Advocacy in Public Education

What do Grizzly Bears, public education, and a questionable future for children with disabilities all have in common? If you guessed Betsy DeVos’ confirmation as Secretary of Education, you’d be correct.

DeVos’ stance on accommodations for students with disabilities is confusing, to say the least. During her confirmation hearing she stated that accommodations should be left up to the states and demonstrated a total lack of understanding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Later on, she sent a letter to Senator Isakson demonstrating that she had done her research on IDEA, but still left room for concern regarding her advocacy of voucher programs (which require students to relinquish IDEA rights).
So, what can students and caregivers do to protect their rights in the wake of all this wondering? Here are a few resources to keep in mind and on hand.

Understanding your rights
Federal laws exist to protect the rights of students with disabilities, the more aware you are of these now, the better you will be able to advocate if the need arises.

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
    This act effectively prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability for any program that receives federal funding. Section 504 covers public schools AND most colleges/universities, along with federal agencies, ensuring that qualified individuals are not denied due to disability. It also mandates these programs provide reasonable accommodations upon request. Compliance with this program, as with all federal laws, is not optional.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
    A landmark policy for students with disabilities, IDEA was built on providing free and appropriate public education (FAPE). This act saw the true integration of children with disabilities into public schools, suggesting students be placed into a typical classroom setting and provided a least restrictive environment.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
    A huge step forward for disability rights, the ADA protects against discrimination in a multitude of ways, as equal opportunity is a prime directive of this legislation. ADA compliance is more often found in post-secondary education, rather than grade school. Reasonable accommodations fall under the ADA as well, this time with the added note of not fundamentally altering educational requirements.

Specialized Educational Plans
Relevant options for any students attending a public school or university, if accommodations are necessary, these schools are required to comply.

Consider an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Under IDEA, which DeVos has stated she will uphold, an IEP allows students to map out a plan of services and accommodations to be provided by the school, including specialize education and modifications. These constitute the least restrictive environment compliance under IDEA.

A 504 Plan is a good move as well
A 504 Plan focuses on making the learning environment accessible through services and accommodations, so a student may be on a level playing field with their peers. It provides the reasonable accommodations and modifications to any student attending a school that receives federal funding.

Not sure when to look into an IEP vs. a 504 Plan? has a fantastic chart detailing the specifics of each plan, as well as their differences.

Talk to your campus Disability Support Office
Most colleges and universities have a disability support office that require you self-disclose to their office. These offices are under ADA guidelines and cannot distribute your personal information without consent. When it comes to accommodations, counselors will help you draw up a service plan in the university setting and facilitate discussion with professors.


Whether you are a parent of a student yourself, advocacy goes a long way! Speak directly with teachers/professors, guidance counselors, and school administrators about accommodations and extra help. Even if you do not have a specialized education plan in place, the school should be willing to work towards every student’s success.

Along with self-advocacy, there are a number of ways to get involved on a federal level. Attending events (ex. the Arthritis Foundation holds an Advocacy Summit), emailing or calling your senator, or even getting involved on a local level. Speaking out in any setting benefits not only yourself, but also encourages those who were previously afraid to speak up.



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