Federal special education laws, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, provide a framework for promoting equity for students with disabilities. These laws include provisions entitling students to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), individualized education programs (IEPs), and an education in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Despite the specific requirements within the law, research demonstrates the potential for inequities in practice. The law itself acknowledges that inequities exist and includes provisions regarding disproportionality in identification, placement, and discipline of students with disabilities. For example, the language of IDEA reads, “[g]reater efforts are needed to prevent the intensification of problems connected with mislabeling and high dropout rates among minority children with disabilities” (20 U.S.C. § 1400(c)(12)(a)).
To ensure IDEA is implemented with fidelity, school leaders must attend to systemic equity issues, such as ableism. Ableism may not be as common a term as sexism and racism. It refers to “negative or prejudicial beliefs about [mental, emotional, and physical disabilities] that arise from, and result in, the systematic oppression of people with disabilities” (Baglieri & Lalvani, 2019, p. 1). Further, author Thomas Hehir defines the manifestation of ableism in education as “the devaluation of disability” that “results in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than read Braille, spell independently than use a spell-check, and hang out with nondisabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids” (Hehir, 2005, p. 15). Ableism appears in schools when students with disabilities are:
- Viewed as inferior by other students or staff;
- Presumed to need help on tasks that they can do independently;
- Celebrated as “inspirational” for handling routine activities;
- Assumed to lead unhappy or limited lives; or
- Prevented from being fully integrated into environments with nondisabled peers.
Related to ableism, it is critical to implement federal special education law through an intersectional lens that accounts for the ways in which multiple marginalized students (e.g., Black male students with disabilities or second-language learners with disabilities) may experience compounded inequities (ableism, racism, classism, etc.). Given the existence of inequities, fulfilling the promise of federal special education law to promote equity for students with disabilities requires an examination of school culture and climate.
Dismantling ableism may feel overwhelming, but school leaders can take practical steps, such as authentically including middle and high school students with disabilities in IEP meetings. In this article, we focus on that strategy because it allows administrators to comply with both the letter and intent of the law.
Complying With the Letter of the Law
IDEA regulations require that the IEP team includes the child with a disability “whenever appropriate” (34 C.F.R. § 300.321(a)(7)). Further, schools must invite students with disabilities to their IEP meeting if “a purpose of the meeting will be the consideration of the postsecondary goals … and the transition services needed to assist the child in reaching those goals” (34 C.F.R. § 300.321(b)(1)). If the child does not attend transition-related IEP meetings, the school is required to “take other steps to ensure that the child’s preferences and interests are considered.” (34 C.F.R. § 300.321(b)(2)). These legal mandates emphasize that it is critical for students with disabilities to be involved in determining their transition goals, as well as the services that will be used to reach those goals.
Courts have held school districts liable when they have failed to comply with IDEA’s requirement to invite students to transition-related IEP meetings. In Gibson v. Forest Hills Local Sch. Dist. Bd. of Ed. (2016), the Sixth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the school district failed to provide a FAPE in violation of IDEA. Specifically, the school personnel had committed procedural errors that resulted in substantive harm by failing to 1) invite a student with a developmental delay to transition-related IEP meetings; 2) notify the parents that the student would be welcome to attend such meetings; and 3) take other steps to consider the student’s transition-related preferences and interests. The Sixth Circuit clarified that “irrespective of whether or not it is appropriate to include a child as part of her IEP team, the plain language of [IDEA’s regulations] gives school districts an obligation to invite that child to IEP team meetings when transition is on the agenda” (p. 436). Thus, school districts must, at a minimum, invite the student to transition-related meetings and—when appropriate—include them as a member of the IEP team’s decision-making process.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) has issued guidance regarding student participation at IEP meetings. In 2017, OSERS clarified that inviting students to IEP meetings is only a requirement “in the case of postsecondary goals and transition services and is not mandatory with respect to the child’s other IEP goals and special education and related services” (U.S. Dept. of Educ., 2017, p. 2). Therefore, when IEP meetings do not relate to transition, schools are not required to invite students with disabilities to IEP meetings, but schools may invite them. In 2019, OSERS clarified that after school personnel have invited the student to the IEP meeting, then “only the parent has the authority” to determine “whether the child should attend an IEP Team meeting” (U.S. Dept. of Educ., 2019, p. 2).
