Double Disability Whammy During Distance Learning

One of the issues that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere else, but am seeing first hand every day, is the impact that the shutdown has had on my students with disabilities whose parents also have disabilities. Given that so many learning disabilities, physical impairments, Autism spectrum disorders, and mental health conditions run in families, it’s not surprising to find children on IEPs whose parents also have disabilities. It would be shocking for a professional in this field to not see that phenomenon.

The shutdown negatively impacted students and their families from all walks of life. Students on IEPs were hit more hard only because they were already at a disadvantage and largely under-served before the pandemic hit. All shutdown did was magnify the pre-existing inequality.

To that end, parents with disabilities who were already getting jerked around by their local education agencies have been disadvantaged and exploited even further during school shutdowns. I’ve got two cases on my caseload, right now, that immediately come to mind. One is in California and the other is in Missouri, and in both cases I’ve had to serve as both a reasonable accommodation for the parent with disabilities as well as do my normal job of advocating for the student with disabilities.

In both cases, a bunch of goons from the respective school districts tried to railroad learning disabled parents who struggle to understand the relevant documents, saying one thing verbally, putting something else in writing, and hoping these learning disabled parents didn’t notice. The parents’ federally protected rights as per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to informed consent and meaningful parent participation in the IEP process are additionally compromised by violations of the parents’ rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Here’s what I need everybody reading or listening to understand: The states involved here are Missouri, a red state practically overtaken by domestic terrorists bent on sedition, and California, a blue state with mostly progressive leadership. This is a non-partisan issue. There is no political party that seriously cares about people with disabilities, even though disability cuts across every swath of human existence that there is. It’s beyond dysfunctional, but that’s our profoundly sick society, for you.

So, what do we do about this? Well, on an individual basis, the steps of effective advocacy remain the same: get the truth on the record, request remedy, and file complaints if the local education agencies don’t abide. The number one protection parents with disabilities have under the ADA relevant to this issue is their right to communicate via their preferred form of communication. Reasonable accommodation isn’t limited to wheelchair ramps, and honoring a learning disabled person’s communication preferences is just as important as honoring the communication preferences of someone deaf or blind.

For parents with disabilities, it is important going in from the outset that you make clear in writing that you require reasonable accommodations from your local school district, including what your communication preferences are. It doesn’t hurt to add language like, “These accommodations under Section 504 and the ADA are necessary to insure my protected rights to informed consent and meaningful parent participation in the IEP process pursuant to the IDEA.”

If you have been keeping your need for accommodations to yourself for fear of being judged by the school district members of your child’s IEP team, something is seriously wrong. If you fear that people employed specifically to educate humans with disabilities are going to give you grief because you are a human with disabilities, either you’re insecure, working with a-holes, or both. You do yourself and your child no favors by not putting your local education agency on notice about your need for accommodations; if they treat you poorly, that’s on them for violating your rights as well as those of your child.

It’s stronger to go in asking for reasonable accommodations as your legal right given that you are there to protect your child’s right to reasonable accommodations. If you acquiesce on one, you’re acquiescing on the other. You have to believe that all people with disabilities are equal in power and voice to people without disabilities, including yourself. You are not setting a good example for your child to become a strong self-advocate in spite of disabilities when you fail to advocate for yourself.

Aside from what individual parents with disabilities do on a situation-by-situation basis on the ground, at this point, the only mechanisms available that have any chance of broadly changing anything are judicial and political. Parents need to sue over the civil rights violations that undermine their advocacy for their children so that public education agencies are held to account under every letter of the law that applies. All parents of children with disabilities need to unionize and collectively bargain for improved special education laws and access to special education resources.

In theory, parents with disabilities involved in the IEP process for their children may be able to concurrently file 504/ADA claims in federal court purely on the basis of the discrimination against themselves while filing for due process under the IDEA to assert their children’s claims. However, there’s a kicker that my colleagues who are licensed members of the bar should weigh in on, here.

With respect to informed parental consent and meaningful parent participation in the IEP process, the related civil rights claims may have to toll while due process is being pursued because a special education hearing officer has no jurisdiction with respect to 504/ADA but administrative remedies under the IDEA have to be first exhausted before related civil rights claims can be pursued. Basically, you have to do everything you can with due process before you can go on to federal court on related civil rights claims.

The reason civil rights claims often must toll pending due process is because the hearing officer in the due process case may order something to correct the special education violations that inadvertently cures the civil rights violations at the same time. This makes it unnecessary to get that same outcome from a federal court judge and, thus, a waste of judicial resources to try the same thing in two different venues. However, if the civil rights claims can stand alone on their own with no related due process claims associated with the same body of facts, it’s possible to go forward on civil rights claims while other claims are being adjudicated via due process.

Again, this is a tricky question of law and I defer to my colleagues who are licensed members of the bar to speak to the particulars of 504/ADA claims versus IDEA claims, as well as the order in which issues are tried and by whom. The point is that there is recourse, one way or another.

Parents with disabilities should not feel compromised in the IEP process. No parent should fear that a body of public servants educated, trained, and employed to support the needs of individuals with disabilities in the school setting will use that knowledge to exploit the parent’s disabilities to the detriment of the student. The very idea is reprehensible, but it happens every day.

