Illustration by Ansellia Kulikku. Source image: The Accessible Icon Project.

In 1975, Congress enacted what is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a law granting all children the right to a “free appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment.” The statute’s implications are profound: students with a range of disabilities are entitled to specially designed services, and, as much as possible, they must be educated in mainstream classrooms. About 6.5 million children across the US now receive special-education services.

Under the IDEA, parents, school staff, and other professionals work together to craft an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each eligible student. An IEP defines a student’s learning needs and the supports the school will minister, providing parents a legal basis to advocate for their children. If a dispute arises, parents may seek mediation or request a due-process hearing.

However, for many low-income and minority families, these protections remain abstractions. Families with little formal education and low English-language skills often struggle to self advocate within the bureaucracy, especially if they can’t afford a lawyer. According to a 2015 study published by the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, parents earning more than $100,000 are more likely than their poorer peers to pursue litigation on behalf of a child on the autism spectrum.

For forty years, Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) has worked to realize the ideals of the IDEA by representing low-income families in school-related proceedings. “All of our services are free,” Maggie Moroff, AFC’s Special Education Policy Coordinator explained. “If someone’s out of income range, we’ll make referrals and provide information.” AFC runs the Jill Chaifetz Education Helpline, which offers parents and educators practical advice on school-related issues. Last year, the organization fielded around twelve thousand calls.

While Moroff’s expertise is special education, AFC’s stated aim is to secure a quality education for all children in New York City and New York State, regardless of class, disability, race, national origin, sexual orientation, and gender. The organization pursues direct service, class-action lawsuits, parent training, and political advocacy, often coordinated around a particular issue. In March, for instance, AFC testified before the NYC Council about the 2018 education budget, urging greater supports for students living in shelters and more funding for mental-health services.

When I arrived at AFC’s offices in Manhattan, Moroff was pouring over data released by the New York City Department of Education (DOE), recounting the elementary schools deemed “fully accessible” to students with mobility limitations. Of the city’s thirty-two school districts, six have no fully accessible elementary schools; seven have no fully accessible middle schools; and nine have no fully accessible high schools. Only 17 percent of the city’s elementary schools are considered “fully accessible.”

Moroff’s background spans both law and education. Having attended NYU Law School and Bank Street College of Education, she has worked as a public defender, a preschool and elementary school teacher, and a political organizer. In her current role at AFC, she is pushing for the use of assistive technology in all classrooms and more options for students and faculty with accessibility needs. She also coordinates ARISE, an eighty-member coalition of parents, advocates, educators, and academics, which seeks to improve the day-to-day experiences and long-term outcomes for children with disabilities. We spoke about the supreme court’s recent IDEA-related ruling and the challenge of making special-education policy “accessible” to a broader audience.

Gillie Collins for Guernica

Guernica: What does it mean for a school to be “fully accessible,” as opposed to “partially accessible”?

Maggie Moroff: “Full accessibility” means that a person with mobility, vision, or hearing needs can get to and use all parts of the building safely and comfortably. All students must be able to come in the front door, rather than go through the back, through the kitchen. They then need to be able to get to and use science labs, library, and cafeteria. In the cafeteria, the table must be high enough so students with wheelchairs can pull up and sit at the table. In the auditorium, a student, teacher, or parent using a wheelchair must be able to get to and on the stage. All of that is full accessibility.

Because so few schools are fully accessible, NYC relies on a “partial accessibility” (sometimes referred to as “functional accessibility”) standard. This means that people with accessibility constraints can get into the building, and that, while they may not be able to get everywhere and do everything, their day can be arranged to accommodate their needs. If I am a second-grader with accessibility needs, for example, my classroom might be on the first floor, rather than the second floor. If the library is on the second floor, the school is going to do something funky with the library to make it work for me.

The DOE can meet its obligation to provide options to kids with disabilities through “functionally accessible” schools, but then it becomes an equity issue. When going through the school admissions process, any kid asks whether or not a school is a curricular match, what transportation is like, if it’s big or small, etc. If you layer the need for physical accessibility on top of these criteria, a student’s options narrow. All of a sudden, our choice system isn’t full of choice for everyone.

Guernica: What would it take to make NYC’s schools more accessible?

