The Arc Responds to the Department of Education’s Rescinding of Affirmative Action Guidance

Last month, the Trump administration rescinded guidance the Department of Education provides to colleges, universities and K-12 schools on how they can use race and ethnic background in admissions decisions to promote diversity. The Arc has released the following statement in response to the Trump Administration’s actions:

“This is the latest of a series of moves that shows this Administration’s intentions to chip away at the instruments that have been put in place to increase equity and access to quality education for our country’s most vulnerable populations.

“Two weeks ago, The Department of Education and the Department of Justice delayed by two years a regulation intended to prevent race-based imbalances in pre-school and K-12 education for students with disabilities, a regulation whose delay was opposed by the vast majority of parents, students and administrators who submitted public comments.

“Earlier this year, the Administration also indicated its intent to rescind a guidance package to prevent racial disproportionality in public school discipline. While guidance documents are non-binding practical tools that help school systems follow the law, the Trump Administration’s collective actions make clear that it is scaling back efforts made by previous administrations to encourage diversity in our schools. This is a troubling trend in policymaking that may lead to poorer education outcomes for many Americans with and without disabilities,” said Marty Ford, Senior Executive Officer of Public Policy, The Arc.

The Arc Joins Effort Calling on Department of Education to Keep Guidance on Treating All Students Fairly, including Students with Disabilities

The Arc has joined more than 140 national, state, and local organizations, led by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a letter calling on the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to keep in place school discipline guidance.  This guidance merely clarifies that the ED expects that schools and districts are treating all children fairly and provides practical tools and guidelines for educators to create safe, supportive, and welcoming environments for all students.

In 2014, the federal guidance was issued with documents that provide important information and support for educators who want to create safer and more welcoming schools and important cautions for schools where problems of unequal treatment are not being addressed. The Arc and the organizations signing this letter maintain that rescinding the guidance would send the opposite message: that the ED does not care that schools are discriminating against children of color by disproportionately removing them from school and that ED does not see itself as having a role in helping educators create and maintain safe schools that afford all students equal educational opportunities.

“We know that suspensions and expulsions have been used for far too long and too often in our schools and are used disproportionately against children of color and children with disabilities. This federal guidance helps to stop this trend, and rescinding it would harm the progress we have to make to live up to our commitment to a free and appropriate public education for minority students with disabilities,” said Peter Berns, CEO, The Arc.

The Arc on Bipartisan, Two Year Budget Deal

The Arc is pleased that Congress was able to negotiate a bipartisan budget deal last week.  The deal provides welcome temporary relief for the non-defense discretionary part of the budget that funds a range of programs – such as education, housing, and employment – that help make community living possible for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Further, by raising the debt ceiling though March of 2019, it provides a measure of stability that will allow Congress time to continue to develop appropriations legislation to keep the federal government operating.  However, despite these and many other beneficial provisions, The Arc remains concerned about future efforts to make program cuts in order to deal with the increased spending authorized in the deal and reduced revenue from the tax law enacted in December.

MediSked Applauds Strong Disability Rights Advocacy at The Arc of North Carolina

By Linda Nakagawa, Market Policy Analyst, MediSked

Advocacy is the foundation upon which the disability community has grown into a powerhouse. The future of the movement depends on the many advocates across the country who are engaging on the local, state, and national levels to protect the rights of people with disabilities and support their inclusion in the community.

The Arc of North Carolina uses MediSked products for data tracking in their service delivery. The chapter is also an advocacy leader in the state, and we have long admired their strong commitment to their advocacy work. So we reached out to Melinda Plue, Director of Advocacy and Chapter Development at The Arc of North Carolina, to share some of the advocacy efforts the state chapter and its 23 member chapters have made this year.

The Arc of North Carolina has made use of the comprehensive advocacy toolkit provided by The Arc of the U.S. to play an active role in the fight to save Medicaid this year. Self-advocates and family members wrote powerful letters that were sent to The Arc to hand-deliver for state delegations. At the state level, The Arc of North Carolina has done media campaigns, lobbying, and rallies. The success of advocacy depends on real life stories, heartfelt letters as well as real data to back up the facts on which these issues are based.

