by Michael Yudin
From the Editor: Michael Yudin is a former chairman of the United States Access Board and at the time of the 2015 National Convention had just been appointed as the assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the United States Department of Education. Here is what he said to the convention on Friday afternoon, July 10:
Good afternoon, everyone. How are you? I am truly honored to be here, President Riccobono, with Dr. Maurer, Jim Gashel, and my partner Sachin there whom I have the pleasure of serving as his vice chair at the US Access Board. Congratulations, everyone; congratulations on your seventy-fifth anniversary. It is truly amazing—the work that you all do here—and I am honored—I am honored to address you today. The work that you do around raising expectations, around securing enduring equity, and removing barriers and creating opportunities for blind and low-vision people in this country is so incredibly important. I just want to say to the young people here—and I know there are a bunch of you here today—that your success reflects the fundamental belief in this country that, if you give a child the opportunity to learn, he or she can achieve anything; that, if you aim high, there are no limits; and that your success is our success as a nation.
About fifty years ago President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (otherwise known as ESEA), and it ensured that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds had the same kinds of educational opportunities as their more affluent peers. When he signed that law, he said that he believed that no law he had signed or would ever sign would mean more to the future of America. He set full educational opportunity as our first national goal. But we all know that takes work; it takes real work to make that opportunity real.
If you truly believe that all of our children deserve that kind of opportunity, then our collective work becomes extraordinarily clear. We know that, when families and educators and community leaders work together, they can unlock the great vaults of opportunity of this nation, to echo the words of Dr. King from the March on Washington. We know that we have to work to make sure that that opportunity is not just a possibility, but that it's a promise. We know that we've made enormous progress in those fifty years since Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We have passed the IDEA and the ADA. We know that forty or fifty years ago millions of kids with disabilities were denied access to education. We know we've made an enormous amount of progress. We know that today a majority of kids with disabilities spend about 80 percent of their time in the general classroom. We know that today African-American and Latino nine-year-old students succeed in math at about the same level that their thirteen-year-old peers did in the 1970s. Today dropout rates are down significantly, and high school graduation rates have soared in recent years for all students. Just since 2008 alone, college enrollment by black and Latino students has grown by more than a million. That's a big deal, particularly because many of these young people are first-generation college-goers.
But clearly our work is not done. The achievement and opportunity gaps are pernicious, and they are persistent. For too many kids, circumstances of birth remain a barrier to opportunity; the odds are stacked. Opportunity gaps begin early, often at birth, and they compound over time, becoming harder and harder to bridge. Too many kids drop out of school. Too few kids go on to college, too many are underemployed or unemployed, and far too many end up in jail. Our work will not be done until we ensure that that opportunity is again not just a possibility but a promise. You know the president of the United States, President Obama, has said that there is nothing, not a single thing, that is more important to the future of America than whether or not young people all across this country can achieve their dreams [Applause]. And that's why we're all here today. Because, particularly for the young people, particularly because as the president says, "We believe in the idea that no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter what your circumstance, if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then America is the place where you can make something of your lives, that we care about you, and that we believe in you."
So how are we going to get to these goals? I think that there are three things—and I know that we're running short on time; I could talk all day, I won't—but there are three things: breaking down barriers, ensuring that students and families and educators have the tools they need to be successful, and identifying opportunities and exploiting them so that we ensure kids' success.
First barrier: low expectations. We must change the culture of expectations in this country [Applause]. Too many parents—I've heard it, you all know it—too many parents hear from their doctors, from their kids’ teachers, "I'm sorry, your kid's not going to/your kid can't/your kid won't." It is not a parent's expectation of their child [Applause]. Their expectation is, "My kid can/my kid will/my kid is able to succeed." We know from research that high expectations and access to the general curriculum actually make a difference. We know that teachers’ expectations on a kid actually make a difference in their performance in reading and math. So again we need to change the culture of expectations; that's the first barrier. We also need to begin focusing on results in the education field, particularly in special ed. We have spent so many years focusing on compliance and ensuring procedural safeguards that are critically important in special education, but we haven't focused enough on results. It's really important to focus again on these procedural safeguards and compliance with the law—it is absolutely necessary. But if you look at how kids are doing in reading and math and graduating, students with disabilities have among the lowest performance outcomes out of all subgroups of kids. We need to change that focus and also look at results and outcomes.
