Over the past few weeks, my social media has lit up with people worried about the future of special education in the US, prompted by the confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education. 

During the hearings, DeVos failed to commit to enforcing the federal legislation ensuring children with disabilities have a right to education.

In fact, she appeared not to fully understand that children with disabilities were guaranteed access to education under federal law.

I’m American, the mother of a girl with significant disabilities, the daughter of two (now-retired) teachers, and have studied politics, so I’m interested in the appointment process. 

But, my family lives in Australia, so DeVos’ appointment won’t have a direct impact on me, or my daughter’s access to an education.

Still, it is naïve to think that these things happen in isolation.

US policy inspires trends elsewhere in the world and vice versa.

And although the spotlight may be shining brightest on the US at the moment, it doesn’t mean that it is the only country where the rights of children with disabilities are coming under threat.

We live in a global society, and the loss of rights in one country – particularly a country as big and influential as the US – can affect us all.

Several years ago, my husband and I attended a series of workshops for parents of children with disabilities.

Three of the workshops focused on topics such as helping your child to engage with their local community, setting and achieving goals, and not limiting your child’s opportunities.

They were feel-good workshops, where we imagined a positive, optimistic future for our daughter.

The fourth workshop, however, focused on the historic treatment of people with disabilities.

It was not feel-good. In fact, it was extremely distressing.

Hearing how children such as my daughter were treated in the past – abused, neglected, forgotten and often left to die – was upsetting.

Some of the parents complained – what was the point of hearing these awful details when that isn’t how things are today?

The workshop facilitator responded that only by understanding the past treatment of the disabled could we ensure that those things never happened again.

I’m reminded of that workshop when I think about the current education debate.

After all, it wasn’t that long ago that children like my daughter, Miss Z, could be denied access to education on the basis of their disabilities.

In most Western countries today, children with disabilities have the right to an education. And this is generally recognized as a good thing.

But that doesn’t mean that they are always welcome at school. Funding is often an issue.

Parents can spend years fighting for an adequate level of support for their child to help them to function and learn in a classroom.

And in mainstream schools in particular, other parents can be less than welcoming. 

How many times have you heard other parents complain about “the autistic kid” that disrupts their child’s class?

Or that the “special needs kid" takes too much of the teacher’s attention? 

Even those who have good intentions often view Miss Z attending school as more of a bonus for her, a nice thing for her to do with her day and respite for me, rather than as her accessing right to an education.

They don’t see her as someone able to learn, benefit from education, or ever make “real” use of it by going to university or getting a job.

After all, an education isn’t going to cure her.

This makes me angry.

My daughter is always going to be disabled and school isn’t going to change that. This is true.

However, her access to education – and just as importantly, the quality of that education - will determine the type of life she leads and how she interacts with her community. 

If she is seen as hopeless or un-teachable, then that is exactly how she will stay.

If she is stuck in the back of a class without the right support and resources, she won’t learn and she won’t grow.

We are lucky. Miss Z attends an excellent local special school that understands her educational needs.

We don’t have to fight for support or access – if anything, they have been the ones to encourage me to challenge Miss Z a little more than I thought was possible.

And in the one year that she has been there, it has already made a significant difference to her.

Her communication skills have progressed much farther and faster than we ever expected they would.

Miss Z is nonverbal and has struggled to make her needs known beyond crying when she is upset, bored or in pain.

After a year of focusing daily on communication as a foundation for all learning and constantly being exposed to alternative forms of communication, such as communication books and cards, she can consistently answer yes and no questions, make basic choices and express her opinions.

Reflect for a moment on what a big achievement this is.

Imagine not being able to communicate even your most basic needs.

Imagine everything in your life being decided by people who may be good intentioned, but aren’t physic and don’t always know what you want or how you feel.

And then imagine being able to say: “yes, I want to watch tv” or “I don’t like that song” or “I’m in pain”.

This isn’t something I could have ever achieved at home.

It was the result of the concerted and well-planned effort of her teacher, who is a specialist alternative communication, working closely with Miss Z’s speech pathologist and experienced teacher aides who reinforce communication lessons.

And that is only the tip of the iceberg. 

School gives her independence. It challenges her and lets her try new things.

For example, art class at school revealed that she loves to paint.

It also gives Miss Z a sense of fun, excitement and belonging.

She attends school camp. She dresses up for Book Day. She goes on field trips with her class. She performs in the school Christmas concert.

These moments are just as important to her, and to our family, as they are for typical children.

And that is why I watch the developments in the US with concern.  Governments all over the world are looking at ways to cut education funding.

All over the world, people are questioning the value of educating children with disabilities.

We must all be vigilant to ensure that we never go back to the attitude that education for children with disabilities doesn’t matter. It does.

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