Saturday, December 26, 2009

Disability Policy in 2009: The Year in Review

Like every other year, 2009 had its ups and downs in terms of disability rights and policy. The Obama administration made some important steps in some areas, while much remains to be done on several important agenda items. Not surprisingly, the actions of the Obama administration play a prominent role in this list of 2009's top news items for disability issues.

UN Convention -- At the direction of President Obama, Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to to United Nations, signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While largely symbolic, this was an important international gesture to express the nation's commitment to advancing the rights of people with disabilities.

A High-Level Advocate in White House -- President Obama wasted no time demonstrating his support for people with disabilities when he named Kareem Dale the first White House special assistant for disability policy. By all accounts, Dale has done an admirable job keeping disability issues front and center for the administration. Read an interview with Dale.

Olympics, Paralympics, Special Olympics -- The president suffered a major setback when his strong support failed to help Chicago win the bid for the 2012 Olympics. Surprisingly, Rio was selected over Chicago. Chicago had a very strong proposal for the Paralympics, and hopefully the spotlight of the Olympics will help protect and advance opportunities for people with disabilities internationally. In other Olympic news, the president got in trouble for making a "joke" about the Special Olympics -- which, looking back, probably heightened his sensitivity and helped elevate disabilities as a priority for his administration.

Are Students with Disabilities Being Left Behind? -- The appointment of Arne Duncan as secretary of education hardly caused protests by disability advocates, but few applauded the news. Recognizing that Duncan was not known for his support for special ed in Chicago, most people reserved judgment, not knowing where special ed would fit in with his federal priorities. And in many ways, we're still waiting. Duncan has not said much on the topic, but he gets points for appointing Alexa Posny as assistant secretary of special education and rehabilitative services. If he consults with her on major issues affecting students with disabilities, it's possible we'll see evidence that he cares about more than test scores and graduation rates. Lawyer and blogger Jennifer Laviano called Duncan's performance the lowlight of the year for special education.

Supreme Courts Backs Reimbursement for Private Special Ed -- In June, the Supreme Court said federal law authorizes reimbursement for tuition to private schools even if a child has never received special ed services in a public school. The decision in Forest Grove School District v. T.A. said that under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, if a school district fails to identify a child with a disability, the district is still financially responsible for ensuring that the student receives appropriate services. -- The Obama administration has made tremendous progress in leveraging technology to improve communication and transparency throughout the government. The use of blogs, Flickr, Twitter, video, and lots of interactivity on the White House website has raised the standard for all future administrations. One of the best things the government has done is launch, which consolidates resources from 22 federal agencies in a user-friendly format. example , Read my Q&A with Kevin Connors, who helped build the site.

Autism -- The CDC released data showing that autism affects one in 110 people and one in 70 boys, and national and state officials took steps to address the needs of affected families. This year 17 states introduced legislation to require insurance companies to cover autism diagnosis and treatment. According to Autism Votes, 15 states have passed autism insurance laws, six are considering bills, and another seven (and DC) have pending bills. The administration released the first-ever strategic plan for government-funded autism research and added $1 billion to its budget for autism over the next eight years. Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services has called autism "an urgent public health challenge" and compared it to the challenge of polio in the 1950s and HIV/AIDS in the 1980s.

What other highlights and lowlights would you include? How would you rate the administration in these areas after a year?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Why Dr. Weast's Plan is Wrong for Our County and Wrong for Our Children

I have posted a memo from Superintendent Jerry Weast to the members of the Board of Education, trying to justify his proposal to displace preschoolers with special needs from a school that has been effectively serving children and families for 50 years. I intentionally reprinted his entire letter, to give him an opportunity to share his position, unfiltered, to people like you who care about this issue. Now that I've done that, I'd like to react to some of his claims.

The district will spend "no additional dollars." The recommendation is "budget-neutral for the next fiscal year." The plan "may be more cost-effective, but that was not a deciding factor in making this educational decision."

We all know states and counties are facing budget challenges, and if Dr. Weast came out and said budget cuts are forcing him to eliminate good programs for children with special needs and reduce the quality and intensity of early-intervention programs for young children, that would be sad but a fact we'd need to address. But if this is NOT a cost-savings measure, why is he trying to force through a radical change to the way children are served as a small item in the budget? This is the wrong time and the wrong way to make such a major change that will affect so many children.

"MPAC has been − and remains − a valued partner with MCPS, and we believe that program has served our children well."

In partnership with MPAC, the county is effectively meeting the needs of preschool children who require intensive early intervention. If he truly values MPAC and its leadership, why is he trying to force through this change without consulting with them? After providing these services for 50 years, and partnering with the county for 30 years, MPAC has the expertise, commitment, and resources to further improve services for our county's children. But the larger point is, if it's not broke (as Dr. Weast acknowledges), why fix it? Or, in this case, possibly break it?

"MPAC is concerned about the prospect that there could be fewer referrals to their program and they have engaged their stakeholders in an effort to aggressively advocate against the creation of a public option for our families." [emphasis added]

Dr. Weast is feeling the pressure from parents whose children will be affected by this plan, and he's trying to tell board members that this is just a lobbying campaign orchestrated by MPAC. He's wrong. MPAC officials are not professional advocates, lobbyists, lawyers, bloggers, or communicators. They teach and they dedicate their lives to supporting children who need extra help. From what I've heard, they are spending a lot of time these days answering questions from concerned parents --"What will this mean for my child?" "Does this mean MPAC won't be here for other children?" "Who's making this decision, and what can I do?" If Dr. Weast thinks it's inappropriate for MPAC to answer those questions from the people they serve, he couldn't be more wrong. And for the record, I am a board member of the Arc of Montgomery County, which I have mentioned before, but I care about this proposal as a parent of a child who attended MPAC for three years and received exceptional instruction that I couldn't have found anywhere else, public or private. No one has told me what to say, how to say it, or who to say it to. I'm looking forward to testifying at the board hearing on Jan. 13, and I'm sure I'll be joined by many parents who are just as passionate as me about preserving special needs programs that work.

Parents will be better off with schools closer to their homes, instead of going to MPAC in either Silver Spring or Gaithersburg.

Dr. Weast is taking a "one-size-fits-all" approach with this point, saying that proximity equals better education. That's a stretch. Here's a question for parents (whether or not your child has special needs) -- would you rather send your child to the closest school or the best, most appropriate school for your child? Well, when your child has special needs, that choice is even more important. Making the wrong decision or the wrong placement when your child is 3 is pretty risky, considering his or her brain is still developing, and researchers know more clearly than ever how important those early years are in a child's development.

This is about choice, and letting children attend preschool close to their homes.

Where is the choice in eliminating a proven program that parents passionately support? Are current MPAC parents demanding public options closer to their homes? If they're happy with the program, I doubt it. Maybe in introducing this program in February, parents could be given a choice. The conversation may go something like this: "We know your child needs special services because of his or her delays/disability. We'll give you a choice. The first option is a program that has been effective for 50 years, with specialized teachers, therapists, and facilities, all in one building. You can talk to parents whose children have attended, to see if you think it might be a good fit for your child. The second option is a new preschool program the county is starting this year, and your child will go to a nearby elementary school. We've never done this before for children this age, and no teachers have been hired yet, and no training has been identified, but your child will be closer to home, and we're hopeful it will be a good program."

