Advocacy and the Independent Living Movement: Removing Barriers to Education

Published May 13, 2022

Access to education has long been intertwined with disability rights in the United States. The Independent Living Movement was born on a college campus in California. Ed Roberts, who had been disabled by Polio, was accepted to UC Berkley, but the university was reluctant to admit him and only willing to house him in a hospital after they did. Roberts started a forceful advocacy campaign, which included creating a group called the Rolling Quads to advocate for disability rights on campus. He won his fight, and vastly improved the circumstances for college students with disabilities.

Education has come a long way since then, and students with disabilities have access to more resources than ever before. But this doesn't mean the fight is over.

Barriers to quality education are still present in the K-12 school system and universities alike. Students face old campuses with inaccessible facilities, uncooperative instructors, lack of access to necessary equipment, and a lack of disability awareness and support. These barriers are one of the main reasons that as of 2015, only 16% of people with disabilities have Bachelor's degrees, compared to 35% of people without disabilities. Since many jobs now require a bachelor’s degree at a minimum, this gap plays a major role in the unemployment rate of people with disabilities. Education vastly increases career opportunities, and we all must advocate to make it more accessible for everyone if we want any chance at equality.

On-campus advocacy

Students and faculty can assist in these efforts by becoming active voices for disability rights on campus. Many universities have student-led clubs whose aim is campus disability advocacy. These groups often hold events, facilitate education about disability issues, and provide community for students with disabilities and their allies. They also provide leadership training for future disability activists.

There are national organizations that serve similar purposes, including DREAM (Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring), which has chapters at universities all over the country, and the National Center for College Students with Disabilities (NCCSD). Both local and national advocacy groups have made large differences on campus; and because they are run by students with disabilities, they embody the 'nothing about us without us' motto of the Independent Living philosophy. Joining these groups is often the best way to engage in on-ground advocacy efforts for students and staff with disabilities, as these groups have face-to-face access to the campus community and give individual students organizational resources they can use to make an impact.

Disability Resource Centers (DRCs), which facilitate the reasonable student accommodations that are required by law, can also support advocacy for students. They are only legally required to provide accommodations but can undertake additional advocacy. They must educate faculty and staff about accommodations and serve as administrative support if students have conflicts with resistant faculty.

Advocacy outside of the university

Centers for Independent Living (CILs) can advocate for their clients who are pursuing education by ensuring they are prepared. College is a transitional time for everyone, but for students with disabilities multiple transitions are happening at once. If they have been prepared with study strategies and life skill training, their chances for success significantly increase. Students also need to be educated about their rights and responsibilities. Many had other advocates in their early education and have never been taught how to navigate accommodations as post-secondary students. There is less guidance at this level and students cannot enter unprepared. CILs are in a good position to provide this education since they often work with clients through these transitional stages.

Political Advocacy

Legislative advocacy is important at all education levels. Section 504 of the rehabilitation act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are the most significant laws that support fair and unrestricted education for people with disabilities. These laws require any organization receiving federal funding to provide reasonable accommodations for students in Least Restrictive Environments (LREs). But schools and universities need to be kept accountable for following these requirements. Students must receive the support they need to successfully navigate their education. Parents must advocate for their children's needs, and schools must comply. At the university level, students are responsible for their own advocacy, but it is the university's responsibility to fulfill requests for reasonable accommodations. Institutions sometimes do not live up to these requirements, and legal and social advocacy must occur to ensure these laws are being followed.

The laws themselves also need systemic advocacy to acquire the proper funding. Acts like IDEA were allocated a certain level of government funding, but have never actually received what they were promised by Congress. Since students with disabilities still face significant barriers, it is critical that these laws receive public support to ensure greater equality for the future.

The future of disability in education

Students with disabilities are always going to have additional challenges in their education. But with greater advocacy efforts by individuals, organizations, and lawmakers, these don't have to be stumbling blocks that exclude this population. With support for educational laws, more students will graduate. CILs and other vocational organizations will ensure students enter university prepared for success, and on-campus advocates and allies can increase awareness and support. This will increase the number of degrees, which in turn will lower the unemployment rate and provide greater independence. There are so many levels of advocacy in education, and we can make significant differences in all of them. With government support, university education, and the spread of disability awareness, education can be the breeding ground for change that it was back in 1962.

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