Another area where The Arc of North Carolina has been especially active is in grassroots local advocacy and community engagement, in partnership with their member chapters. Some actions include:

  • Barrier Awareness Day: The Arc of Davidson County is hosting Barrier Awareness Day, to give individuals without disabilities the chance to navigate through life as someone who does experience a disability. Participants engage in simulations that mimic mobile, visual, and hearing impairments and are taken out into the community. The event leads residents to really think about the accessibility of their community.
  • Wings for Autism/Wings for All: Many chapters of The Arc in North Carolina participate in Wings for Autism®, a grant-funded program from The Arc’s national office that simulates an airport experience for individuals with autism spectrum disorder and individuals with I/DD. The program gives families the opportunity to experience, at no cost, all the processes involved with air travel.
  • Self-Advocates’ Conference: The Arc of Greensboro, The Arc of High Point, The Arc of Davidson County, and The Enrichment Center in Winston-Salem host a conference for self-advocates around the state. The conference, which is entering its sixth year, is planned by self-advocates and staff from the four chapters and focuses on vital information that self-advocates have identified wanting to learn more about. Beginning in March of 2018, this conference will be a part of the state’s annual Rooted in Advocacy conference, hosted by The Arc of North Carolina, as it has become so well-attended.
  • Self-Advocacy Movement: Self-advocates must be decision-makers during conversations that involve the disability community and for causes they are passionate about: “Decisions ABOUT me should INCLUDE me.” The current board president of the state chapter is a self-advocate, and self-advocates are on just about every board of local chapters of The Arc. The chapters of The Arc are proud of supporting self-advocates to teach them how to get involved on boards, not only at The Arc but for other organizations in their community.
  • Advocacy in Public Schools: Staff resources are dedicated to support families as they move through the special education process. Many local chapters and the state work together to empower families and teach them how to advocate for their children.

To know where advocacy can be most effective, you need to know who you serve and communities in which people with intellectual and developmental disabilities live alongside people without disabilities. MediSked partners with The Arc and supports chapters of The Arc across the country with MediSked Connect – Agency Management Platform. MediSked Connect is a platform that streamlines procedures and centralizes data with tailored workflows, detailed service documentation, holistic health data, outcome tracking and reporting, and integrated billing management that is implemented in a collaborative process with each agency.

This year, more than ever, we have been proud to partner with so many strong organizations as they deliver services in their community and fight for the future of services and supports for people with disabilities.

 

Parents and Advocates Sue State of Georgia Over Separate and Unequal Education for Thousands of Students with Disabilities

Parents of Children with Disabilities, The Georgia Advocacy Office, The Center for Public Representation, The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, The Arc, DLA Piper LLP, and The Goodmark Firm File Class Action Lawsuit Against State of Georgia

ATLANTA, GA (Oct. 11, 2017) – Today, parents of children with disabilities, the Georgia Advocacy Office, the Center for Public Representation, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, The Arc, DLA Piper LLP, and the Goodmark Law Firm filed a class action lawsuit in federal court alleging that the State of Georgia has discriminated against thousands of public school students with disabilities by providing them with a separate and unequal education via the State’s Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Supports Program (GNETS).

The complaint filed in United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, alleges that the State, in denying GNETS students the opportunity to be educated with their non-disabled peers in neighborhood schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. For more information about the litigation, please visit www.centerforpublicrep.org/court_case/gao-v-georgia/.

“The Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), the independent Protection and Advocacy System for People with Disabilities in Georgia, is demanding the State abandon GNETS and stop segregating youth with disabilities,” said Ruby Moore, Executive Director of GAO. “GNETS programs are a relic of a time where people with disabilities were thought to be uneducable. GAO has and will continue to fight against GNETS and any program or service that unnecessarily segregates people with disabilities.”

GNETS are segregated programs that serve only students with disabilities, housed in entirely separate buildings or in separate wings of neighborhood schools, for students who need services for their disability-related behaviors. In 2016, over 5,000 students with disabilities were placed in GNETS. Most of these students are African-American and 100% of the students enrolled experience disabilities. “The State of Georgia’s segregated GNETS system flies in the face of long-standing Supreme Court precedent,” said Alison Barkoff, Director of Advocacy for the Center for Public Representation. “The Court recognized long ago that ‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.’ And the Supreme Court in Olmstead v. L.C. made clear that the ADA forbids the needless isolation or segregation of people with disabilities, because it deprives them of opportunities like getting an education and social contacts with peers.”

