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.

Disability Scoop

Special Ed News (Education Week)

Special Education Law