We also know that there is inadequate access to Braille. We know that from parents and advocates of blind children. We know that numbers of students receiving education and instruction in Braille have decreased significantly over the past several decades despite years of research that has shown that Braille is a very effective reading and writing medium for many students who are blind or visually impaired, including heightened self-esteem and increased likelihood of productive employment. That's why it's important for us at the Department of Education to issue guidance to remind states and local school districts of the importance of Braille instruction as a literacy tool for blind and visually impaired students and to clarify the circumstances in which Braille instruction should be provided. I'm going to quote the law. The law says that "In the case of a child who is blind or visually impaired, the IEP team must provide for instruction in Braille and the use of Braille unless the IEP team determines, after an evaluation of the child's reading and writing skills, their needs, and appropriate reading and writing media, including an evaluation of the child's future needs for instruction in or use of Braille, that instruction or use is not appropriate for the child." This requirement of course applies to kids as they enter kindergarten, as well as children who will benefit from Braille later on because they face the prospect of future vision loss later on in their careers.
Accessibility—the attorney general [Maura Healy of Massachusetts] talked about accessibility. We know that access to information and technology is so critical. Our Department of Justice, our Office of Civil Rights has issued a series of guidances, has taken some very active roles in ensuring that colleges and universities ensure that emerging technology is accessible to individuals with disabilities, including those with visual impairments and other impairments that make it difficult to access printed materials. They must ensure that the technology is implemented in a way that affords individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate and benefit from the technology.
We explained that under the federal civil rights laws blind students must be afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students with substantially equivalent ease of use. Relying on these principles, our Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Justice—resolved complaints filed by the National Federation of the Blind regarding universities that were asking or requiring students to use the Kindle DX. Those universities agreed not to use ebook readers that are not fully accessible to individuals who are blind or have low vision unless the universities provide reasonable accommodations so that a student can acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as sighted students with substantially equivalent ease of use. We've actually also taken this guidance and made sure that everybody understands that applies to elementary and secondary schools as well.
We have engaged in a number of enforcement actions requiring equal access to school websites and online resources: University of Cincinnati, Youngstown State University, and the University of Montana at Missoula. These all say that technologies, including websites, online course registration, library database materials, video classroom clickers, discussion boards, and electronic textbooks must be accessible. Just last month our department and the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in litigation the National Association of the Deaf filed against MIT and Harvard, reiterating that Section 504 and the ADA apply to your online content.
Effective communications—we issued guidance just a year or so ago regarding insuring that educational agencies understand their requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as IDEA, to reinforce that effective communication requires schools to ensure that students with disabilities receive communication that is as effective as communication with others through the provision of appropriate auxiliary aids and services.
I'm going to run out of time, but I want to talk about tools and Bookshare. You all know about Bookshare, right? [Cheers] It converts instructional materials into accessible formats. We have over twenty-eight personnel development prep programs that are providing supports to train teachers on the way to provide instruction to kids in Braille. Technology—creating and disseminating a mobile app—the Braille Challenge mobile app—incorporating evidence-based strategies. Media services: video on demand TV programming is now accessible for thousands of students with visual or hearing disabilities. The Accessible Television Portal Project opens access to free video on demand children's television program for thousands of students who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing. And finally, just one more quick thing—Mister President, I promise you I will leave—two things I want to say:
Randolph-Sheppard—Randolph-Sheppard is doing incredible work. That program in 2013 generated in excess of $708 million in gross sales, had a nationwide average annual income of $56,000, and employed over 14,600 individuals. Randolph-Sheppard programs around the country are doing incredibly innovative work. They're working with private industries—the state of Illinois actually is contracted with the Randolph-Sheppard program to operate the cottages at Carlyle Lake. It is the largest campground in the state of Illinois, offering services that include lodging, a swimming pool that will accommodate two hundred people, a camp store, a laundromat, and vending machines. The state of Georgia's state licensing agency is looking at having blind vendors work food trucks. There is so much innovation that is going on in the Randolph-Sheppard program, and I urge you to work with our young people, mentor them, and show them how they can take advantage of these opportunities.Finally, the last thing I want to say and before I get the hook is about the WIOA, the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act. It provides so much opportunity to ensure that individuals with disabilities have the supports and the services and the skills and the training they need to engage in high-quality, competitive, integrated employment. There are so many really important issues to talk about focusing on transition and services to youth: limitations on sub-minimum wage, working with employers, making sure that VR counselors understand the skills that are necessary to meet the demands of the economy, and creating a seamless, accessible workforce delivery system that is physically and programatically accessible to all. I'm going to wrap up and just say that breaking down barriers, creating opportunities, and making sure that folks have the tools that they need is critical. The fundamental belief that, if you give a child a meaningful opportunity to learn, they will succeed is all-important. Equity in education is a core American value; kids must have the chance to learn and achieve; education must provide a path to a thriving middle class for all who are willing to work hard. Our national identity and our economic strength depend on it. Thank you so much; I'm honored to be here.