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.

Disability Scoop

Special Ed News (Education Week)

Special Education Law