A Little Age, A Lot of Perspective

Jill Vaught, Executive Director of The Arc of Indiana Foundation 

It’s not very often that I’m happy to be reminded of how old I am. Today I was. You see, I grew up at a time when people with disabilities were considered disposable. If they hadn’t been sent to live in institutions, they lived in the community – but certainly weren’t included.

Today I received a photo. A student from the Erskine Green Training Institute (EGTI) had gone to one of the food courts at Ball State University for lunch. While there, he ran into friends from high school. He was invited to join their table and later go to a campus event with them.

What does this have to do with my age? I’m glad I’m old enough to remember when scenes like that weren’t possible. It helps me truly appreciate The Arc and how far we’ve come.

I have been lucky enough to work for The Arc in one way or another for 20 years. During that time I’ve seen some amazing things, but nothing has touched my heart quite like EGTI, which opened in Muncie, Indiana in January.

One of the many things that makes The Arc of Indiana such a special organization is that we still take our direction from self-advocates, families and our chapters. In 2012, it became very obvious that the lack of employment opportunities was an issue that had to be addressed.

The reason people with disabilities couldn’t find jobs wasn’t because they didn’t want to work. It wasn’t because our chapters weren’t working hard every day. It wasn’t that families weren’t trying. It always seemed to come back to training or, more specifically, the lack of good postsecondary training options.

In January, 2016, EGTI opened its doors to provide postsecondary vocational training opportunities in hospitality, food service and health care.   EGTI is housed inside a Courtyard by Marriott. Students reside in the hotel for 10 – 13 weeks as they attend classes, receive hands on training and gain experience though an internship. In addition to work skills, the students are improving their self-confidence, self-determination, soft work skills, problem solving skills, relational skills, and communication skills.

I’m happy to report that the program is working. Graduates are securing jobs with a competitive salary and benefits. We are doing exactly what we set out to do. But the thing that I enjoy the most is getting to know the students and watching them grow in skills and independence.

Zach, the young man from the story I mentioned above, told me this week that what he loves the most about being at EGTI is getting to enjoy the college environment and experience what going to college is like.   He has been taking classes at a local community college, but now he has access to a full college campus.

Leslie was one of our first students. About half way through the program she called her mother and told her to pack up her things because she wasn’t coming home. She learned that she was a “city girl” and she was moving to Indianapolis. She picked Indy in part because of her love of horror movies and Indianapolis hosts an annual horror film convention. She had a choice!

Aaron was working two jobs and still didn’t make enough money to be independent. He recently completed a program in Nutritional Services and is how working at Parkview Hospital full time with benefits. Because of his tremendous work ethic, he had hospitals fighting to hire him!

Larry, a dietetics graduate is working in the cafeteria of an elementary school. His mother told me at graduation that the first few weeks of the program she expected a call every day asking her to come and pick him up because nothing had ever worked before. She never got that call.

So far 22 students have completed the program and 17 are currently enrolled. We’ve had three graduation ceremonies and I haven’t been able to get through any of them without crying.

I can’t help but think of all of the friendships I missed out on because society wasn’t as accepting when I was growing up. I wish I could have gotten to know the Heidis and Jimmys and Sarahs that grew up in my hometown.

So yes, I’m glad I’m old. I’m glad I understand just how important the work of The Arc is and where we would be without all of the incredible chapters of The Arc across this county.

If you’d like to get to know the amazing students attending EGTI, please visit our website at www.erskinegreeninstitute.org and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @ErskineGreen

The Arc Responds to Connecticut Court Ruling on Education and Access for Children with Disabilities

Washington, DC – Recently, Judge Thomas Moukawsher of the Connecticut State Superior Court released a sweeping ruling on school funding that could have dire, negative consequences on students with disabilities, particularly students with intellectual and/or developmental as well as behavioral and emotional disabilities.

The case, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell, was initiated in 2005 and challenged the state constitutionality of Connecticut’s pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade education finance system, claiming that the state was inadequately funding the poorest and lowest- performing districts. Judge Moukawsher held that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty” to give all children an adequate education and ordered the state to make far-reaching changes regarding how schools are financed, which students are eligible to graduate from high school, and how teachers are paid and evaluated, among others. The judge noted that the state “has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder,” thereby failing to provide children with a “fair opportunity for an elementary and secondary school education.” Judge Moukawsher did not mandate any particular policies for the state to adopt in light of the ruling – rather, he ordered the attorney general’s office to submit plans within 180 days to solve the problems outlined in the decision.

