How IDEA is changing the culture and maybe the world

How IDEA is changing the culture and maybe the world

On a national level, what particular population may have the most influence in elections in years to come? Women? Latinos? African-Americans? The LGBTQ community? How about all the retired flower children?

Try people with disabilities – a force that is currently 35.4 million strong, according to a new report from the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, with an increase close to 11 percent since 2008. The group is larger than either Blacks or Hispanics, two populations that continue to be enthusiastically courted by most successful politicians.

Perhaps Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was unaware of that fact when he factiously imitated a reporter with a joint disorder (arthrogryposis) early in his campaign.

The rise in this demographic, thankfully, can be contributed to a quadrant of laws supported by enumerable court decisions, regulations and changes in local policies that have advanced the rights of individuals with disabilities.

The sequence of their passage marks an evolution of the American consciousness when it comes to civil rights and social acceptance: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; the Education for All Handicapped Children Act that morphed into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, originally passed in 1975; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; and the Help America Vote Act (which provided resources to make voting more handicapped accessible) enacted in 2002. 

Of that set, the most impactful over time, by far, has been IDEA. That legislation prompted schools to change instructional programs to promote the success of all pupils, even those with pronounced learning deficiencies. Just as significant, it propelled a hitherto ignored portion of the population into full citizenship by giving it the skills and knowledge necessary to intelligently exercise their liberties.

Our country was the first in the world to initiate the policy of “zero rejection” in its schools, and we still remain the international leader when it comes to educating students with special needs. Contrary to what some seeking public office may imply, in spite of all its flaws, this dedication to inclusive environments is a testament to the strength of the U.S. educational system and, for that matter, our national character as well.

Now, 40 years after the original omnibus education law, voters with disabilities have just barely begun to flex their electoral muscles.  Only 46 percent of them are expected to vote in the upcoming election. Even so, that rate rivals the percentage of eligible Latino voters of 48 percent, according to USA Today.

The proportion of those with disabilities who vote will undoubtedly continue to rise as more exit high school, which, based on figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, should be about 400,000 per year.

More importantly, their franchise involvement will increase as schools build citizenship skills into individualized transition plans that are mandated for every student receiving special education beginning at age 16 (if not earlier). The effort will not only encourage their participation in our democracy, it will make them capable and discriminating when it comes to casting their ballot for an issue or candidate. The net will result will be more breadth in our nation’s electorate, an expansion that will benefit everyone.