Yes, let's provide choice. Dr. Weast and the Board of Education should be MPAC's biggest champions, and more families (or at least the same number of families) should be able to choose to send their children to MPAC for the most specialized, intensive early intervention. Look into ways to expand preschool services for children in Montgomery County, but don't do anything that would threaten the viability of MPAC to provide the same level of service it has for 50 years.

Superintendent Weast Responds about Plan to Displace Preschoolers with Special Needs

When I wrote to Superintendent Jerry Weast to express my concerns about his plan to displace preschoolers with special needs, I told him I would be happy to share his views if he would answer my questions. While he did not respond to me, I did receive this letter that he wrote to the Board of Education on Dec. 18. Here it is, in its entirety without editing or commentary. (I will post my response soon).

Office of the Superintendent of Schools
Rockville, Maryland

December 18, 2009

Members of the Board of Education Jerry D. Weast, Superintendent of Schools

Expanding Public Prekindergarten Options for Special Education Students

In my Fiscal Year 2011 Recommended Operating Budget, I have proposed that we increase our district’s capacity to deliver pre-school special education services to our students while spending no additional dollars. The proposal calls for six locations to open in school buildings around the county that will serve a total of up to 36 students. We plan to begin the program, which will serve 3-and 4-year-olds who have demonstrated significant developmental delays, at one school in February so that families can see the program in action. The six locations will be in the schools where we currently have School/Community-based programs for students with significant disabilities and will undoubtedly be closer to home for many families who will need to access these services.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has not had a public program to serve these students previously. Many of these students attended the Montgomery County Achievement Center (MPAC), a nonpublic school under the auspices of the Arc of Montgomery County. MPAC has been−and remains−a valued partner with MCPS and we believe that program has served our children well. However, we also believe that our families should have a public opportunity for placement of their young children with significant developmental delays. This recommendation is budget-neutral for the next fiscal year because it assumes the same cost per student regardless of whether students are served in MCPS or through MPAC. Ultimately, we believe a public option for these students may be more cost-effective, but that was not a deciding factor in making this educational decision.

Understandably, MPAC is concerned about the prospect that there could be fewer referrals to their program and they have engaged their stakeholders in an effort to aggressively advocate against the creation of a public option for our families. I certainly appreciate their perspective and understand that they believe their program may not be viable without continued referrals from MCPS. Having said that, I believe it is in the best interest of our families to provide them with more choices to access our high-quality programs in schools that are closer to their homes.

MPAC operates programs at two sites − in Gaithersburg and Silver Spring−while our proposed six sites would be dispersed across the county at Glen Haven, Wayside, Sherwood, Cashell, Germantown, and Luxmanor elementary schools. Families taking advantage of the public option would have access to the wealth of special education services that we already provide in our elementary schools. These classes, which will have a maximum of six students each, will be part of the MCPS Preschool Education Program, a well-established, high-quality program. In addition, our program will offer the opportunity for students to interact with their non-disabled peers, which is not an option through MPAC.

As you know, a student’s placement into one of our programs or a program like MPAC is determined through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. We will continue to work closely with our families at every step of the process to determine the most appropriate placement for their children. Thus, it is premature for MPAC to conclude that they would receive no referrals from MCPS to their program. It is important to note that we continue to see increases in the numbers of preschool students with special needs. We will continue to work with MPAC and other community partners to provide high-quality services to our students with special needs.

We are excited about this new option for our families and invite you to visit one of our pre- school special education programs in action. Questions about these plans may be referred to Ms. Chrisandra Richardson, acting associate superintendent for special education and student services, at 301-279-3604. I will continue to keep you informed.


Copy to: Executive Staff

Monday, December 21, 2009

Resistance Grows Against Plan to Displace Preschoolers

As new details surface, parents and disability advocates are increasingly concerned and angry about a plan to displace preschoolers who require early intervention services in Montgomery County, Md. (See story and video below, about the county's plan to replace a proven preschool program with a hastily planned public program that would put 3-year-olds in large elementary schools that are not equipped to meet their special needs.)

Part of these parents' frustration stems from the fact that they were not consulted about this radical change, nor were the administrators, teachers, and therapists who have successfully partnered with the county to provide these services for decades. The county proposes introducing a public program in February 2010, despite the fact that teachers have not been hired, no training program is in place, and there is no evidence that the quality of instruction will be better than the Montgomery County Primary Achievement Center, a program that many parents and advocates consider a model of early intervention and family support.

In fact, based on recent experience, there is reason to believe services (and children) will suffer tremendously. Earlier this year, Montgomery County was criticized after phasing out segregated classrooms for students with learning disabilities. This was reported in the Examiner -- "Special Ed Integration Fails Expectations" -- and even received national coverage when Disability Scoop reported on it, with the headline "Students Failing Despite Inclusion, Report Says." One disturbing finding was that only 50 percent of teachers attended a mandatory training to support the move toward inclusion. (If the requirement to attend is not enforced, can you really call it "mandatory"? And do parents want their children taught by teachers who have been forced to attend one training class, or by teachers who have devoted their lives to serving children, like theirs, who need specialized intervention?)

During the time this damning report came out, Kay Romero, president of the county’s PTA, said, "Our most complex students should have an educational path that is tailored to their needs, and not tailored to fit a square peg in a round hole." Also at the time, board member Laura Berthiaume acknowledged that "What was the hope hasn’t materialized in terms of the teaching and the results that the transition was premised on." Can you imagine hearing that statement if your child was one who received inferior "teaching and results" because the county "hoped" for but did not deliver adequate services? Can the children and families of Montgomery County afford another untested, unproven experiment that does not put children's needs first?

Let's check the record. MPAC has a 50-year track record of successfully meeting the needs of preschoolers with learning disabilities, often preparing them for higher levels of placement and achievement in the public school system. And Montgomery County's most recent move away from proven programs led to worse results, not better.

Board of Education members, are you paying attention? If you are committed to the well-being of our children who need early intervention, support proven programs. When you hold hearings next month, listen carefully to what parents and child development specialists have to say. If Montgomery County wants to be a national leader in special education and early intervention -- and it can be -- it must support successful programs like MPAC that are up and running.

Please email the Board of Education at and tell them what you think.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Inclusion at the Expense of Quality Education: ACT NOW

On this blog, I typically write about issues that affect people with disabilities nationally and internationally. But sometimes, a local issue has national implications, and I want to inform you about something that's happening here in Maryland.

I've written before about the principle of inclusion -- an important principle for people with disabilities, to be sure, but one that officials can sometimes misuse to justify a "one-size-fits-all" educational approach for children whose needs vary greatly. So in an attempt to "include" children with very specialized needs, officials can make the mistake of providing less specialized and less effective instruction.

Last night, Ellen Widoff, the director of children's services for the Arc of Montgomery County, outlined a proposal that would essentially shut down one of the most effective early-intervention programs in the state, and possibly the nation. Watch her remarks here:

My daughter attended the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center (MPAC) for three years, beginning at age 2. She benefited from trained teachers, therapists, and aides and a facility specifically designed to accommodate the needs of their students. Led by an amazing principal who had run the school for about 20 years, the school provides intensive instruction that prepares each student for their next step. For 30 years, this "nonpublic" program has received referrals and funding from Montgomery County, because it has proven effective in giving these children the skills they need to succeed throughout the rest of their education. By intervening during the critical preschool years, the program improves the likelihood of the children's future success when they enter the public school system.

