An Open Letter to the Incoming Biden Administration
Dear President Biden and Secretary of Education Designate Cardona:
We are writing to congratulate you and to thank you for one of the campaign promises that led to your historic victory. Those of us with learning disabilities (LDs) have always been committed to strengthening our education system, fighting the stigma that leads students who learn differently to think they’re less intelligent, and making special education available to everyone who needs it. Today, we are inspired by your promise to fully fund the special education that 1 in 5 students needs. As you know, 45 years ago Congress promised to cover 40 percent of the average cost to educate a child with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, less than half of that is currently funded by the federal government. Your commitment to fully funding special education through IDEA shows that you understand what is at stake for those of us who learn differently. You must also realize that we come from families across the political spectrum. We are from red and blue states and from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Our fate in America’s education system is a bipartisan issue affecting everyone.
President Biden, we’re writing to you with extra enthusiasm because you aren’t just someone who has compassion for people with special needs. As a stutterer, you know firsthand what it’s like to learn differently. You also know, from being married to an educator and the father of a child with learning differences, that our education system isn’t designed for people with dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning disabilities. Since you and Secretary Cardona are allies who really understand how important it is to make education accessible to everyone, we want to take this opportunity to give you even more perspective on what it’s like to be a young person with a learning disability in today’s education system.
Over the weekend before Martin Luther King Day, Eye to Eye, a nonprofit organization run by and for people with learning disabilities, organized the 16th annual conference of the largest gathering of people with learning disabilities and ADHD (we met virtually, of course) to discuss what students with learning disabilities need in order to thrive. Since the inauguration was only days away, our conversation felt incredibly purposeful. We knew this was our opportunity to determine together what Secretary Cardona should know about our community and the education system that often fails us. The students among us shared what they believe an education system that works for students with learning disabilities and the people who support them looks like. Here is what a handful of our smart, passionate, determined students had to say:
“Each student must have the resources to succeed without the stigma of being looked at as less intelligent.”
“This looks like having more open, honest conversations with people who don’t have learning disabilities about the realities of learning differences!”
“A judgment-free system where everyone knows how to use their strengths and how to work with their learning disabilities instead of around them.”
“[We need] an education system that creates opportunities for growth and improvement regardless of how students learn. Activities and classes that focus on creating an inclusive environment for all students to work together and learn from one another without dividing and isolating students who learn differently. A system that focuses on creating equity among all students.”
“The school system needs to adapt to incorporate other modes of learning and testing that allow students to perform to their fullest potential.”
“An education system where all students with learning differences thrive looks like the end of the era of institutionalized racism and systematic oppression. Where your race, gender, immigrant status, and socio-economic status will not hinder or affect the quality of the education and accommodations you will receive.”
“We need an education system that puts the individual child at the center. In my mind, this looks like an education system that leverages technology to embrace personalization.”
“It looks like teachers who understand that all students learn differently. It looks like teachers having access to resources and training to help students who learn differently instead of students themselves having to constantly negotiate with teachers.”
“[We need] an education system where…everyone is able to bring their differences to the table and be fully accepted for who they are.”
“Every student, regardless of disability or demographics, [needs to be] able to access a free, appropriate public education with accommodations if needed and no stigma attached to disability or the use of their accommodations.”
“I envision a place where information is presented in multiple modalities to accommodate every learning style and where educators have a clear understanding of all the types of learning disabilities.”
“An inclusive environment where curriculum and teaching strategies are flexible to fit everybody’s needs.”
“An education system that acknowledges that everyone learns differently and is flexible when it comes to methods and systems of learning.”
We hope these words from the current students among us will give the Biden administration a greater understanding of the challenge we face. Students with learning disabilities are fighting their way through our education system and feeling misunderstood, underserved, and undervalued at every turn. What we need is to be heard and valued by our leaders whether they’re in our local schools or top government offices. And we need to be seen not as a burden but as people with unlimited potential and the will to change our education system for the better.
- We realized over Martin Luther King Day weekend that to improve our education system our government must prioritize the following:
- Early interventions for all students regardless of their socioeconomic background. We need everyone to get behind Part B of IDEA to ensure that students with learning disabilities are identified and provided with resources starting at age 3. This means public schools must have fully funded special education programs.
- Accommodations that are crucial to our ability to succeed. Our friends with physical disabilities need ramps to get into buildings. We need “ramps” into classrooms and books. This typically means we need technology that offers more flexible, personalized learning. We also need more time to take tests. Educators must understand that these accommodations are a right.
- The opportunity to learn self-advocacy skills. We need educators and mentors who can teach students with learning disabilities how to ask for accommodations and more flexible approaches to learning. Often struggling students fail because they don’t know how to ask for the help that IDEA mandates.
- Mandatory training for educators to work with LD students. We need a system with educators who are very well trained to identify learning disabilities and work with LD students to develop education plans and put accommodations in place. These educators must be smart and empathetic and understand that they are also working to normalize learning disabilities and eliminate the stigma attached to them.
- An education that sees us as social-emotional learners. We need to be seen as full people who aren’t judged by a technical ability to read or put words on a page. We have brilliant creative minds that flourish in flexible learning environments.
- Space to hold LD voices. We need opportunities to communicate directly with the people making decisions about our education. For example, we should have a seat at the table with the educators who are designing our Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). This way we can discuss how we learn best in the classroom.
- The power to make decisions about our future. As choices are made about our future, we need to be in the room and we need to be heard. The reason our education system fails so many people with learning disabilities is that we have been left out of the conversation. Decisions have been guided by financial considerations instead of input from vulnerable students. Listening to us is the first step toward transforming education for all learners. As we’ve been saying for years, there should be “nothing about us without us.”
Over the last twenty years, Eye to Eye has been teaching students with learning disabilities to self-advocate. As a result, students have been asking their schools for what they need to learn better and reach their full potential. Unfortunately, schools often haven’t had the money and political will to provide these students with what they need to be successful. Some families have even been encouraged by educators to reject the LD label and accommodations. Students in these schools have ended up traumatized and ashamed of their learning style. They’ve missed out on countless opportunities and the world hasn’t been able to benefit from their brilliance. We feel confident that with your support we can change this outcome and prepare all students for success in school and beyond.
Going forward, we’re expecting a lot from the Biden administration, but that’s because we expect greatness from ourselves. As you take steps to ensure that special education is fully funded and that people with learning disabilities no longer fall through the cracks of our education system, we want to make sure we’re talking to you. We want a seat at the table to guide decision-making at all levels. We promise to help however we can. We won’t fail you.
This is an exciting moment for all of us who want to heal this nation. Thank you for standing up for what is right and promising real change. We can’t wait to work with you.
Correction: An earlier version of this letter misstated that the federal government currently funds 40 percent of special education costs. Upon the passage of the IDEA in 1975, Congress promised to cover the average cost to educate a child with disabilities up to 40 percent, however, the act has never been fully funded and has consistently hovered at approximately 15 percent.