While this decision may appear to assist vulnerable students in Connecticut, Judge Moukawsher also noted within the decision that children with certain “profound” disabilities be denied a public education, erroneously stating that: “The call is not about whether certain profoundly disabled children are entitled to a ‘free appropriate public education.’ It is about whether schools can decide in an education plan for a covered child that the child has a minimal or no chance for education, and therefore the school should not make expensive, extensive, and ultimately pro-forma efforts…no case holds otherwise, and this means that extensive services are not always required.” The state has appealed the ruling to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

The Arc, a leading national disability organization, and The Arc of Connecticut, released the following statement on the ruling:

“While the disability community has won many important, hard fought battles when it comes to kids with disabilities accessing a free and appropriate public education, this ruling demonstrates we have a long way to go to ensure discrimination in our education system is a distant memory.

“The language of this ruling turns back the clocks on how society places value in the lives of people with disabilities. It ignores all the examples of people with disabilities being told they can’t do this, or won’t be able to do that, who proved the experts wrong. If we followed this narrow view and didn’t invest in the education of all kids, we would be missing out on the contributions every single person can make in their community. I’m glad the state is appealing this ruling, and The Arc of Connecticut will be a leader in making sure that all kids with disabilities are treated fairly under the law,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

“This ruling is deeply disturbing on two levels,” said Leslie Simoes, the executive director of The Arc of Connecticut. “First, the court ignored the law. Though it was common to deny an education to children with disabilities in the past, federal law has entitled all children with disabilities- not just some children- to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment for more than 40 years. Attempting to differentiate children deserving of an education by the severity of their disability would be both arbitrary and lead to creating perverse incentives for states.

“Second, I categorically reject the court’s premise that the only way one group of struggling students can progress is to take services away from others who face enormous challenges. Our aim must be to move forward together, not to benefit some by leaving others behind. That is not only illegal, it denies those children their basic human right to live as full members of their community.”

 

The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of over 650 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.

Stakeholders Endorse Lawsuit Challenging the GNETS Program and Hail It as the Brown VS. Board of Education for Students with Disabilities

On August 23, 2016, The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia alleging that its treatment and segregation of students with disabilities in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support Program violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. For years, the Georgia Coalition for Educational Equity has been working vigorously to protect the right of students with disabilities to receive an equal education alongside their non-disabled peers. As members of the Coalition, The Arc of Georgia and The Arc of the United States strongly support this lawsuit.  Read more in the Coalition’s press release here.

Atlanta, Georgia, August 23rd — The Georgia Coalition for Educational Equality (GCEE) strongly supports today’s filing by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) of a federal lawsuit challenging the illegal segregation and unequal and inferior education provided to the thousands of students with disabilities in Georgia’s Network for Educational and Therapeutic Services (GNETS).  The GCEE is a broad coalition of disability, education, civil rights, juvenile justice, child welfare, self-advocate, and parent organizations advocating for a complete transformation of the GNETS program to provide supports to help all students succeed in their neighborhood schools.

In July 2015, DOJ found that Georgia is illegally segregating students with behavior-related disabilities in the GNETS program, where they are denied opportunities to learn with their peers who are non-disabled and provided inferior educational opportunities.  The GNETS is a statewide network created in 1970 that consists of two dozen centers serving about 5,000 children with at least $70 million in state and federal funds, plus additional locally- and federally-funded services. According to the letter, “[t]he State’s support and development of GNETS has effectively created one placement option for many students with behavior-related disabilities to the exclusion of all others.” The DOJ also found the network’s facilities to be “inferior,” often outdated, and lacking such basic infrastructure as central air conditioning, as well as educational resources such as science labs and libraries, and extracurricular facilities such as gyms and playgrounds. The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s May 2016 investigation found that Georgia’s public schools assign a vastly disproportionate number of black students to “psychoeducational” programs, segregating them not just by disability but also by race. The paper found that 54 percent of students in Georgia’s psychoeducational programs are African-American, compared with 37 percent in all public schools statewide.

“The GCEE has maintained that the Justice Department’s letter of findings created an opportunity for the State to transform their education system into one that supports students in their neighborhood schools. We are disappointed that the State has opted to defend the GNETS rather than work towards the full integration of students with disabilities. The Arc Georgia fully supports this lawsuit and will continue to be involved in the GCEE coalition to ensure the state of Georgia provides a full range of supports for students with behavior-related disabilities in our neighborhood schools,” said Stacey Ramirez, the State Director of The Arc Georgia.