However, the superintendent of education's proposed budget recommends that the county place 36 students (not coincidentally, the same number of slots they currently refer to MPAC) into public elementary schools. There are so many reasons this does not make sense at this time. Among them:
- No Plan. They are talking about placing children in these elementary schools as early as February. No teachers have been hired, no staff or teachers have been trained, and no plan or curriculum is available for parents to review.
- No Savings. The budget does not reflect any cost savings, one reason that many states and counties are being forced to take drastic actions with their programs.
- MPAC works. There has never been a question that the program provides exceptional intervention for the children who need it most. Why would they toss out a proven model and an effective program just to try something new?
- No Collaboration. The staff and leadership at MPAC are valuable resources for the county. After a 30-year partnership, it's insulting for the county to turn its back on these talented, committed professionals and make this decision without even consulting with them.
- Too Risky. Inclusion is a positive goal. But it makes no sense to pursue that goal at the expense of not meeting the specialized, individualized needs of the county's children.

Wherever you live and whatever your advocacy priorities are, I urge you to contact the Board of Education, which will act on this in January, to express your support for specialized early intervention programs like MPAC. Tell them you oppose the proposed "realignment" of preschool programs unless there is evidence that the new programs can provide educational instruction at least as good as what children already have available through MPAC. Doing any less is putting these children's futures at risk.

You can send an email to the entire Board of Education at and call at 301-279-3617. For more information about individual members and their contact information, visit the Montgomery County Board of Education's website.

Please forward this post and this video to others. You can email the video with this YouTube URL:

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

50 Best Blogs for Special Education Teachers

From, here are the 50 Best Blogs for Special Ed Teachers. Special Needs '08 is pleased to be among the seven blogs listed in the "Special Education News and Policy" category. Other categories include:

- Special Education Teaching Tips and Strategies

- Technology and Assistive Technology

- Specific Disabilities

- Special Education Law

- Various Topics on Special Education

Surfing Dog Helps People with Disabilities

This video is 5:14, but if you watch the whole thing, you'll be happy you did. Ricochet was trained to be a service dog, showed promise, but did not make the cut. But she was able to turn her amazing ability to surf into a service to people with disabilities. Just amazing.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Stevie Wonder Named UN Messenger of Peace

Calling him "a musical genius and a great humanitarian who has campaigned against apartheid, for children in need, and for persons with disabilities," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced Thursday that Stevie Wonder has been appointed a UN Messenger of Peace. On his new role, Wonder said, "It's about that 10 percent of the world that suffers with a disability. It's about sounding that alarm off that says to the 90 percent: it's time to get it together for those of us with disabilities." Asked by CNN how he would summarize his message, he responded, "We can never let our fears put our dreams to sleep." For political leaders around the world, he has this to say: "If you love my music that much, then care about those 10 percent as well. There are 650 million disabled people in the world. Lets do something about that. Lets make a change," he said. More from CNN International.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Will Preemies Require New Teaching Methods?

A British education expert says increased survival rates among premature babies may create a need for new teaching methods to meet their unique needs. Eighty percent of prematurely born babies survive, but many have learning challenges that may differ from traditional special-needs students. "Their patterns of learning may be different to those we have previously known in children with learning difficulties," said Professor Barry Carpenter. "Schools will have to develop new ways of teaching to cope with the complex range of learning difficulties because the children do not fit the current models of how to help them."

Carpenter is leading a two-year project -- with 60 children, 12 special schools, and a range of teachers, carers, parents, and advisers -- to identify teaching methods that can then be adopted in schools across the UK. Read "Schools Face Huge Rise in Special Needs Cases" from the UK Independent.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Who is Alexa Posny?

From, "Who is Alexa Posny?", a profile of the head of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

Monday, November 23, 2009

DC Next in Line for Autism Insurance Coverage?

Will the District of Columbia be the next "state" to require insurance companies to cover autism treatment? Often overlooked on the state policy scene, the District could join 15 states to pass legislation mandating insurance coverage for essential autism treatments and services. Introduced by DC Councilmembers Tommy Wells and Muriel Bowser, the Health Insurance Coverage for Children with Autism Act of 2009 would provide benefits up to $55,000 per year. Councilmember Wells said, "This legislation will expand health insurance benefits for children with autism. It's the right thing for our families and our children. Expanding access to early diagnosis and therapies can make all the difference in the life of a child with autism.

Keep up with this and other state action at

Great Resource: Special Education Law Blog, by Jim Gerl

I recently heard from Jim Gerl, who writes the Special Education Law Blog, which I highly recommend. In a few weeks, he's going to interview the Assistant Secretary of Education for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Dr. Alexa Posny. He'd like your thoughts about what you'd like him to ask her. Visit his blog and tell him what you want to know. And while you're there, bookmark the site, subscribe by email, get his RSS feed, or find some other way to keep up with him. He accurately describes his blog as "a fresh look at special education law -- mostly in understandable English."

Take a look at

How Compliant are Govt Websites?

I reported earlier about the federal government's agencies to improve access to citizens with disabilities, especially, which I find a tremendous resource for anyone looking for information about government services and resources. But a recent article in Fierce Government IT claims there are "ongoing, widespread accessibility glitches at federal websites such as, and even" In fact, the National Federation of the Blind has filed administrative complaints about inaccessible websites against the Social Security Administration, Small Business Administration, and the Department of Education.

The White House has at least one leader with firsthand experience in assistive technology. Speaking at a recent conference with the National Center for Technology Innovation, Kareem Dale, special assistant to the president on disability policy, who is sight-impaired, said, "Technology, for me, is very personal.'' He said the administration is working hard to build a foundation for technology and education to improve lives for those with disabilities. He said $12.1 billion in federal stimulus funds will support the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). ''People with disabilities in the education arena are not going to be forgotten even when times are tough,'' he said.

There's no question this administration is doing more in this area than any previous administration -- and these gains will benefit people for years to come -- but there are clearly more improvements to be made. I hope Dale continues in his role throughout President Obama's term(s).

Saturday, November 7, 2009

60 Minutes Video: Presidential Adviser David Axelrod Speaks Out About Epilepsy

In late October, White House senior adviser David Axelrod and his wife Susan appeared on "60 Minutes" to discuss their personal experience with their daughter Laruen. Lauren, now 28, had her first seizure when she was an infant. By the time she was 18, she had tried 23 different medications and had undergone an unsuccessful brain surgery.

Susan started the Chicago-based advocacy group Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE) to raise awareness and fund research. Epilepsy affects as many people as breast cancer -- 200,000 new cases each year, with a total of 3 million Amercans affected -- yet it trails in research funding. Funding for epilepsy is about $35 a patient, compared with $129 for Alzheimer's and $280 for multiple sclerosis.

Here's the full "60 Minutes" story.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Monday, October 26, 2009

Making Museums More Welcoming to Blind Visitors

A Newsweek article titled "Blind Spot" says museums are finding new ways to improve the arts experience for people with visual impairments.

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 requires museums to make their facilities "accessible" to everyone, but ramps and Braille museum guides only go so far for people who are blind. A 2008 Department of Justice ruling has museums trying to determine what "accessibility" really means -- or should mean -- when it comes to the arts. Nina Levent, executive director of New York's Art Education for the Blind, said "'Accessibility' is not very descriptive. The issue is, do people come to museums to ride elevators and use bathrooms, or do they come to have a meaningful social and aesthetic experience?"

