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Education Department Celebrates ADA's 25th Anniversary


Twenty-five years after the Americans With Disabilities Act passed, schools and other public spaces have made strides to accommodate children and youth with disabilities, said the participants at ada25.pnga U.S. Department of Education event to honor the civil rights law Friday. 

But there is still work to be done on making the promise of the ADA the "delivered reality of our kids in schools," said Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the department. She rattled off a list of settlement agreements that the department had entered into just this month: 

  • A Denver charter school disenrolled a kindergarten student after finding out on orientation day that he had a mobility issue that would require him to use the school's elevator. The school officials told the department it only handles "mild disabilities," and that they couldn't ensure there would be an adult to ride the elevator with the student. "Well, they can now," Lhamon said. 
  • Another student, with brittle-bone disease, was barred by her school from going on a field trip, because the school said it couldn't guarantee her safety. The civil rights office intervened, and the school has purchased a special vehicle to accommodate her. 
  • In a Colorado school, students with emotional disabilities were sent to an "alternate learning lab" with no teacher. OCR worked with the school to make sure they were fully included. 

"Our kids are fully part of our schools," Lhamon told the audience of disability-rights advocates. "We need to make sure the rights of our kids are realized." 

The 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act happens to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was signed by President Gerald Ford in November 1975. The ADA prohibits disability-based discrimination in employment, accommodations, and public services. The education rights of students with disabilities are not directly protected by the ADA, but ADA does require "reasonable accommodations" for students. School programs, including extracurricular activities, must be made available for students with disabilities. 

In contrast, the IDEA contains much-more specific provisions that relate to a child's school experience. It also provides federal funds to states to help them pay for the educational services that students with disabilities need.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan closed out the event by reminding the audience of a phrase used by Martin Luther King Jr.: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." 

"The challenge for all of us is to see if we can't bend that arc a little faster," Duncan said. 

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