Maggie Moroff: Any new construction has to be fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). However, most of NYC’s schools are not new construction, so there are “reasonable accommodations” that can be made, which won’t bring a school to full accessibility but do make a difference. You can add a ramp, install a lift, or replace the tables in the cafeteria. You can change the doorway to the library. These tweaks cost money, but it’s not the same as doing a full-scale renovation of a building.

Families need to know that they have a right to ask for these additions. They need three things: they need information about where the options are; they need more options; and they need to know who to talk to and how to make requests for those accommodations.

Guernica: Which policy issues do you consider top priority right now?

Maggie Moroff: We’re doing a lot of work around physical accessibility of school buildings. AFC is also focused on the development of literacy skills for all kids, including kids with disabilities. We’re working to build options for kids who could be supported by assistive and instructional technology in school (“assistive” technology being more individualized). We’ve had conversations with both New York City and the New York State around the grading of students with disabilities in public schools. My work is entirely focused on the public schools.

In special education, the biggest thing that needs to change is probably teacher preparedness. Teachers need time and support to learn evidence-based methodologies, especially to teach literacy. There are the kids who are going to learn to read no matter what—but, for kids who are struggling, with or without special-education needs, teaching needs to be very directed. Teacher-training programs are not training them that way. Then they come into a vast system like the DOE, which just puts Band-Aids on their preparedness. They’re given a one-day training, and then the teacher is expected to go out and make a difference with the thirty-two kids in her class. It’s not enough.

Guernica: Are you optimistic about the role assistive technology can play in classrooms?

Maggie Moroff: Of all the fights right now, the fight to get technology into classrooms feels to me like it should be the easiest to win. We’re surrounded.

Technology has the power to close gaps and to provide access to kids with a range of needs. With the right technology, you can take a kid who might otherwise be very shut off from the lessons in a general education class, and, suddenly, they’re part of it. Kids who aren’t reading but have the cognitive ability to do so can now listen to a book on tape. If a child is able to read but lacks the articulation or the speech, he or she can use text-to-voice translation, which we are beginning to do on our phones. These options are groundbreaking, but we also want to use technology to close social barriers. It shouldn’t be something that separates kids out.

Guernica: How does the IDEA work in practice?

Maggie Moroff: What the law requires is a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. All the terms in there are up for grabs. What is “appropriate”? That’s what the recent US Supreme Court decision Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District was around. [In this case, the petitioner, a boy with autism, attended public school in Colorado until parents determined he was not making adequate progress. They moved him to private school, where he made “significant” progress, and then asked the district to cover the private school’s $70,000 tuition. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the family’s favor, holding that schools must help children achieve substantive, rather than de minimis, progress.]

What is “public” is also up for grabs, because it could mean that a kid goes to a non-public school, if there are no public school options available. What’s the “least-restrictive” environment for any given kid? These definitions are decided by hearing officers and courts in individual cases, based on a student’s specific learning needs. As the Department of Education builds quality community school options for kids with a range of disabilities, then it is more likely that a kid will get an “appropriate” education, closer to general education.

Guernica: Do you expect Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District to be important for NYC schools?

Maggie Moroff: Yes. AFC submitted an amicus brief in the case, which describes that the term “appropriate” is really important. What we feel, and what the US Supreme Court agreed with, is that it’s not a de minimis standard. It’s not the least you can get away with. We think the law as it’s written actually calls for more. [As AFC’s brief reads, “The statute aims not just to grant students with disabilities access to pubic school classrooms but to enable them to succeed there, to the maximum extent possible.”]

This is what drives us. We believe that with the appropriate supports and services, and teachers who are supported in their work, students can be much more successful in their learning. Graduation rates and college preparedness levels will go up for everyone—for kids with and without disabilities.

Guernica: What happens when a parent calls the AFC Education Hotline?

Maggie Moroff: We will talk to the person on the line—usually parents but also teachers and administrators—and help identify the issues at stake. If the request is for information, we’ll send them our guides or tell them where to find information. If they’re looking for direct service work, we will do an analysis to figure out if we can step in and, if not, we’ll give them a referral. For the complicated cases, we will look at paperwork with their permission, including evaluations and IEPs. For those cases, it’s a many-phone-call job.

Guernica: To learn about special education is to learn a new language, filled with acronyms and legalese. How do you make this language available to parents of all backgrounds?