In previous posts, I've expressed disappointment that Kareem Dale, the first special assistant to the president for disabilities, was asked to split his time between disability issues and the arts. But this is an example of where his two roles fit together perfectly, especially because he is visually impaired himself. The article talks about his active role with museum administrators to find new ways to open the arts to all patrons. "We are working on all fronts to try to realize the promise of the ADA," he said on a conference call. "It was a bill of rights for people with disabilities, but the original intent has been lost over the last two decades. We will restore the ADA to its original intent, and the Department of Justice has been turned loose to go after people who are violating civil-rights laws. We have a lot of work to do."

Dale is also supporting a website called Project Access that will describe the accessibility of every cultural institution, stadium, theater, national park, and public venue in the country. Paula Terry, of the Office of AccessAbility at the National Endowment for the Arts, said, "This is the first time the White House has taken this very aggressive stance. I'm not sure what to expect, but I welcome it."

Monday, October 19, 2009

Duncan Outlines Federal Role in Education, Offers No Specifics on Special Ed

On Friday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a speech he titled "Partners for Success" to the National Association of State Boards of Education in Cincinnati, in an attempt to build support for his plans to bring more innovation and accountability to our education system.

There's a lot to like about the speech, including an interesting overview of the federal government's historic role in education, even though (as he points out), "the Constitution doesn’t mention education, and...the provision of education has always been a state and local responsibility." But he goes on to say that our nation's leaders have "always believed that a strong and innovative education system is the foundation of our democracy and an investment in our economic future." And he lists examples, including the leadership of Presidents Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Johnson.

He then lays out the core principles of his and President Obama's vision for creating the world's best education system by 2020:
- Creating high standards to prepare students for college and careers.
- Ensuring that every classroom has highly effective teachers.
- Implementing data systems to accurately track students from grade to grade.
- Turning around the nation's lowest performing schools, which Duncan called "2,000 dropout factories" that account for half the nation's dropouts and three-fourths of minority dropouts.

It's a good speech that clearly outlines his vision and his commitment to partner with teachers and all levels of government, but every time Sec. Duncan speaks, I look for a glimmer of hope that special education is even a remote priority for him. And once again, in a speech of nearly 3,000 words focused on K-12 education, the number of references to "special education" was an even ZERO.

At one point, he did briefly talk about the federal government's historic role in providing education for children with special needs, but only in a dismissive fashion. "Some have suggested that the federal government's primary responsibility is to provide money for the education of low-income students and children with disabilities. But the federal government needs to do more than that. We need to ensure that those students are receiving the education they need to prepare them for success in college and the workplace."

Michelle Diament of Disability Scoop put a positive spin on this single reference. Her article was titled "Education Secretary Won’t Accept Status Quo For Students With Disabilities." Maybe I'm just sensitive because I'm preparing for an IEP meeting for my daughter tomorrow, but I didn't see it the same way. Special education is more than a path to create more taxpayers. It's a fundamental right that our secretary of education does not seem to take seriously, unless it supports his rhetoric about standards and outcomes and achievement gaps.

That one reference in a speech of nearly 3,000 words -- with no specific plans -- does not diminish my disappointment in President Obama's selection of Sec. Duncan. I'll give him credit for appointing some very good people in his department, who I suppose are toiling away quietly maintaining federal programs that support students with disabilities, but those students and those programs don't seem to be on Duncan's radar. Sadly, the Children Left Behind in this administration seem to be those who require special education.

Read the transcript of his speech and see what you think. If I'm overreacting and you feel more positive about Duncan, please tell me.

Judge Overturns Cuts to Housing for Seniors and People with Disabilities in California

In a victory for disability advocates in California and nationwide, a federal judge today stopped California's plan to cut or reduce caregiver services for 130,000 disabled and low-income seniors. The $82.1 million cuts to the In-Home Supportive Services program were due to go into effect Nov. 1, which one disability advocate said would have caused a "humanitarian disaster."

Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland imposed a preliminary injunction against the plan and is expected to provide more guidance soon. Her action today completely freezes the plan to cut services pending further hearings on arguments against the state's method for selecting who will and will not receive services.

Melinda Bird of Disability Rights California said: "We are convinced a humanitarian disaster would have resulted from the precipitous and arbitrary withdrawal of essential services approved by the legislature and the administration in the budget, and are delighted that the Court agreed with us."

The IHSS program pays in-home caregivers for seniors and people with disabilities through a combination of federal, state, and county money, with some contributions from recipients. Advocates argued that the state's use of a "functional index" score to determine who woul have their care reduced or eliminated was arbitrary and unfair. For example, people could get a good score if they can dress and feed themselves, but if they have memory problems or other mental conditions, caregiver support is critical. And obviously, providing these part-time services in the person's home is a lot less expensive than the alternative of institutionalization.

Read more from the Sacramento Bee.

To keep up with the proposed cuts in California, sign up for alerts from the California Disability Community Action Network at You can see on their website just how hard they have been working -- and today's ruling demonstrates that grassroots advocacy works. For disability advocates, there are many more budget battles ahead, and not just in California.

Friday, October 9, 2009

HHS Secretary: Administration's Commitment to Autism Comprehensive and Historic

In an op-ed published this week, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius calls autism research a high priority for the Obama Administration -- a priority "that has so far gone mostly unnoticed." She outlines the ways President Obama has made autism a focus of his presidency, such as releasing the first-ever strategic plan for government-funded autism research and adding $1 billion to his budget for autism over the next eight years.

Calling autism "an urgent public health challenge," Sec. Sebelius says that while legislation like the Combating Autism Act has been helpful, "there has never been a comprehensive, well-funded effort across government to overcome autism -– until now." Areas that need attention (as any parent, caregiver, teacher, or therapist knows) include treatment, insurance reform, education, and employment.

She concludes: "Like public health challenges such as polio in the 1950s and HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, we must address the rising prevalence and complex needs of people with autism. We still have more questions than answers. But with additional funding and a new coordinated national strategy, we are working harder and more closely together to find those answers than ever before." Read the op-ed.

How would you grade the administration on autism and disabilities in general?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

President Calls for More Jobs for People with Disabilities

As part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, President Obama has asked federal agencies to develop plans to increase employment of people with disabilities, but he didn't stop there. He also encouraged federal contractors to make disability employment a priority.

"Across this country, millions of people with disabilities are working or want to work, and they should have access to the support and services they need to succeed," the president said in a statement. "As the nation's largest employer, the federal government and its contractors can lead the way by implementing effective employment policies and practices that increase opportunities and help workers achieve their full potential. We must also rededicate ourselves to fostering an inclusive work culture that welcomes the skills and talents of all qualified employees. That's why I've asked the responsible agencies to develop new plans and policies to help increase employment across America for people with disabilities."

The president also announced several other initiatives, including a plan to have the Office of Personnel Management and Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy sponsor a day-long government job fair for people with disabilities in early spring 2010.

Listen to a report on Federal News Radio.

Sec. Duncan on Employment for People with Disabilities

Education Secretary Arne Duncan on National Disability Employment Awareness Month:

"President Obama and I recognize the critical role that education plays in empowering the next generation of Americans with disabilities. Through education, we can help people with disabilities build a strong foundation of knowledge and marketable skills with expectations for employment and the ability to give back to others in their communities. Stimulus funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act represents an unprecedented investment in students with disabilities and demonstrates the administration's commitment to helping all Americans achieve success in school and work. We are proud of the many projects underway at the Department of Education to assist children and adults with disabilities in acquiring the tools they need to achieve their dreams."

To celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services is featuring innovative, employment-based projects and individual success stories on its website.

Friday, October 2, 2009

What's in Store in Rio for Paralympians & Other Travelers With Disabilities?

When I profiled Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, I guess I chose the wrong city. Today the International Olympic Committee announced that the 2016 Games will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Chicago officials had promised the most inclusive games ever, in the most accessible facilities. They even had hoped to equip Chicago Stadium with 50,000 seats that could be converted into wheelchairs for use after the Olympics and Paralympics had ended.

What can Paralympians and other people with disabilities expect during the 2016 Games? A recent travel guide, South America on a Shoestring, advises: "Unfortunately, disabled travelers do not have an easy time in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is probably the most accessible city for disabled travelers. The streets and sidewalks along the main beaches have curb-cuts and are wheelchair-accessible, but most other areas do not have cuts and many restaurants have entrance steps." You have to assume Rio and Brazil will improve accessibility over the next seven years in preparation for the big event, and there are other promising signs.

Official Support for Disability Rights. Brazil has signed and ratified both the UN Convention on the Rights of People With Disabilites (in 2007) and the optional protocol (in 2008). By contrast, the United States just signed the Convention in July and has yet to ratify it or to sign the protocol. I'm not saying the U.S. is not committed to the same principles, but I do give credit to Brazil for officially expressing their support.

Commitment. Not surprisingly, Rio 2016 demonstrated a strong commitment to the Paralympics, but they also demonstrated their support by hosting several recent events. When Rio hosted an International Paralympic meeting and competition in August, Carlos Arthur Nuzman, head of Rio 2016, said, "Rio 2016 positions the Paralympic and Olympic Games at the same level, with the same standards and with full integration between them. It will be an inspiring event, like our athletes."

Transportation. Rio has acquired 500 buses specially adapted for people with disabilities. By 2014, they expect every bus in the city will be accessible. In addition, Rio's bid claims: "Many sports facilities in Rio de Janeiro are already suitable for disabled people. The redevelopment of the Maracanã stadium for the 2007 Pan American and Parapan American Games left a legacy of improved accessibility: access by ramps, with seating space for wheelchairs and adapted bathrooms were all included to provide the best experience for people with disabilities."

A Generally Accepting Culture. Rio 2016 officials love to point out that Forbes recently named Rio "the world's happiest city." Part of that happiness is a general sense of tolerance and acceptance (though there are exceptions, including continuing reports of racism toward black people and others). For a firsthand view from an American with a disability Read this account of a U.S. student who uses a wheelchair and visited Brazil's Universidade de São Paulo to examine the conditions for students with disabilities. The author, Marie Sharp, stayed with another woman who used a wheelchair and had been at the university for 17 years as both a student a professor. Marie describes campus accessibility, student services, and housing and concludes: "Honestly, for some people it will be very difficult because São Paulo is not yet prepared for everyone. As far as cultural attitudes and perspectives are concerned, it is a very open atmosphere. Brazilians in general are willing to help -- sometimes too much -- and everyone in my program was very helpful."

Legal Protections. For information about laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities, read this detailed review by International Disability Rights Monitor, which also covers housing, education, health care, employment, and other issues. According to the latest census (2000), 14.5 percent of the Brazilian population, or about 24.5 million people, have some degree of activity or functional limitation. About 48.1 percent had visual impairments, 8.3 percent had mental impairments, 4.1 percent had physical impairments, 22.9 percent had mobility impairments, and 16.7 percent had hearing impairments. People with disabilities have the right to vote, but an estimated 80 percent of polling places are not accessible.

So mark your calendar for Aug. 5-21, 2016 (Olympics) and Sept. 7-18, 2016 (Paralympics). Rio has some time to prepare to accommodate the Paralympians and other travellers with disabilities, and hopefully that will improve conditions for Brazilians for years to come.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tomorrow's Decision Day for 2016 Olympics/Paralympics

Tomorrow we'll learn if Chicago will host the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics. President Obama made a quick stop in Copenhagen to support the city's bid, but First Lady Michelle Obama is the one who's really making the case. She's meeting with members of the International Olympics Committee, as are representatives from the cities being considered -- Tokyo, Japan; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Madrid, Spain.

As reported in Politico, "The city that wins the Olympic games also hosts the Paralympics, a competition for people with disabilities. The Paralympics aspect of Chicago’s plan is said to be one of strongest components of their $3.3 billion bid. Michelle Obama sees the Olympics as part of her broader portfolio as first lady.

Mrs. Obama said: "All I have are my stories, my experiences as a Chicagoan, as an American, as someone who believes deeply that health and fitness have got to play a greater role in the lives of our kids and our communities, and as someone who believes that the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be the best way to bring that message home."

It's interesting to look into the future and imagine the Olympics being held in Chicago in 2016. If President Obama can be reelected for a second term in 2012, the Olympics would be held in his final year in office, in the midst of a presidential campaign to choose his successor. Maybe while they shine a spotlight on the Paralympics, he and Mrs. Obama can announce their commitment to making disability issues a major focus of their post-White House days. We can dream, right?

Government Commits $100 Million for Autism Research

As reported in Disability Scoop, the National Institutes of Health is awarding nearly $100 million in grants to research the causes of autism and look for treatments. This is the largest ever commitment to autism research.

In all, NIH will award $5 billion to study cancer, heart disease, and other conditions. President Obama called the grants "the single largest boost to biomedical research in history."

Specifically, the autism research will study DNA of people with autism and their parents and look for ways to diagnosis the condition earlier, as well as risk factor from prenatal to early childhood. President Obama said, "What we learn will hopefully lead to greater understanding, early interventions, more effective treatments and therapies to help these children live their lives and achieve their fullest potential."

Disability Employment Awareness Month

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, and yesterday President Obama signed a proclamation that focuses on increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

The proclamation states: "Each day, Americans with disabilities play a critical role in forging and shaping the identity of our nation. Their contributions touch us all through personal experience or through that of a family member, neighbor, friend, or colleague. We grow stronger as a nation when Americans feel the dignity conferred by having the ability to support themselves and their families through productive work. This month, we rededicate ourselves to fostering an inclusive work culture that welcomes the skills and talents of all qualified employees."

Read the proclamation.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Could Chicago Olympics Set New Standard for Accessibility?

According to an article in the Chicago Sun Times, if Chicago is selected next week as the host of the 2016 Olympic Games, Chicago Stadium could become the most "handicapped-friendly" venues ever built.

Specifically, city officials are working on a plan to convert up to 50,000 of the 80,000 seats in the temporary stadium into wheelchairs. After the Olympics, when the stadium is torn down, the wheelchairs could be donated to people who need them. Patrick Ryan, the CEO of the Chicago 2016 bid team, said, "It addresses a social issue where we can make wheelchairs -- privately funded -- available to people around the world with disabilities. There are still people around the world who still have to drag themselves because they don't have wheelchairs."

Credit for the idea is being given to Darren Brehm, who works for a firm consulting for Chicago 2016 and has used a wheelchair since 1990, when a car crash left him paralyzed. "It could change a lot of people's lives," Breman said.