GNETS students are denied access to physical education, art, music, and extra-curricular activities, and many GNETS centers have no library, cafeteria, gym, science lab, music room, or playground. Some GNETS centers are located in buildings that were used to teach African-American students during the Jim Crow era, much of the instruction is performed via online programs rather than with certified teachers, and educational curricula are not aligned with State standards. Accordingly, GNETS students rarely earn a diploma. The GNETS graduation rate is only 10% in contrast to a nearly 80% graduation rate in neighborhood schools. Students in GNETS are physically restrained on a routine basis, nearly 10,000 times in 2014-2016. “Although advertised as ‘therapeutic,’ GNETS are anything but – often student behavior worsens once placed in GNETS because of the harsh and punitive atmosphere in the schools,” said attorney Craig Goodmark. “Decades of research and practice show that students with and without disabilities do best academically and socially when they learn alongside each other.”

Instead of providing local school districts with the resources to offer the services these students need, the State is spending millions of dollars on segregated settings. “GNETS was intended to be a placement of the last resort. Instead, GNETs has become a dumping ground for students whom local school districts do not want to educate,” said Ira Burnim, the Bazelon Center’s Legal Director. “Georgia is the only state in the country to systematically segregate students with disabilities on a statewide basis. This is a plain violation of federal disability laws intended to ensure that students with disabilities are able to learn and receive services in integrated settings along with their peers without disabilities.”

In response to the efforts of a broad coalition of stakeholders seeking to end the illegal segregation of students in GNETS, the Georgia Coalition for Equity in Education, and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) performed a multi-year investigation (www.ada.gov/olmstead/documents/gnets_lof.pdf) of GNETS. The investigation eventually culminated in a lawsuit against the State, alleging that the State’s administration of the GNETS system violates the ADA by “unnecessarily segregating students with disabilities from their peers” and providing “unequal” education opportunities to GNETS students. That lawsuit has been put on hold pending a decision from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals regarding DOJ’s authority to bring suit.

“The Arc has long fought for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to be educated in their neighborhood schools with appropriate services, supplementary aids, and supports,” said Stacey Ramirez, Director of The Arc’s Georgia state office. “Georgia’s systemic segregation of students with disabilities is unacceptable to The Arc and its constituents in Georgia. With DOJ’s lawsuit now on hold, the children of Georgia can wait no longer.”

About The Arc

The Arc is the largest national community-based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and their families. In partnership with its network of 650 chapters across the country, The Arc works to promote and protect the rights of people with I/DD to live, work, and learn in the community free from discrimination. Through its Georgia state office, The Arc seeks to ensure that students with I/DD throughout the state can meaningfully access the myriad benefits, programs, and services offered to students in neighborhood public schools. To learn more, visit www.thearc.org.

About The Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

The Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law is a national legal advocacy organization protecting and advancing the rights of people with mental disabilities. The Center promotes laws and policies that enable people with mental disabilities to live independently in their own homes and

communities, and to enjoy the same opportunities that everyone else does. For more information, visit www.bazelon.org.

About The Center for Public Representation

The Center for Public Representation (CPR) is a national legal advocacy center for people with disabilities. For 40 years, CPR has been enforcing and expanding the rights of people with disabilities and others who are in segregated settings. CPR uses legal strategies, advocacy, and policy to design and implement systemic reform initiatives to that promote integration and full community participation. To learn more about our work, visit www.centerforpublicrep.org.

About DLA Piper LLP

DLA Piper is a global law firm with lawyers located in more than 40 countries throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, positioning us to help clients with their legal needs around the world. To learn more, visit www.dlapiper.com/en/us.

About The Georgia Advocacy Office

The Georgia Advocacy Office is Georgia’s designated Protection and Advocacy System. GAO envisions a Georgia where all people have value, visibility and voice; where even the most difficult and long-lasting challenges are addressed by ordinary citizens acting voluntarily on behalf of each other; and where the perception of disability is replaced by the recognition of ability. GAO’s mission is to organize our resources and follow our values and legal mandates in ways which substantially increase the number of people who are voluntarily standing beside and for people in Georgia who have significant disabilities and mental illness. To learn more, visit www.thegao.org.

