What Betsy DeVos Needs To Know About Being A Kid With Disabilities

I hope that no students have to go through what I did.
01/20/2017 12:53 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2017
Betsy DeVos on the left and Nina G in eighth grade on the right.
Betsy DeVos on the left and Nina G in eighth grade on the right.

It was about 1980 when I entered Catholic school in the first grade. In third grade, I was sent to a clinic that offered educational interventions to children with learning and attentional disabilities. That’s where I was diagnosed with a language-based learning disability, commonly known as dyslexia. It was also around this time that my stuttering became more apparent. Suddenly I had become a full-fledged student with disabilities. I didn’t know it at the time, but the United States had passed a law a few years earlier ensuring access and services to students like me: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). With President Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, I worry that she will weaken this law and let the states decide how to provide for students with disabilities and weaken advocacy rights of parents and children. I know firsthand what it means not to have federal mandates ensuring access to education. In my nearly eight years attending Catholic school, I lived between two worlds. In one world, I knew I was smart and that I needed academic accommodations to prove my intelligence. In the other, I was denied these accommodations and my parents had to pay for the services I needed to become a more confident learner.  Being private, my school was not mandated to follow IDEA.  I should mention that many Catholic schools have increased their access to students since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in the 1990s, so my experience is not necessarily representative of Catholic schools today. I hope that no students have to go through what I did.

I am scared that children with disabilities will have to suffer the same emotional hardships that took a toll on my own childhood. Public education saved me.

I grew up in a world that knew about disability rights. I am from the San Francisco Bay Area, considered by many to be the birthplace of the Independent Living Movement. My father grew up hard-of-hearing and knew what it was like to be the kid who was different and needed services related to his disability. At the same time, I was in an environment where I had to depend on the kindness of teachers to accommodate me. There were no mandates to ensure my access to the curriculum or services to give me tools to know how best to work with my disabilities.  Sometimes I would receive an occasional accommodation which proved that I could do the work with appropriate adjustments. I remember the first time I had an accommodation; it was on a geography test of California in third grade. Instead of having to spell the names of cities (something I still have trouble with), I was allowed to point to a map and say the names out loud, meeting the objectives of the test. I was the first student to finish and receive an A grade, which was then tacked onto the bulletin board in the classroom. I thought, “Wow, this accommodation thing isn’t so bad!” Unfortunately, my teacher was inconsistent with my accommodation plan and that was the last time I got an A that year. This was usually the case in my years at Catholic school. My parents would fight for my accommodations, the teachers would reluctantly agree, and then they would eventually and conveniently forget to make the actual accommodations. There was no legal mandate to facilitate my parent’s advocacy. 

I didn’t see myself as a capable learner. I felt like I didn’t have much to offer the world.

In the first years after I was diagnosed with a learning disability, my mom would drive me and another boy from class to the education clinic, where we received intensive interventions for students with learning disabilities. My working class, one income family paid for all this out of pocket. My mom would then drive us back, sometimes with a pit stop at McDonald’s, and we would finish the rest of our day at school. Then my mom had to bring me in for speech therapy once a week. My maternal grandparents broke their promise of loaning money to help with my educational interventions, which drained my parents’ savings account. My mother eventually had to start working to help pay for any number of educational therapists, tutors, speech therapists, and the occasional occupational therapy visit.

The feeling that I had put my family in financial crisis was overwhelming as a child. As if I didn’t hate myself enough already, teachers would convey to me and my parents that accommodating my disability was unfair to the rest of the class, that I just wasn’t smart enough to be at their school. I didn’t see myself as a capable learner. I felt like I didn’t have much to offer the world. For many years I often prayed for God to take my life. I had supportive parents who did everything possible for me, but without a school system that took my needs seriously, I was in emotional pain.

I eventually attended a public high school where I had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. I received services from my special education department that included aides in my regular education classrooms, the option to take tests with accommodations in the resource room, and a study hall where I learned strategies to get through my classes. My special education teachers always had my back. When other teachers tried to deny me accommodations, they stepped in to advocate. My parents rarely needed to get involved. Knowing that I had a system to support me, I was starting to become my own advocate. In senior year at my IEP meeting, my resource teacher said, “When you first came here, you thought you were totally incompetent and incapable of learning. Now you know that is not true.”

During the DeVos hearings, I became alarmed—as did many disability and education advocates—when she said that states should dictate what they do for students with disabilities. Without federal oversight, I am scared that families will be forced to go through what mine had to endure. I am scared that children with disabilities will have to suffer the same emotional hardships that took a toll on my own childhood. Public education saved me. I went on to find my passions and to receive a graduate degree because of my parents and public education teachers who supported me. Protecting the rights of all children to a free and appropriate education is important to our country and something that should be bipartisan and mandated at the federal level, as it has been for nearly my entire life. Leaving the choice up to states jeopardizes individuals with disabilities and their right to reach their fullest potential.

Learn more about Nina G and her book for children, Once Upon An Accommodation: A Book About Learning Disabilities at www.NinaGcomedian.com. (She is usually much funnier than this post suggests)

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