The cost for the special seats? About $100 to $200 each. The entire cost of the stadium could be nearly $400 million, and the cost of the seats may require support from private sponsors.

Sounds like a win-win situation, don't you think? Now, let's see if Chicago gets that bid...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Duncan: "A Lot about NCLB and U.S. Education Needs to Change"

Here are Education Secretary Arne Duncan's prepared remarks for a Thursday speech on No Child Left Behind, the 2002 incarnation of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is up for reauthorization.

From Duncan's remarks: "The biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn’t encourage high learning standards. In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them. The net effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids they are succeeding when they are not."

I have to give credit for mentioning disabilities in a speech -- as far as I've seen, the first time he has as education secretary. Specifically, his remarks say: "Today I am calling on all of you to join with us to build a transformative education law that offers every child the education they want and need – a law that recognizes and reinforces the proper role of the federal government to support and drive reform at the state and local level....Let us build a law that brings equity and opportunity to those who are economically disadvantaged, or challenged by disabilities or background."

Duncan is also going to ask for input from stakeholders, which I hope will include special ed advocates and parents of children with special needs. "Over the coming months the administration will be developing its proposal for reauthorization," his remarks say. "Before we do, however, we want to hear from you. We want your input."

Stay tuned for an update after he gives the speech tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Don't Forget the Paralympics

With Chicago bidding to host the 2016 Olympics, there's a lot of talk about what President Obama's role should be. One aspect of the story you don't hear as much about is the Paralympics, which will be held in the same city that hosts the Olympic Games.

Paralympian Linda Mastandrea is the director of Paralympic Sport & Accessibility for Chicago 2016. Mastandrea, who won gold and silver medals in Atlanta in 1996 and set a record in the 200-meter race, has also played wheelchair basketball in the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona.

Mastrandrea says:
"What surprises people who have never seen Paralympic sport before is how strong and capable athletes are, how it doesn't matter whether you are missing a limb, your eyesight, or your ability to walk, you can be an amazing athlete. Sport is sport, whether it is played from a wheelchair, with a prosthetic or some other assistive device. Paralympic athletes have the same drive, the same will to succeed and to win, that athletes without disabilities have."

Read about the U.S. Paralympic team and the 2010 games in Vancouver, which will be held March 12-21, 2010.

Read more about the Paralympics and the Chicago bid at the Huffington Post.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rationing or Better Care for Kids with Disabilites?

Easter Seals and Autism Society: "Health care will improve coverage for people with disabilities!"

Republican-sponsored parents: "Health care will kill people with disabilities!"

Having been active in special needs issues for five years now, I've seen that parents and other advocates can have honest disagreements about the appropriate approaches for treatment, education, and medical care. But the vocal minority who seem to oppose any form of health care reform come across as partisan, intentionally uninformed, and counter-productive to improvements that can benefit the people they most care about.

Read the Associated Press article "Rationing or better care for disabled kids?"

Officials at Easter Seals and the Autism Society say the proposed legislation would improve services for disabled children. And 40 groups that advocate for people with disabilities are on record as supporting the House Democratic bill. Jeff Sell, vice president for advocacy at the Autism Society, who has twin 14-year-old sons with autism, said, "I have seen nothing in the legislation that would lead to rationing of care for children with disabilities." Sell said the bill would actually improve care by eliminating annual and lifetime limits on coverage, as well as coverage exclusions for pre-existing health problems.

Reacting to some parents who claim that a "government takeover" will lead to their children being denied services, Sell added, "I am having a hard time following their logic of jumping to the negative instead of seeing possibilities."

Agree or disagree? I invite your comments.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Guide to Employment for People with Disabilities

The job market is tough right now -- especially for people with disabilities. So for Labor Day, I won't waste your time with summaries or links to ceremonial speeches about the holiday and the importance of work in our society. Instead, here are resources that may be helpful to people with disabilities who are seeking employment. If you have other tips, please post them in a comment.


Teleseminar: Using the Internet to Find a Job
On Sept. 16 there's a free teleseminar on "10 Secrets That Every Job Seeker with a Disability Needs to Know: How to Make the Internet Work for You When Looking for a Job." The seminar, led by Seth Acosta of the Sierra Group will share tips when posting a resume to an electronic job board. 1:00-2:00 EST. More information. The seminar is sponsored by One More Way, which is an interesting initiative to support employment for people with disabilites. Visit their website.

Resources from is a great resource for people seeking employment, and for employers who want to know the laws related to disabilities. You can find information on:
- Career counseling
- Job training
- Job banks -- real jobs available right now
- Mentoring and internships
- Federal employment

Employment Locator
Career One Stop, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Labor, offers an employment locator that allows you to search for jobs by state and industry. I haven't used it -- if you have, share your thoughts.

Articles from has partnered with JobsCentral to create a database of jobs available to people with disabilities -- visit They also some excellent advice for people with disabilities in their employment section. For example:
- Finding employment with a disability during a recession
- Five crucial tips for acing an interview
- How to tell if a company is "disability-friendly"
- How to get hired from virtual volunteering

FOR EMPLOYERS has an entire section on Employing People with Disabilities. It includes tips on recruiting and hiring, interviewing, workplace accommodations and supports, HR tools and resources, tax incentives, occupational health and safety, and more. Read success stories of solutions that have benefited companies and workers with disabilities.

Friday, September 4, 2009

How Will Supreme Court Decision on Special Ed Reimbursement Affect School Districts?

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, a recent Supreme Court ruling on special education is expected to put additional pressure on school districts. The ruling says parents of students with special needs have the right to seek reimbursement from their districts for private school tuition, even if they have not first tried special ed program in their public schools.

Matthew Cohen, a Chicago attorney who specializes in disability law, said the Court's June decision "makes it clear that school districts...may be held legally liable for placements that the parents make on their own." Will these mean a stampede toward private schools? Probably not, because parents would need to pay tens of thousands of dollars in private school tuition -- and only then seek reimbursement. There's no guarantee they will be reimbursed, and it's unclear how those decisions will be made.

According to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students are entitled to a "free and appropriate public education." Districts have to pay for private school only if they have tried but failed to meet a student's needs.

As you can imagine, not everyone is happy about the decision that puts even more pressure on school districts. Mark Friedman, who recently retired as a public school superintendent in the Chicago area asked, "Where do you draw the line when class size is getting bigger and you only have X number of dollars? When you can educate five kids for the cost of one special ed kid? The community is not happy when we have dwindling resources, when there are 28 students in a class and we're spending $100,000 for one kid. That feeling is out there. I have heard it, I have felt it ... and this kind of ruling can create an even bigger divide."

How would you answer Mr. Friedman's question? Where DO you think the line should be drawn? How much is too much to educate a child with special needs?

CDC: Swine Flu Poses Higher Risk to Children with Disabilities

A new report on the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, has a particular caution to parents of children with disabilities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children with high-risk medical conditions or disabilities should be among the first to be vaccinated against H1N1 influenza.

CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said, "We also are recommending that all people with underlying conditions get vaccinated -- people who have asthma, diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, neuromuscular conditions, neurological conditions that increase their risk factors, and women who are pregnant." And high-risk children under 18 years of age should be rushed to a doctor at the first sign of the virus, Frieden said.