About The Goodmark Law Firm

Since 1999, Mr. Goodmark has dedicated a majority of his practice to representing families, teachers and students in their pursuit of equality, fairness and justice in Georgia’s schools. To learn more, visit www.goodmarklaw.com.

SSI Makes Allowances for Student Finances

By Mary L. Waltari, Esq., Special Needs Alliance

Students with disabilities and their families sometimes worry that the very process of becoming educated—with an important goal being increased economic independence—can reduce SSI (Supplemental Security Income). Probably not. The Social Security Administration wants to encourage self-sufficiency and has guidelines that, in many cases, will enable individuals receiving SSI to continue their education without diminishing monthly payments.

SSI is a monthly cash payment made to eligible individuals with disabilities and, in many cases, it’s fundamental to their financial security. It’s a means-tested benefit, and until a child reaches the age of 18, parental income and assets are evaluated when determining qualification. Since an individual may not have more than $2,000 in “countable assets,” most minors are ineligible. However, once they reach 18, family assets are no longer considered, and many individuals with disabilities begin receiving SSI at that point. At the same time, many of them continue with high school education until the age of 21. Upon graduation, they may attend vocational training or college. While doing so, they may work a part-time job or receive financial aid, including room and board.

Protected Savings

Special needs trusts (SNTs), ABLE accounts and Social Security’s PASS (Plan to Achieve Self-Support) are several ways to set aside money for education, among other things. While these savings tools are regulated differently from one another, they enable funds for eligible individuals with disabilities to be accumulated without affecting means-tested government programs.

Monthly Earnings

Student Earned Income Exclusions (SEIE) take summer or part-time jobs into account by disregarding more income for students than for non-students. To be eligible, individuals must be under 22 and “regularly attending school,” which generally means going to classes for at least one month during the quarter to which SEIE applies for at least:

  • 12 hours weekly for high school students;
  • 12 hours weekly for vocational training;
  • eight hours weekly for college students

There are exceptions for illness, and different rules apply to home schooling and “homebound” students.

It’s useful to compare SSI guidelines for students with those applied to others:

  • Non-Students: SSI doesn’t count the first $65 of monthly earnings and half of the remainder, along with a $20 general income exclusion. What’s left reduces SSI dollar-for-dollar.
  • Students: SSI disregards the first $1,790 of monthly earnings, up to an annual total of $7,200. Earnings over $1,790 per month will then receive the same earned income exclusion and general income exclusion available for non-students, after which earnings reduce SSI dollar-for-dollar.

Financial Aid

Any financial assistance covered by Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 or Bureau of Indian Affairs programs isn’t counted as income, regardless of use. Interest and dividends from unspent funds are also exempt. Pell Grants, Federal Work-Study and Direct Loans are just a few of the covered programs.

But it does matter when and how financial aid and gifts from other sources are spent:

  • There’s no effect on SSI so long as funds are spent on education-related needs within nine months of receipt.
  • Funds set aside for education purposes but ultimately used differently are counted as income at the earlier of two points: in the month they’re spent or the month the individual no longer intends to use the funds for educational purposes
  • Funds that are neither set aside for education nor immediately spent for that purpose are counted as income during the month of receipt and counted as a resource the next month.

Student Housing

Since SSI is intended to pay for food and shelter, non-students have their payments reduced when they receive such in-kind support and maintenance (ISM) from other sources. In such cases, SSI may be cut back by up to one-third of the maximum federal SSI monthly benefit, plus $20.

But if a student receiving SSI resides on campus, with room and board covered by parents or financial aid, other rules apply. The school living arrangements will be considered temporary and not categorized as ISM if:

  • the individual is over 18;
  • will return to their permanent address during holidays, vacations or following graduation;
  • and lived at their permanent address for at least one calendar month prior to attending school.

On the other hand, if the student receives free housing and meals at their permanent residence, ISM applies and SSI will be reduced.

The Social Security Administration recognizes that education can be a gateway to independence for individuals with disabilities. Paying attention to these guidelines can ensure that students aren’t financially penalized for their ambitions.

Mary L. Waltari is a member of the Special Needs Alliance, a national nonprofit dedicated to assisting individuals with disabilities, their families and the professionals who serve them. SNA is partnering with The Arc to provide educational resources, build public awareness and advocate for policies on behalf of people with intellectual/developmental disabilities and their families.

