Politics

Disability Rights Advocates Concerned After DeVos’ Hearing

Came after cagey responses on integrated education

Disability rights advocates were concerned about DeVos' lack of understanding of law that governs education for students with disabilities (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call).

Disability rights advocates raised concerns after Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos' confirmation hearing that she might not be committed to enforcing educational access for students with disabilities.

During the hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Education, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked about whether schools that received federal money should have to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.

“I think that is a matter best left to the states,” DeVos responded before saying it was worth discussion.

Similarly, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., followed up on the matter in her line of questioning.

“Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play,” DeVos said. She later clarified in responding to a different question that she may have been confused about IDEA, which requires schools to provide an education to students with disabilities until age 21, but that she would be sensitive to the needs of students with disabilities.  

“With all due respect, it’s not about sensitivity, although that helps” said Hassan, who has a son with cerebral palsy. “It’s about being willing to enforce the law to ensure that my child and every child has the same access to public education, high-quality education.”

Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project said it was "horrifying" as a disabled person to hear the responses to Kaine.

“She kept repeating that it's a matter for the states when this is a federal act," Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project. "This is pretty basic knowledge that any educational professional should have."

Later, Hassan, criticized DeVos' response and said. she would review DeVos' written responses but DeVos has done "nothing to convince" Hassan she would be suitable choice.

"At yesterday’s hearing, not only did Mrs. DeVos decline to commit to enforcing IDEA, but she said she was confused about whether it is a federal law," Hassan said in a statement to Roll Call. "The fact that a nominee to lead the Department of Education seemed unfamiliar with the federal law to protect students with disabilities – a law that she would have a major responsibility in enforcing – is unacceptable."

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, President of Respectability USA, said while she was encouraged by DeVos saying schools should be a safe space from bullying, and the nominee’s support of disability student scholarship vouchers in Florida, she also had reservations.

“It will be very clear it will be important for the Secretary of Education to be committed to IDEA because good training and education is vital for people with disabilities to contribute,” she said.

The American Association of People with Disabilities also stated its concerns about DeVos' lack of understanding of IDEA.

“AAPD is very concerned that Ms. DeVos seems unfamiliar with the IDEA and the protections it provides to students with disabilities,” the organization said in a blog post. “Should Ms. DeVos be confirmed as Secretary of Education, she must become more familiar with the law and commit to ensuring that it is fully-funded and enforced.”

But Tera Myers, a mother of a son with Down syndrome named Sam who graduated high school with the help of a special needs scholarship, attended the hearing and supports DeVos.

Myers saying that IDEA often doesn't adequately meet the needs of students with disabilities and that DeVos supports school choice programs for students with disabilities.

"IDEA leaves families with no recourse but paying thousands of dollar out of pocket for their child's education or suing their public school district when the district doesn't serve their child's special and unique needs," she said in a statement.

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