The vaccine is expected to be available by mid-October, and it's adding flames to the existing debate over the possible link between vaccines and autism. While there is no scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism, the debate over this issue is only heating up. It doesn't help that the H1N1 vaccine will be new and untested over time, and that reports (see Washington Post article) say many of the vaccines will have thimerosal, which contains mercury (which has been removed from many vaccines). Read what the CDC says about the vaccine.

As of Aug. 22, there had been 556 deaths in the United States associated with the H1N1 virus as of Aug. 22 -- and 42 were children under 18. Seven of the children who died were younger than 5, and 24 had underlying disabilities such as muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, or another medical condition.

Learn more and keep up with this special section of the CDC's website.

Unemployment Continues for People with Disabilities

We all know the economy is not showing any dramatic signs of recovery. But it's troubling that while job losses are slowing for the general population, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities reached a record high for the third month in a row in August. The rate is now 16.9 percent, compared with 9.3 for the general population. Read more from Disability Scoop.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Disability and Health Care Reform: A Firsthand Perspective

Writing in the Huffington Post, Ari Ne'eman, head of the Autism Self-Advocacy Network, outlines a number of issues that need to be addressed to ensure that health care reform does not leave behind adults and children with disabilities. I always appreciate Ari's passion and insights. Following is a summary of his key points.

Long Term Services and Supports
To get Medicaid support for basic services they need to survive, many people must live in nursing homes and institutions. "Both research and the experience of countless people with disabilities show that, with the right support, people can live in the community rather than be relegated to institutions. Community living settings, when properly implemented, improve quality of life, reduce the risk of abuse, make it more likely that a person with a disability will be able to work and are actually much less costly than institutional care....Medicaid's long-term care policy reimburses states for costly and segregated institutional care but makes it extraordinary difficult to use the same money to support adults in the community instead. A person who uses a wheelchair or an adult with a developmental disability such as autism or Down Syndrome can get the government to pay for a costly institutional placement with low quality of life, but often must spend years on a waiting list for far less expensive services, such as attendant care that could keep them in their home or their family's...."

"President Obama won kudos from the disability community by supporting the Community Choice Act during his campaign, but since then the White House has signaled that this issue will not be considered as part of health care reform. The Community Choice Act should be properly considered a civil rights issue, as it means the difference between segregation or integration for millions of disabled citizens as well as many senior citizens."

Health Care Disparities for People with Disabilities
"Too often, medical problems faced by people with disabilities are assumed to be normal and unavoidable as a result of being disabled. However, disability and ill health should not be considered synonymous. People with disabilities face significant barriers to access quality health care, due to both poverty and accessibility problems....Congress must recognize people with disabilities as an underserved population subject to health disparities by undertaking both data collection and serious policy reform to ensure that issues of access, expertise and coverage are address for the disability community."

Insurance Discrimination
While some states are addressing reform to mandate insurance coverage for autism and other disabilities, these efforts do nor represent comprehensive reform. Any health care reform must ensure insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions, including developmental disabilities.

Stop Discrimination in the Provision of Care
"Too often, people with disabilities are denied necessary -- sometimes even life-saving -- medical care because of assumptions that non-disabled people make about our quality of life. For many people, disability is still considered a fate worse than death instead of a part of the human experience. The eugenic impulse that views people with disabilities as 'burdens on society' or 'life unworthy of life' is still regrettably alive and well within our health care system....Americans, with or without disabilities, deserve not to be pitted against each other in their efforts to obtain the health care services they need. With limited resources, Congress will need to make difficult decisions -- yet discriminating against people with disabilities in the provision of health care services should never be considered an acceptable option."

Ari concludes: "Disability has often been called the great equalizer -- our community reaches throughout every racial, religious, gender and political classification. Furthermore, though we are wide and varied, including both people with acquired disabilities, such as many of our brave men and women in uniform coming home from overseas, and others who were born with their disabilities, such as myself and the rest of the autistic community, we can unite around our common dream for full participation, inclusion, integration, and equality of opportunity for all."

Read more.

Thursday, August 20, 2009 An Inside Look at the Government's One-Stop Shop for Disability Information

The recent launch of -- actually a relaunch and upgrade of the previously named -- represented a huge leap forward in the federal government's service to Americans with disabilities. I had a chance to learn more about the site from Kevin Connors, a Department of Labor employee who serves as the program director for the site.

Q: How did become

A: After conducting several focus groups and getting feedback from visitors to our site -- including people with disabilities, family members, caregivers, veterans and many others -- we redesigned the site to make it easier to use and more interactive and useful to our audiences. We changed the name because it’s simpler and easier to remember. represents a new generation of online federal government resources that use social media tools to improve communication, interaction and feedback with visitors.

Q: Did the new administration initiate the idea for the redesigned site, or had it been in the works previously?

A: The team began working on a plan to redesign the site last fall. The focus group testing we conducted was part of this effort. Certainly the new administration's acceptance of social media and enforced mandates about government openness and transparency helped us make decisions about what types of tools we wanted to offer, but the overall decision to make this move started with the team.

Q: Since I’ve worked for the federal government, I’m amazed that one site can consolidate resources from 22 federal agencies. Was that as hard as it sounds?

A: Absolutely! Working with all the different agencies was a very labor-intensive process, but they were more than willing to participate in the development of the site. One of our first steps on the project was to meet with representatives from each agency to identify subject matter experts to be involved in the development and maintenance of the site, and to gather content for the site from them. We felt this was critical to the future success of the site as these are the people who have the in-depth knowledge about the programs and policies their agencies offer for people with disabilities. We continue to work with our partners to encourage their involvement, and identify new subject matter experts within the agencies.

Q: How does ongoing coordination work? Do each of those agencies have a point of contact who contribute content, or does a group meet on a regular basis?

A: Both. We currently have over 100 contributors that work with us on the site. Each of the agencies work a little bit differently, and we are happy to accommodate whatever setup is most efficient and easiest to implement for them. Some agencies choose to have one point of contact for the project, while others have as many as 20 subject matter experts representing the different operating divisions within those agencies.

We provide each contributor with training on how to upload content from federal agency Web sites to using our administrative web tool. This tool allows our partners to add information to when and how they choose. We monitor what is added and provide editorial oversight so that the site has a cohesive look and feel, but we felt it was important to put the tool directly in the hands of our contributors.

The team meets with our federal agency contributors several times a year, and provides continuous support, coordination, and training via email and phone as well. Through the years, the team has established long-lasting relationships with each of our federal agency partners, and this open communication has been the key to the initiative’s success.

Q: I’m sure the expectations for compliance -- for the hearing- and sight-impaired, for example –- are higher for a website like than for any other site. How did you make sure the site met all people’s needs?

A: strives to be a leader in accessibility and usability. We work very hard to ensure that we not only comply with the law, but also go above and beyond simply what is required so that the site is accessible for all people. This should be the expectation for every website, not just sites specifically for people with disabilities. Our goal is to be a model for all websites, whether they are disability-related or not.

The team tested the redesigned website using a variety of assistive technology software and on various machines with the many different browsers that are available. We also obtained feedback from users with a range of disabilities, some who use assistive technology and some who do not. In our testing, exceeded the requirements set forth by Section 508 1194.22 by creating a website that is not only accessible, but also usable, by all visitors. The team continues to improve site accessibility as we receive additional visitor feedback.

Q: I’m familiar with Section 508, which requires that federal agencies’ electronic and information technology is accessible to people with disabilities. Your site claims to also be compatible with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). How are these guidelines different, and what does that mean to the user?

