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Language, Justice, Disability Rights, and Public Education

This morning I opened up my Twitter feed to the usual combination of animal videos, library info, friends sharing, and of course, terrible horrible awful news. The latest in said news comes from Disability Rights California, who shared that Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Senate Bill 354, which would have required school districts to “provide a parent with a copy of a translated individualized education plan (IEP) within 30 days of the parents’ request” in one of the school district’s top eight languages. The IEP is a binding legal document for schools, children with special education needs, and their parents. It dictates the services a child receives in school; their placement in a mainstream classroom, special education classroom, resource classroom, or some combination of any of the previous three; their educational goals for the year; a behavioral plan if needed; and any education accommodations they are guaranteed within the school day.

As a parent of a child with high-functioning autism and auditory processing difficulties, I live and die by that IEP. Getting the right IEP for your child is not an easy feat, particularly within an educational system that often can’t be bothered to accommodate children with special needs. Despite the great strides disability rights and inclusion activists have made for children with special needs in public schools, the process to guarantee that your child receives a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)–which is their right under the  Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is still SO SO difficult. A quick search for school districts and FAPE or IDEA in Google News will yield all kinds of lawsuits from rightfully angry parents about their child’s treatment within the public education system.

My own experience with the ARD/IEP/Special Education program and process within the Houston Independent School District was a nightmare last year. Thankfully, I had the time, education, resources, and connections to advocate for my son, and he is now in a different public school. He’s doing really well, and his wonderful teacher and special education chair are even encouraging less time in resource class (1-2x a week instead of 2x a day) and more ambitious goals! That said, it was a struggle to get an IEP that matched his ability and needs, and we’re still meeting to revise it for this academic year. My son’s IEP is in English, and I still had to have trained professionals in special education read and explain it to me LINE BY LINE. After doing so with the first draft, I pushed for drastic revision, again, in my native language, and once again, asked trained professionals to help translate the language into special education speak.

I can’t imagine going through this process in a language that was not my own. How can expect someone to sign a LEGAL, BINDING document that pretty much dictates your child’s entire educational future when that document is not in their native language or one readily understandable to them? And if you’re going to come in with learn English bullshit, please stop now because I am not here for that. One in five children in the U.S. have special education needs, ranging from students with ADHD to those with mobility issues or intellectual disabilities. This is California, one of the most diverse states in the U.S. If we can provide bilingual education we should also provide these documents in languages other than English.

Yes, I know this is not about libraries, and I recognize that I have a very personal stake in this fight. At various points in between crying and stressing about my son’s educational future last year, I’d have moments of extreme gratefulness. I was intelligent enough, able-bodied, and had the time, education, and money to push back against a system that wanted to take my bright, curious, empathetic son and put him in a non-mainstream classroom (which has proven to have been a grossly inappropriate original recommendation). I was furious for parents without those same privileges, and how beaten down they must have felt by this education system.

I write about this because language is important. To be inclusive and to promote equity is to look at all of the ways we as a society create barriers for people. Gov. Brown’s veto of SB 354 is yet another barrier put up in the road to a difficult, uphill battle for children with disabilities and their parents. Think about the ways in which a lack of language diversity can contribute to exclusion and oppression within your own work. And, if you have the time or money, consider donating it to Disability Rights California or similar advocacy groups in your state.

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