Maggie Moroff: A lot of what we do at AFC is parent information and training. We work very hard to make everything accessible to everyone. We spend a lot of time working on language access. Everything we do is translated into Spanish, and we’re trying to build up our work in other languages as well. We push the DOE to do the same.

It’s a difficult thing to break things down to a level where everybody can understand. At the same time, we don’t want to infantilize the parents, and they need the information. We try to do it cumulatively, so we have different levels. Some of the materials on our website are simpler than others. If parents call our helpline, AFC staff will walk them through new terms.

Last month, I was invited to give a presentation on parent engagement to 103 new literacy coaches under the DOE’s universal literacy initiative. A literacy coach’s job is to prepare teachers to teach literacy, and we are encouraging them to involve the families—to make parents true partners. To do so, coaches need to think about parent work schedules, language skills, accessibility needs, and literacy levels. It’s a constant struggle to reach everyone, but it’s always something that needs to be thought about.

Guernica: Do you ever organize with student groups?

Maggie Moroff: ARISE organizes periodic panel discussions and speak-outs. On a couple of occasions, we’ve put students on our panels. Student groups are my next frontier. We have a lot of advocates, but I want to build both our parent network and our student network.

Guernica: What kinds of supports are available for people with disabilities as they transition out of high school?

 Maggie Moroff: We have done a bit of work on transition services. In 2011, ARISE did a report, “Out of School and Unprepared,” where we looked at transition planning on IEPs and came to the conclusion that it’s pretty much non-existent in New York City. I’d like to update this research. AFC also has a couple people working mostly with older students, and there is a page dedicated to transition services on ARISE’s website. IncludeNYC and independent-living centers, such Bronx Independent Living Services and Center for Independence of the Disabled of New York (CIDNY), do work along these lines.

This month, New York City is opening up in two borough-wide transition centers. The goal is to have a holistic approach—to help students who will be transitioning to the next stage of life, in terms of getting them both school credits and work skills. Hopefully they will be as good as they sound.

Guernica: During her confirmation hearings, now-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seemed unfamiliar with the IDEA. How do you think her appointment will impact children with special-education needs?

Maggie Moroff: That’s harder and harder to tell. Things take a long time. I think we can count on New York State and New York City, for all they don’t do right, to stay committed to kids with disabilities. They already go above and beyond what the federal laws require. I believe there is still the will to provide those services, and hopefully resources will remain too.

Guernica: What rhetorical tactics have you found to be effective in your advocacy work?

Maggie Moroff: People talk about “special education” as a lump sum, but the strength of our movement is in all the individual stories—not just of disability, but also of students’ strengths and potential. We highlight these stories in any press we do, in our testimonies, and in conversations with the DOE.

At the same, this approach poses problems. It’s very easy for the DOE to say, “Yeah, but that’s just one story. Here’s how we fix that.” For us, it’s one story that illustrative of the system-wide problems. For every one person who found their way to an organization like ours, a hundred people behind them are having the same issue. We need to both use these compelling personal stories and make the point that they represent many more.

Guernica: Especially because the population of special-education students is so vast.

Maggie Moroff: Right, it’s not cheap to provide appropriate special-education services, so people set up a dialogue: it’s a small number of students, and we don’t want to take away from a big number of students. The truth is special education includes a large number of students—about 17 percent of the population has special-education needs. Depending on whether you’re counting public schools or non-public special-education schools in NYC, somewhere between 190,000 and 210,000 kids between the ages of four and twenty-one receive special-education supports.

Actually, we’re getting some traction on accessibility issues, in particular, because it’s an issue that can affect anyone. People get older. We face car accidents, spinal cord injuries. You can wake up one day and need access. It’s something people can wrap their heads around if you expand it beyond “those kids in those schools.”

Guernica: Terms like “disability” and “special education” are umbrella categories, which contain diverse identities and interests. How does this affect coalition building?

Maggie Moroff: I believe in coalitions. To make them work, everyone has to balance the big picture and their immediate needs. It can be hard to find your way to common ground. But the larger and more diverse the coalition, the more potent it is. When you go to the DOE or the State Education Department, you have so much more strength.

Gillie Collins

Gillie Collins lives in New York City and works as an assistant editor at Guernica. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, BOMB, and The Seventh Row.

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