, to guarantee an equal opportunity for students with disabilities.  This guarantee is essential for these students to take advantage of the educational programs, services and activities that provide life-long benefits.  On the 24th Anniversary of the ADA, we celebrate the countless ways in which that landmark legislation has improved the lives of students with disabilities. 

The division has a multi-faceted enforcement strategy to help assure an equal opportunity for students with disabilities at school.  Through briefs and statements of interest filed in federal courts across the country, we have sought to ensure that schools and colleges meet their obligations and address discrimination faced by students with disabilities – from the failure to provide services to which students with disabilities are entitled to protecting students with disabilities from bullying.          

The division strives to end policies that discriminate against children based upon myths, fears and stereotypes about what children with disabilities can do.  These myths and stereotypes sometimes lead schools to reject students with disabilities, to assume they should be placed in special schools or classes or to deny them accommodations.  We work to ensure schools and others involved in education live up to their obligations to include and accommodate students with disabilities.  This includes providing accommodations on higher education entrance examinations and ensuring college instructional materials are accessible.

We are working to support students with disabilities who find themselves forced out of school doors as a result of inappropriate discipline, over-use of suspension and expulsion and “zero tolerance” for behavior infractions.  For some students, forcing them out the school door means literally moving them into a jail cell.  These students must have the opportunity to gain the knowledge and life skills they need to grow and thrive as independent adults.  In an effort to eliminate this “school to prison pipeline” for students with disabilities, we engage and negotiate with school districts to change discipline policies that discriminate on the basis of disability.  And even when students with disabilities are incarcerated, we work to ensure that they receive educational services so they can return to their communities better prepared to participate and contribute.

When students with disabilities face harassment or bullying on the basis of their disability, they are often unable to learn because they feel anxious, threatened or in danger.  Such harassment often causes irreparable damage to a student’s self-esteem and the stigma from disability-based harassment may last a lifetime.  The division is investigating complaints, negotiating comprehensive agreements with schools to address harassment and working with federal, state and local partners to develop policies to help end harassment. 

The ADA has opened many doors for many people over the past 24 years, and the division recognizes, as Albert Einstein noted, “that knowledge of what is does not open doors directly to what should be.”  We are fighting each and every day to push open doors on the path to “what should be” for all students with disabilities across the country.