Special Education

Disability Rights, Access to Education Vary Around the World

By Nirvi Shah — December 03, 2012 2 min read
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This blog rarely ventures beyond the borders of the United States, as it seems there are ample issues to discuss about special education on American soil. But today it seemed worthy of note that it’s the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

For starters, the U.S. Senate is still debating whether to approve the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The Council for Exceptional Children calls the document landmark and has been urging the Senate to ratify it, noting that 90 percent of children with disabilities in developing countries have no access to school, in sharp contrast to educational access for children with disabilities in America.

Although the treaty has bipartisan support, the National Review notes, and it has been signed by President Barack Obama, some senators oppose the measure because they believe it would not have any effect on people in the United States.

And former Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whose youngest daughter Isabella has Trisomy 18, discussed his opposition to the measure last week on Capitol Hill with his daughter and homeschool advocates in tow.

Santorum said the measure will undermine the ability parents’ of children with disabilities in the United States to raise their children as they see fit, including teaching them at home.

Mike Farris, who leads the Home School Legal Defense Association, told U.S. News & World Report
that he worries the treaty would give the government “unilateral ability” to impact people with disabilities while parents should “get the choice of what’s best for their child.” The association says on its website that if the treaty is ratified, it would establish the “best interests of the child” legal standard, overriding the “traditional fundamental right of parents to direct the education and upbringing of their child with special needs.”

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is one of the treaty’s biggest advocates, has said the treaty would not change U.S. law and could make life easier for Americans with disabilities traveling overseas.

The more than 100 countries that have ratified the convention, presumably, would be obligated to uphold its tenets regardless of ratification by the United States, but despite nearly 40 years of special education law and decades of other disability-rights laws here, it’s clear that attitudes and beliefs require more than legislation to change.

The convention aside, in Latin America, Lena Johnson emailed me recently to tell me about her project to address the high school dropout crisis among students with disabilities and poor families throughout the region. She said that estimates show only 20 percent to 30 percent of children and youth with disabilities in the region attend school and most never finish high school.

A week from today, she plans to launch a website that will host videos, blogs, forums, and educational materials about students with disabilities in Latin America, with the hope of generating a dialogue and ideas on making education more inclusive in the region, she said.

The project will kick off with an online contest to solicit ideas to make education more inclusive and accessible, and winners will serve as honorary education advocates in their home countries.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.