Action Steps for School Leaders
School leaders are vital to dismantling ableism in schools because they can actively align the intent of IDEA with adherence to IDEA’s legal obligations. In other words, mere legal compliance is inadequate to confront ableism. Inviting the student to their IEP meeting, when appropriate, is a relatively easy box to check. However, valuing students with disabilities as members of their IEP teams’ decision-making process takes proactive, authentic engagement. Therefore, school leaders should look beyond the letter of the law and sincerely value the student’s input. They can also ensure the IEP meeting is structured so that the student’s voice is elevated and respected. To achieve this, school leaders may need to educate IEP team members about ableism and proactively address ableist behavior. The student should be welcomed into a supportive environment where the student feels comfortable sharing their unique strengths, identities, interests, and aspirations.
By shifting their mindset and actions, leaders can increase the likelihood that students with disabilities are invested in their education. When administrators are proactive about promoting authentic engagement, students with disabilities are also more likely to have true input in the school culture and community. Ultimately, this dedication to honoring the intent of the law in IEP meetings will allow school leaders to dismantle ableism in their schools.
The following are additional concrete actions that school leaders can take:
- Actively confront your own thoughts about disability and other intersecting social identities and related forms of oppression (e.g., ableism, racism, sexism, classism). To that end, read stories written by individuals with disabilities such as Sight Unseen by Georgina Kleege and Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century edited by Alice Wong.
- Encourage meaningful engagement. At the IEP meeting, invite students with disabilities to share their ideas and truly listen to them. Do you need to add more time to the IEP meeting to ensure that all aspects are thoroughly discussed? Do you want to send questions home with the student before the meeting so that they have time to reflect, too?
- Engage in equitable partnerships with families of students with disabilities in ways that value their contributions, knowledge, and experiences. For ideas on how to do this, read Meeting Families Where They Are: Building Equity Through Advocacy With Diverse Schools and Communities by Beth Harry and Lydia Ocasio-Stoutenburg.
- Offer professional development to increase staff awareness of ableism. Ensure all school employees understand their responsibilities to respond to and report disability-based and intersectional harassment/bullying. Ensure that expectations, procedures, and consequences are clearly documented in school policy.
Jennifer Wolfsheimer, MS, JD, is a senior program associate at WestEd, specializing in evaluating and building capacity of state educational agency staff in special education data, dispute resolution, general supervision, and differentiated monitoring and supports under IDEA. Janet R. Decker, JD, PhD, is an associate professor of education at Indiana University and a co-author of Legal Rights of School Leaders, Teachers, and Students. Maria M. Lewis, JD, PhD, is an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University. She teaches courses on education law and leadership for equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Baglieri, S., & Lalvani, P. (2019). Undoing ableism: Teaching about disability in K–12 classrooms. Routledge.
Gibson v. Forest Hills Local Sch. Dist. Bd. of Ed., 655 Fed. Appx. 423 (6th Cir. 2016).
Hehir, T. (2005). New directions in special education: Eliminating ableism in policy and practice. Harvard Education Press.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (2004).
IDEA Part B Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300 et seq. (2006).
U.S. Department of Education, (2017, February 27) Letter to anonymous. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. sites.ed.gov/idea/files/idea/policy/speced/guid/idea/memosdcltrs/osep-letter-to-anonymous-2-27-17.pdf
U.S. Department of Education, (2019, September 9) Letter to anonymous. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. sites.ed.gov/idea/files/osep-letter-to-anonymous-09-09-2019.pdf