A: Four Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Priority 1 checkpoints, 1.3, 4.1, 6.2 and 14.1, include elements that are either not covered in Section 508 or are slightly more stringent than Section 508 standards. If a website is 508 compliant and the site wants to be WCAG compliant as well, the designers must address these four checkpoints additionally. For example, at this time Section 508 does not specifically address audio description as a requirement for web-based media when the captioned text that is provided is not able to be navigated by screen reader software, but WCAG Priority 1, 1.3 does address this need. Meeting both Section 508 and WCAG guidelines provides an extra layer of accessibility and usability checkpoints, especially when it comes to Web-based multimedia and dynamic content on a site.

Q: is active on Twitter (, and you have a blog and a news feed. How is social media expanding access for people with disabilities?

A: Social media gives people with disabilities a platform to discuss their experiences, find answers to questions, and connect on a common ground.'s goal when adding these social media tools was to encourage interaction and feedback with and among its visitors. We've added personalization to the site that didn't exist before, and we'll continue to find more ways to interact as we explore different social media options. Our main goal was to open up communication with our visitors -- we wanted to change from one-way communication to an actual conversation with our visitors.

The redesigned site represents a shift in philosophy from simply broadcasting information to having a true collaboration with the public. These new tools help visitors quickly access the information they need and connect with others on disability-related topics. They also offer new ways to organize, share and receive information, and help create communities around subjects of common interest. Visitors can sign up for personalized news and updates, participate in online discussions and suggest resources for the site.

Q: Do you have plans to expand even more -– like a Facebook page or additional interactive features?

We will continue to look into adding new social media features in the coming months, and include the ones we feel are most in line with our goals and would be most useful and relevant to our audiences on Before we redesigned the site, we conducted extensive research on the different tools that are available and selected those we felt were the best fit. This is the process we will continue to use in the future. Our next phase is to add features that allow for personalization, and increase interaction among visitors with features like user forums.

Q: Speaking of Facebook, what are the challenges involved in using the latest technology while adhering to rules and policy affecting federal agencies? For example, President Obama was told he couldn’t use his Blackberry.

The government is currently developing policies that regulate what can and cannot be done. With the Obama administration, there is certainly a great deal of support for use of social media in order to make the government more open and transparent to citizens. The team has moved cautiously into the social media realm. We conducted a great deal of research prior to the redesign, and met with several federal agencies that have been using social media in order to develop a set of best practices. We used these best practices, along with a thorough understanding of our audiences and the goals we want to achieve, to develop our approach to engaging in social media.

Q: What else would you like people to know about

A: is an important resource not only for the more than 50 million Americans with disabilities, but also for parents of children with disabilities, employers, workforce and human resource professionals, veterans, military families, caregivers, and many others. The site offers thousands of resources on disability-related programs and services from the federal government, as well as state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, and educational institutions. Above all, the mission of the site is to connect the disability community to information and opportunities.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Duncan Breaks Silence on Special Ed

Well, it took seven months, but yesterday Education Secretary Arne Duncan actually talked about special education. As I reported when President Obama first nominated Duncan, many disability advocates criticized him not for doing bad things in special ed when he oversaw education in Chicago, but for simply overlooking it as a priority. Over the past seven months, he's done little to reassure the disability community. His official bio doesn't mention special ed, and the issue has been absent from every major speech and interview he has given.

So yesterday was our first chance to hear how Secretary Duncan thinks special education may fit into his broader vision for education reform. Addressing a group of state special education officials in Washington, he asked for their support in developing state standards to make sure the needs of students with disabilities are met.

Since more than half of students with disabilities spend most of their time in general classrooms, Duncan asked, "How how do we make sure not just special education teachers, but every single teacher, can be a teacher of children with special needs?" He said he and his staff are seeking ideas from parents, teachers, and state officials. View video of his remarks.

Did he say anything that demonstrates innovative thinking or a commitment to making special ed a top priority? No. But I've been critical of Duncan for not addressing the topic at all, so I'll give him credit for meeting with this group and acknowledging the 6 million-plus students under his watch who have special needs.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Waiting Lists, Inadequate Funding for Disability Services -- and More Cuts on the Way?

I recently joined the board of the Arc of Montgomery County, which advocates for people with developmental disabilities and provides direct services to people from infants to seniors. Today as part of my orientation, I visited several residential, vocational, educational, and day care programs throughout the county. While I was impressed with the level of service these people are receiving and the dedication of the providers, I couldn't help but think of the nearly 20,000 people in Maryland who are on a waiting list for these critical services.

And even the existing services are in danger because of budget cuts. Even if you're not in Maryland, read this alert, "People with Developmental Disabilities at Risk of Losing Services." Whichever state you're in, people with disabilities are facing these same risks. With long waiting lists, people are already being denied services they desperately need. This is no time to make additional cuts.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Rhetoric Over Disabilities and Health Care Reform Heats Up

Disability Scoop has a nice summary of some of the disability issues at the heart of the health care reform debate. Read "Disability Issues At Center Of Heated Health Care Debate." Not surprisingly, former Governor Sarah Palin is at the center of some of the controversy -- which started when she seemed to suggest that President Obama would like to kill her son with Down syndrome. Specifically, Palin has said the plan would force people who are either old or disabled "to stand in front of Obama’s 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide...whether they are worthy of health care."

Whatever you think of Palin -- and I know many disability advocates like her a lot -- there is no denying the hypocrisy of suggesting that the president's policies (and, by extension, the president himself) are "evil" and that the president would support kill disabled children, and then calling for restraint and civility in these discussions. On her Facebook page, she wrote:

"There are many disturbing details in the current bill that Washington is trying to rush through Congress, but we must stick to a discussion of the issues and not get sidetracked by tactics that can be accused of leading to intimidation or harassment. Such tactics diminish our nation's civil discourse which we need now more than ever because the fine print in this outrageous health care proposal must be understood clearly and not get lost in conscientious voters' passion to want to make elected officials hear what we are saying. Let's not give the proponents of nationalized health care any reason to criticize us."


I was pleased to see Michael Strautmanis, chief of staff in the White House Office of Public Liaison, step forward as the father of a child with autism. In the video below, Strautmanis says the plan would ensure that individuals won't be denied insurance coverage because of any pre-existing condition and would expand access to Medicaid. I've previously written about Strautmanis's personal connection, and I hope he'll continue his involvement in these and other issues important to people with disabilities.

Many disability groups are expressing support for the president's plan. United Cerebral Palsy has endorsed the health care reform bill, and the Arc is encouraging its members to "dispel the growing number of myths" about health care reform. In addition, the American Association of Disabled People has posted several facts from AARP to refute what it says are myths and lies. They include:
Fact 1: Medicaid not be ended, and no benefits or services will be cut.
Fact 2: No legislation currently in Congress would mandate the rationing of care. Period.
Fact 3: There is no provision of any piece of legislation that would promote euthanasia of any kind.

AARP goes on to say: "The rumors out there are flat-out lies. Right now Medicare does not cover counseling for end-of-life care. The portion of the bill in question would simply provide coverage for optional end-of-life consultations with doctors, so that the patient can be aware of all of the treatment options on the table. It is not mandatory and it has nothing to do with euthanasia."

Disability Scoop

Special Ed News (Education Week)

Special Education Law