The Arc@School Releases Report on Special Education Advocacy and The Arc’s Chapter Network

School may be almost out for the summer, but The Arc@School is still in session.  Now in its second year, The Arc@School continues its mission to build the capacity of The Arc’s nationwide network of chapters to provide individual advocacy that helps students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) navigate the special education system.  Equal access to education is a fundamental right for all citizens and an important building block for a strong society.  For students with I/DD, a high-quality education can make an enormous difference in the quality of life and degree of independence they enjoy in adulthood. Special education advocacy is instrumental in ensuring that students’ rights are respected and that they receive the services and supports necessary to graduate from high school and pursue post-secondary education and employment.

With these ideals in mind, The Arc@School conducted an investigation of existing special education advocacy practices and published a report entitled Special Education Advocacy and The Arc’s Chapter Network: Findings from The Arc@School.  Students with I/DD, parents, educators, and advocates can find:

  • A brief overview of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the growth of non-attorney lay advocacy in special education;
  • A description of the curriculum, length, and cost of current advocacy training programs, such as Wrightslaw and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA);
  • A description of The Arc networks’ current capacity for providing individual special education advocacy;
  • A summary of the current limited academic research on best practices in special education advocacy; and
  • A list of program recommendations that The Arc@School intends to implement in the coming years, such as a suggestion that The Arc@School collaborate with the COPAA, PTI Center, and protection and advocacy networks to ensure that scarce special education advocacy resources reach as many families as possible.

To read the report, please see Special Education Advocacy and The Arc’s Chapter Network.

The Arc Applauds U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Special Education Case: “The IDEA Demands More”

By: Shira Wakschlag, Director of Legal Advocacy & Associate General Counsel

On Wednesday, in the second major win for students with disabilities and their families before the U.S. Supreme Court this term, the Court issued a unanimous decision in the special education case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court clarified the test for determining whether school districts have met their obligation to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities, definitively rejecting the incredibly low standard utilized by the Tenth Circuit in this case. Specifically, the Court held that:

To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances…After all, the essential function of an IEP is to set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement…A substantive standard not focused on student progress would do little to remedy the pervasive and tragic academic stagnation that prompted Congress to act.

Significantly, this is the first time the Court has articulated a specific standard of review for educational benefit required for schools to meet their FAPE obligations under the IDEA. In 1982, the Court held in Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley that the IDEA establishes a substantive right to FAPE for children with disabilities but declined to establish a specific standard for determining when children with disabilities are receiving sufficient educational benefits to satisfy the IDEA. Lower courts have thus interpreted this substantive right in a variety of ways, some applying an incredibly low standard of review as the Tenth Circuit did in this case, while others have established a higher bar and called for a “meaningful benefit” standard.

Here, Drew, a child with autism, was removed from public school in fourth grade by his parents when his behavior began deteriorating and he ceased making academic progress. His IEP repeated the same basic goals from year to year, indicating a lack of progress toward the IEP goals. His parents believed a dramatic change to the IEP was necessary, but the school district continued to present the same IEP without any meaningful changes. Accordingly, Drew’s parents put him in a private school that specialized in educating students with autism and developed a behavioral intervention plan as well as more meaningful and robust academic goals. As a result, Drew began making dramatic progress. Drew’s parents then met again with the school district who presented them with a new IEP that did not incorporate any goals or approaches that would match the level of services he was receiving at the private school.

His parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education seeking tuition reimbursement for Drew’s private school due to the school district’s failure to provide him with a FAPE since his final IEP was not “reasonably calculated to enable him to receive educational benefits.” The Administrative Law Judge disagreed and the district court and Tenth Circuit affirmed. Citing Rowley and prior Tenth Circuit precedent, the panel noted that it had long interpreted Rowley’s “some educational benefit” requirement to mean that an IEP was adequate as long as it was calculated to confer an educational benefit that is “merely more than de minimis.” “De minimis” is a Latin phrase meaning “so minor as to merit disregard.”

As noted above, the Supreme Court unequivocally rejected this bare bones approach to evaluating educational benefit and articulated a new, higher standard. The Court explained that when a child with a disability is integrated into the regular classroom, the IDEA typically requires providing a level of instruction that is reasonably calculated to permit advancement through the general curriculum. Where that is not a reasonable expectation, this does not mean that the IEP should be stripped of substantive and meaningful standards. Rather, the IEP:

must be appropriately ambitious in light of [the student’s] circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives. (Emphasis added.)

