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Defining Ourselves: Why Language Matters

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, March 26, 2013

 Written by Mark Martin, Esq. and Jennifer Laviano, Esq.

The original federal special education laws were enacted over 35 years ago, as one of many pieces of federal legislation which sought to enforce the Civil Rights that were being denied to disenfranchised or underrepresented individuals. Yet, somewhere along the way, it seems that people have forgotten that special education is a Civil Rights issue. An educational system marked with low expectations for students with disabilities, combined with a tough economy, have further marginalized students with special needs, as well as those of us who are fighting every day to enforce the Civil Rights of children and adolescents with disabilities. It's time we took back the high ground on this issue. It is time to talk about EDUCATION EQUALITY.

We have learned from many other successful socio-political movements that language matters. To that end, we propose a radical shift in how we, the advocates of the Civil Rights of individuals with disabilities, talk about our stakeholders, and ourselves in order to make clear that the goal is not procedural compliance with a statute. The goal is to support each student, through the spirit and the letter of the law, to be as independent, as self-sufficient, as self-advocating as possible, and to enforce their right to a successful education.

Following are just a few examples.

  • We are not special education lawyers and advocates we are civil rights lawyers and advocates for children;
  • We don't have special education practices, we have civil rights practices;
  • We don't want our children to make progress we want them to master the materials;
  • Students aren't being suspended or expelled they are being excluded from class and from learning;
  • We are not planning for our children to transition to an agency, we are planning for them to live and work independently;
  • Our children are not being removed from class, they are being segregated;
  • Our children don't need special services, they need a meaningful education.

As our colleagues Andy Feinstein and Michele Kule-Korgood shared with us during the recent COPAA Town Hall, there is much talk in this business about whether an education for a student with disabilities should be a Chevy or Cadillac. No more Chevys, no more Cadillacs. We need cars that run, have four tires, and, most importantly, get to their destination. We need to insist that our clients have the rights, respect, and equality to which they are entitled.

Please, feel free to comment with your own suggestions to help us redirect the focus to where it should be: on effective, meaningful special education programming that is designed to produce independent citizens.

Tags:  Civil Rights  Students with Disabilities 

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Jill Spector says...
Posted Tuesday, April 30, 2013
I just noticed this wonderful post. Yes, language DOES MATTER! I wholeheartedly agree. We are talking about a core issue of human rights and civil rights and that is how the discussion should be framed.

In a recent presentation about Assistive Technology (a very confusing label which has multiple meanings), I talked about how that term limits and guides our view and resulting action (or inaction) with respect to getting people what they need (accomodations, adaptations, etc.) to level the playing field. I found especially helpful the language of the new "WORLD REPORT ON DISABILITY" and the CONVENTION FOR RIGHTS OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES. Both of these guiding documents define disability -- the core of all other related definitions -- as a human rights and civil rights issue. Maybe we ought to look there for guidance in the first instance? (world report)
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