“While we hoped for a voluntary resolution to transform the provision of behavioral-related educational support for students with disabilities and avoid litigation, we strongly support the decision by the Department of Justice to file their lawsuit. The continued segregation of students with disabilities is a shameful and illegal position for the State of Georgia to defend,” said Leslie Lipson, an attorney with the Georgia Advocacy Office, the independent Protection and Advocacy System for people with disabilities in Georgia, a leader in the GCEE.

“Segregating students with disabilities not only is illegal but also leads to poor results,” said Alison Barkoff, Director of Advocacy for the Center for Public Representation in Washington, D.C. and a leader of the GCEE.  “Georgia has a choice: engage in litigation likely to result in a court order to desegregate, or work with the Justice Department and stakeholders to develop a settlement that incorporates best practices and ends illegal and unnecessary segregation of students with disabilities.”

The GCEE hopes that this lawsuit – which seeks to vindicate the right of students with disabilities to an equal education alongside their non-disabled peers – will be the Brown v. Board of Education for Georgia’s students with disabilities.

 

Brazilian Educators visit The Arc Baton Rouge Children’s Services

By Barry Meyer, Executive Director of The Arc Baton RougeThe Arc Baton Rouge and Brazil exchange participants

Earlier this month, we were thrilled to welcome five visiting educators from Brazil to The Arc Baton Rouge Children’s Services. The visitors came to Louisiana through a program of the U.S. Department of State. The guests joined us from five states across Brazil and included four Secretaries of their state’s Department of Education and one Deputy Secretary.

We were selected because our programs help create inclusive preschool, child care and educational opportunities for children with disabilities. One of the State Department’s specific objectives was to “Expose participants to the ways in which private sector entities are engaging with public sector partners in support of educational programs.”

Between Heidi Shapiro, Children’s Services Social Worker, two interpreters, and me, we presented four programs of The Arc Baton Rouge Children’s Services:

  • Early Childhood Inclusive Program
  • The Preschool and Child Care Training and Technical Assistance Project
  • Parent Supports and
  • School Age Supports

Using a multi-platform approach including PowerPoint presentations, multilingual handouts, informal discussion, and a Q and A session, the guests learned how The Arc Children’s Services staff works with public school administrators, principals, and teachers to help them restructure programs. Additionally, they learned how our staff serves as mentors and coaches to support teachers to include children with disabilities in regular classes. They also saw how a similar training and on-going mentor/coaching approach worked in preschool and child care settings.

In the end, the participants understood that training parents and care givers to be their child’s strongest advocate was critical to ensuring success in transitioning to public school systems. They also left with the knowledge that an organization that is not a direct stakeholder, such as The Arc, can provide that training to individual parents, combine it with mentor/coaching of  teachers and create opportunities for individual children as well as real systems change.

I feel that The Arc Baton Rouge was very fortunate to have this opportunity to demonstrate to our Brazilian guests how we at the grass roots advocacy and service level incorporate our core values in a very real world way!

The five education officials concluded their visit with a brief tour and overview of The Arc Early Head Start program. The visiting Brazilian educators were:

 

Ms. Hortencia Maria Pereira ARAUJO

Deputy State Secretary of Education, State of Sergipe

 

Ms. Maria Izolda Cela De Arruda COELHO

Secretary of Education, State of Ceará

 

Ms. Maria Nilene Badeca Da COSTA

Secretary of Education, State of Mato Grosso do Sul

 

Mr. Claudio Cavalcanti RIBEIRO

Secretary of Education, State of Pará

 

Dr. Herman Jacobus Cornelis VOORWALD

Secretary of Education, São Paulo State

Talking About Inclusive Education

Inclusive Class podcastAmy Goodman, Co-Director of the Autism NOW National Autism Resource and Information Center, will join The Inclusive Class Podcast on Friday, May 17 at 9:00 a.m. EST for a 30-minute chat about inclusive education for students with autism and other developmental disabilities.

The Inclusive Class is hosted by Nicole Eredics, founder of the online resource, The Inclusive Class and Terri Mauro, author of 50 Ways to Support Your Child’s Special Education and The Everything Parent’s Guide to Sensory Integration Disorder.  Nicole is an elementary educator who has spent over 15 years teaching in an inclusive classroom setting creating and discovering solutions for integrating students with special needs in the classroom.  Terri Mauro is one of the most recognized experts on special education and special needs parenting on the Internet.

Tune in for Amy’s unique perspective as a person who identifies as being on the autism spectrum on Blog Talk Radio on May 17. Also, you can access the podcast after it airs on Blog Talk Radio, on iTunes and on The Inclusive Class website.

Autism NOW is a project of The Arc funded in part by the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and was created to provide quality, vetted information and resources for individuals on the autism spectrum and with other developmental disabilities.