MLK day marks the celebration of The Civil Rights Movement. 

Martin Luther King Jr. was a spokesperson of The Movement who fought to remove blatant segregation for Black People, the oppressed, ignored, and marginalized. The movement paved the way for the consideration that individuals with disabilities are entitled to equal access to education. And that separation is intrinsically unequal, especially when the separation is based on characteristics or conditions of someone’s birth. As Doctor King said so eloquently, “It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people.”

The supreme court decision that separate schools for blacks and whites were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional is used in fights for students with disabilities. It has been repeatedly referenced by special education attorneys to “win” a place in public school classrooms. The legislation that has long been the standing point of fighting segregation in our schools was Brown versus the Board of Education. Brown versus the Board of Education is the strongest case in support of integrating students with disabilities in our public general education classrooms. It builds a historical context for the current inclusion efforts nationwide, the Least Restrictive Environment mandate in IDEA, and the general principles of fairness that most Americans, at least superficially, subscribe to today.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed Jim Crow practices creating a comprehensive civil rights document of our nation’s history. The impact of MLK’s voice and strong stance extended beyond his years of protest and his lifetime. He was an inspiration to all underrepresented groups, including those with disabilities who fought for their place in society. The verbiage he used with courage fueled and influenced the legislature that came thirty years later with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It has been said that the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement gave legitimacy and a point of reference to the disability movement. This positive outcome wasn’t an accident and doesn’t remove the focus on equality for Black, Indigenous, and people of color. It should, however, strengthen and solidify what Dr. King cared about most, justice for all people.

While the overt legal discrimination against blacks and other minority ethnic groups was outlawed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it wasn’t until 1990 that the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, and overt discrimination against persons with disabilities was outlawed. People with disabilities have Dr. King and other civil rights leaders to thank for setting a benchmark for them in the fight for civil rights.

Remember this; No one chooses to be a certain race, just as no one elects to be disabled, and a fact of birth should determine one’s ability to be counted in society. This concept is noted in both pieces of legislature, but we know that the fight for equal opportunity will continue in 2023. Even though we have come a long way in many areas, we still have a long way to go. Direct acts of discrimination are becoming more and more widespread and widely accepted, taking us back to the 1950s. Microaggressions and indirect actions occur daily in every community and are as impactful to a person’s life.

Segregated environments still exist today in many of our public schools, and most teachers, administrators, parents, and citizens don’t seem to relate self-contained special needs environments as a practice of segregation when it is.

Having Black, Indigenous, and people of color placed in a separate school based on their race alone would be seen as discriminatory, and the community would be outraged. Yet, many would not flinch from seeing this done to a student with a disability, as it is commonplace and seen as an “unavoidable” practice.

NOWHERE can you justify separate as “equal” in a legal sense. However, we see neighborhood public schools predominantly color-coded based on a student’s zip code, which in most cases changing zip codes is out of reach for BIPOC families, thus maintaining the status quo of the concept that separate is inherently unequal.

The increase in charter schools, magnet schools, micro-schools, virtual schools, and state private school scholarship funds has paved the way for more diverse schooling options for students. However, in most cases, these options continue to discriminate against students with disabilities, accepting them only to meet their anti-discrimination law requirements, but shortly into the school year, suggesting transfer to a school that will “better meet their needs.”

The purpose of school is to prepare students for the world, aka “the real world .” Today students meet an endless list of diversity – learners, races, thinking, sexuality, religion, gender, culture and as the world continues to become more globally linked, the list continues to grow. Jobs, schools, organizations, hospitals, everywhere we go to work and learn, we will be exposed to and mandated to collaborate with all kinds of people. Yet our schools are NOT preparing students for what will come. Self-contained schools and classrooms fail to equip students with disabilities for any life after school, except for one that continues to be segregated, which will prevent participation in the fabric of our integrated society.

Change that we wish to see must begin in our schools. We must hold our schools accountable to the principles and ideology of IDEA 2004, which states, “Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is essential to our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

So, take this back to Dr. King’s message and what it meant to people with disabilities.

It means hope. It means life.

It means the motivation to fight.

It means commonality.

It means intersectionality.

His words give hope for true inclusion.

His words create connection.

His speeches are relatable.

His life and his death were worthwhile then and now.

His fight continues through parents, children, school district professionals, educational advocates, and attorneys.

We must continue to fight for students with disabilities. Continue to fight for BIPOC in segregated education environments. Especially segregation based on race, zip code, and Disability.

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

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