It is important to note that this decision overturns a standard utilized by Judge Neil Gorsuch who just completed his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee following his nomination to the Supreme Court. Last week, The Arc published a review of Judge Gorsuch’s record on disability rights and highlighted his decision in Thompson R2-JSchool District v. Luke P. in which he employed the merely more than de minimis standard that was later used by the Tenth Circuit in the present case. Dr. Jeffrey Perkins, Luke’s father, testified before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, noting that Judge Gorsuch’s articulated standard for an educational benefit that is “just above meaningless” was “devastating” to the family and “threatened” Luke’s “access to an appropriate education and thus to a meaningful and dignified life.” As Dr. Perkins explained:

Luke will always need support in a world that still seems perplexing and threatening to him. But his quality of life after 13 years of appropriate education is vastly better than it would have been otherwise. He cooks and does household chores. He is able to shop, work, eat and play in the community…His present life would not have been achievable without an appropriate education.

In his 10th Circuit ruling, Judge Gorsuch eviscerated the educational standard guaranteed by the IDEA…Legal philosophy and case law aside, such an interpretation clearly fails the common sense test. Why would Congress pass a law with such a trivial intent?

The Arc, as part of a large coalition of disability advocacy groups, participated in an amicus brief in support of Drew in November and attended oral arguments before the Court in January. While the standard articulated by the Court is not a detailed formula that specifically defines what appropriate progress will look like from case to case, it is unquestionably more demanding than the standard laid out by Judge Gorsuch and various other circuit court judges. In a time when the ability of people with disabilities to live in the community is under threat, the Court’s unequivocal statement that the “IDEA demands more” is a major victory for students with disabilities and their families that should be celebrated.

The Arc Applauds U.S. Supreme Court Decision Allowing Independent Disability Discrimination Claims Against School Districts

By: Shira Wakschlag, Director, Legal Advocacy & Associate General Counsel

The Arc applauds this decision which removes important barriers for students with disabilities seeking redress under the ADA and Section 504. The Arc has long advocated for the rights of students and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live their lives free from discrimination and with necessary accommodations, to which they are entitled under federal law. This decision is an important step in ensuring robust enforcement and protection of those rights.

In a major win for students with disabilities and their families, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision authored by Justice Elena Kagan on Wednesday in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools that allows students to bring lawsuits directly under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) without requesting an administrative hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) when their claim is not related to the adequacy of their education. The IDEA requires schools to provide specialized instruction and related services to eligible students to help them make progress on their educational goals. In contrast, the ADA and Section 504 prohibit discrimination of people with disabilities of all ages, both in and out of schools, in any public facility or federally funded program. This decision eliminates certain roadblocks that have prevented students from seeking relief directly in federal court when their claims involve disability discrimination under the ADA or Section 504, rather than their educational services and supports under the IDEA. Attorneys from The Arc attended oral arguments in this case before the U.S. Supreme Court last October.

Ehlena Fry, the plaintiff in the case, has cerebral palsy and uses a service dog, Wonder, to assist her with daily activities, such as “retrieving dropped items, helping her balance when she uses her walker, opening and closing doors, turning on and off lights, helping her take off her coat, [and] helping her transfer to and from the toilet.” When her parents asked the school to allow Ehlena to use Wonder in her kindergarten classroom, the school refused. Ehlena’s individualized education program (IEP) under the IDEA included use of a human aide, and the school argued that the aide met all of Ehlena’s “physical and academic needs,” rendering Wonder unnecessary. As a result, Ehlena’s parents removed her from the school and filed a disability discrimination complaint under the ADA and Section 504 with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

OCR investigated and concluded that the school had discriminated against Ehlena by denying her use of her service dog, just as it would be discrimination to require a student who uses a wheelchair or a blind student to be carried or led around by a teacher or aide rather than permitting the student to use a guide dog or a cane. Following OCR’s investigation and findings, the school agreed to allow Ehlena to attend school with Wonder, but the family chose to enroll her in another school for fear of retaliation. The family also filed a lawsuit in federal court against the school system alleging disability discrimination and seeking monetary damages under the ADA and Section 504 for the school’s previous refusal to reasonably accommodate Ehlena’s use of her service animal. The lawsuit was dismissed by both the federal district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals who concluded that any claims that were educational in nature had to undergo the administrative hearing process in the IDEA before they could be filed in federal court.