Institutionalized biases have a lot to do with it. Even people employed to educate students with disabilities will regard a parent’s disabilities as character flaws, more often than not. It’s a learned, knee-jerk reaction that all of us have been raised with to one degree or another our entire lives. It’s why people with disabilities are often also plagued with self-loathing and related mental health disorders. Most people with disabilities aren’t born with self-loathing and mental health disorders; they are acquired from the experiences of being rejected by everyone else and seeing a world that is basically designed to exclude them from participation. Things that can be acquired can also be let go and replaced.

During distance learning, these issues became even more painfully apparent as schools shut down and children with special needs had to stay at home and participate in distance learning. Setting aside the degree of forgiveness due to actual teachers for not being given appropriate tools and support from their respective agencies to handle the situation, something cohesive should have been in place within the first few weeks, but I’ve still got school districts pulling ridiculous stunts and we’ve got partial campus re-openings going on around here, right now.

We’re now more than a year into this thing and, not only have they not gotten their acts together, they’re actively making excuses as to why the broke the law 40 million different ways before now. If they invested half the energy they’ve spent on making excuses and lying to the public into actually solving the problem, it would have been solved by now.

The politics of it all is at the heart of this issue, unfortunately. This is just as serious as domestic terrorism, because it’s actually one of many expressions of that terrorism. When parents with disabilities are terrified of the people to whom they send their children with disabilities every day, often with the threat of criminal prosecution for truancy if they don’t, they are being manipulated through fear to acquiesce on issues that, under the law, require their consent.

It is important for those of us who are working in the civil rights arena to recognize that we will find the students with disabilities we serve also among other marginalized populations that may have a stronger degree of activism already underway. For example, if a child with disabilities and African-American heritage is being jerked around, it may be more effective to bring a representative from the NAACP to an IEP meeting than a disability advocate. Likely, the best solution would to bring both.

This is an issue that child and family advocates need to address because it is vast, pervasive, and significant. When it comes to dumping the instructional responsibilities for a child with disabilities onto a parent with disabilities, the civil rights claims can easily multiply. I have had three cases this year involving parents with disabilities who were getting played by their local school districts until I said something. One case is resolved and the other two, which I mentioned at the beginning, remain active.

In every case, not only were the parents with disabilities being inappropriately burdened like all other parents during shutdown, they were not offered any reasonable accommodations to do so. In my mind, this is an enormous class-action issue that could result in entire state departments of education, which are ultimately responsible to the federal government for complying with the IDEA in exchange for federal special education dollars, getting nailed to the wall for failing to ensure local education agencies provided reasonable accommodations during shutdown to parents with disabilities who were attempting to instruct their children at home or who simply could not, resulting in a deprivation of educational benefits to their children.

I am very curious to get parent, advocate, and attorney input on this issue. If you have experienced anything like this, either as a parent or professional, and have ideas on how to lawfully resolve these issues with the least amount of trauma to the involved children and their families, we’d love to hear from you. For those employed within the system who want to do the right thing but are being prevented by others within the system, your feedback is appreciated as well.

The news is replete with evidence that far too many public servants can’t be trusted to uphold the rules of democracy. Because the IDEA is so dependent upon the application of science to the lawful implementation of special education, it tends to be those who disregard science and law who pose the biggest threat to our children with special needs.

Given how many Far Right conservatives there are employed within public education, the fact that the domestic Far Right is the greatest terrorism threat that our country faces, and that neither science nor the rule of law mean much to the Far Right, it’s not that hard to see why we need to get the Far Right out of our public school system. The Far Right is why civil rights laws are necessary in the first place. They’re not going to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. They don’t even understand what that means. They’re going to do whatever serves their selfish motivations.

People who follow the extremes at either end of any social spectrum, including politics, tend not to have fully functional prefrontal cortices, based on my observations. They lack the deductive reasoning skills to understand the big picture. They lack the perspective-taking skills to see things from anyone else’s point of view. They are egocentric in thought and grossly emotionally under-developed. They are prone to extreme actions and reactions based almost entirely on their own wants and needs.

In the special education setting, if you and your child’s needs don’t align with the agenda of people with this mindset, you don’t even exist to them. You’re like a person with a numbered ticket at the deli counter. They’re going to interact with you briefly and smile to your face, then forget you exist five minutes later. You’re a thing, not a person, to people like this. They don’t think of anybody as another “person.” Everybody else are just things to conveniently access when they serve a useful purpose to people who think this way. That is why holding them accountable after the fact is more effective than logical or emotional appeals made in an effort to prevent something bad from happening.

All of this is, of course, disordered thought. So, basically, what this comes down to is a bunch of mentally ill, self-serving individuals getting paid six-figure annual incomes at taxpayer expense to manifest their untreated and unaccommodated symptoms at the expense of their constituents. What we’re really looking at is the symptoms of untreated mental health disorders being manifested as public policy to the detriment of individuals who are not in denial about the fact that they have disabilities attempting to advocate for their children with disabilities.

The most apparent difference that I can see between the two sides of the issue is that the people within public education responsible for this situation don’t think there is anything wrong with themselves; they think they are the chosen ones and everyone else exists just to give them an excuse to collect a paycheck. When the special education community finally addresses the degree to which schizoaffective, personality-disordered administrators and the like are behind the egregious abuses of disability-related laws it experiences, and we use our science to heal ourselves, we’ll be able to actually use the science to heal our children and help them build productive futures for themselves.

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005, and an educational psychologist, behavior analyst, and curriculum developer since 2013.

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