In finding in favor of Ehlena and her family, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that students do not have to exhaust the administrative proceedings required in the IDEA when the essence of their claim is not about the IDEA’s free and appropriate public education (FAPE) requirement, as was the case here. The Court’s opinion offered some general guidance on how to identify whether the IDEA’s FAPE requirement is the essence of a lawsuit against a school, distinguishing between a student who uses a wheelchair suing a school for not having an accessible ramp (which is not about FAPE) and a student with a learning disability suing the school for not providing math tutoring (which is about FAPE). A concurring opinion from Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, criticized this part of the Court’s guidance as creating confusion for the lower courts. In addition, because the Frys were not claiming that Ehlena was denied a FAPE under the IDEA, the Court explicitly chose not to address the question of whether students must exhaust the IDEA’s administrative hearing process when the complaint does allege a denial of FAPE but the specific remedy being requested is not available under the IDEA, such as monetary damages.

Though the decision in Fry leaves some questions unanswered, it does eliminate certain roadblocks that have prevented students from seeking relief directly in federal court when their claims involve disability discrimination under the ADA or Section 504, rather than their educational services and supports under the IDEA.

Building the Bridge to Inclusion through Technology

Many day-to-day technology tasks have become so intuitive for many of us that it’s easy to forget life before these clicks and swipes. For people with I/DD, these skills can make a world of difference by building bridges to community participation.

In 2016, through our partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal, six chapters across the country hosted “Learning Labs” to foster digital literacy skills in their constituents. The classes’ content varied between chapters based on individual needs:

The Arc Baltimore (Maryland)
The Arc Baltimore’s labs provided an overview of Assistive Technology and a demonstration of devices and software to address communication, computer access, eating, environmental control, hearing, home safety, memory and cognition, telephone access, recreation, and vision. Stories were shared on how individuals have utilized devices. A certified Assistive Technology Professional worked one-on-one with participants to identify and experiment with tools that would be a good fit for them.

Easter Seals Arc of Northern IN (Indiana)
Easter Seals/The Arc of Northern Indiana hosted an instructional computer lab focusing on life skills, employment, internet safety, and money management. The session was so successful that one participant found a job he was interested during the class. The next day, he submitted an application online for that job at Game Stop and landed an interview.

The Arc of Prince George’s County (Maryland)
The Arc of PG County hosted labs covering topics related to independent living, including eating healthy, resume building, tech tools for reading, grocery shopping, job seeking/applications, money value, and understanding maps. At the conclusion of the event, local companies even pledged to employ more people with I/DD! One participant, Brianna, found a screen reader helpful—it helped her pronounce words correctly in addition to easier reading. She compared it to audible books and thinks it “unleashes the power of spoken words”.

NewStar Services (Illinois)
NewStar’s labs had a strong focus on iPad skills, including skills for independent living like taking pictures, iMovie, iModeling, maps, planning a trip, and setting and using reminders. Three Learning Lab participants, David, April, and Charles, requested additional labs on the Maps app, and were surprised to learn that there are bus stops extremely close to their houses that will help them gain independent access to the community.

The Arc of San Francisco (California)
The Arc of San Francisco’s labs were centered on using technology for independence and employment. Topics covered included internet safety, Microsoft, LinkedIn, online job searching, and the basics of email. One participant, Kristin, was struggling with how to best use LinkedIn. After working on her picture, resume, endorsements and recommendations in the lab, Kristin landed interviews at both Google and LinkedIn!

The Arc of Lane County (Oregon)
Topics on computer basics, including terminology, parts, safety/care, and typing, were covered. They worked in Microsoft Word, Publisher, Powerpoint, and used email and iPads. Most importantly, they learned about internet safety issues like identity theft protection, safe passwords, and digital footprints. “When asked about his favorite part of the class Jason exclaimed, “I was really excited to make my resume and get closer to my dream job”.

Through this simple exposure to the basics of digital technology, participants are building the skills that will support them to become more independent within their communities. We look forward to expanding Learning Labs to more chapters and building the skills to succeed in people across the country!