UC Berkeley's Sather Gate, a metal gate arching over Sproul Plaza.

When Education is a Privilege, Not a Right

In the United States, the government promises free universal access to education through high school (grade 12), providing funding to a vast network of public schools across the nation. The education system in practice is a deeply flawed, troubled institution, one rife with discrimination, inequality, and gross imbalances; children of colour going to school in a facility with clogged toilets and peeling walls while their wealthy counterparts enjoy an airy, leafy campus with impeccable facilities and the best, most modern technology, for example.

But on the surface, education in the United States is supposed to be a fundamental right, something accessible to all children. In fact, the country so aggressively pursues it that to not go to school is to find yourself meeting the truancy officer; if you don’t go to public school or who have parents with the power to pay for private education, you must be homeschooled with a curriculum approved by the state. In other words, this is more of an enforced right, as it were, at least for some students; again, inequality shows here when it comes to which students are closely watched and encouraged to stay in school.

For disabled people, however, education can become a privilege, not a right, and this is something that society at large seems to accept as a given. Disabled children are considered lesser; they’re figures of inspiration, perhaps, or tragic stories, but they aren’t whole human beings. They definitely don’t have the potential to develop and grow, and shouldn’t be considered candidates for education, as education assumes that children have a future, have something worth being educated for. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act theoretically forbids disability discrimination in the United States, including, to some extent, in educational environments; school districts can’t refuse to hire disabled teachers, and must have accessible facilities, for example. At least, in theory. Furthermore, Section 504 specifically mandates that institutions receiving federal funds provide equal access. These in combination with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are supposed to protect the right to access education in the United States no matter what your disability status is, but the truth is more complicated, as many disabled students and their parents have learned.

Some students are forced out of school entirely as a result of discrimination, unable to access this allegedly most fundamental and basic right in the US, that of education.

In Louisiana, the Southern Poverty Law Center is going to court to protect the right to education access for disabled children, highlighting the fact that many school districts are flagrantly violating the law. Parents wanting to take advantage of school choice in the region are reportedly being told that their disabled children are not welcome and will not be accommodated. As parents of young children attempt to advocate for them, they’re encountering strong resistance from schools who tell them their kids ‘aren’t a good fit,’ a codephrase for knowledgeable parents who know it means the school has neither the facilities, the staff, nor the will to accommodate their children.

This runs directly contra to laws which require schools to provide accommodation to all students, and forces disabled students into more limited school choices. Some are traveling long distances to get to school, or they’re being forced to compromise with poor educational options because everything else is closed to them. Some students are forced out of school entirely as a result of discrimination, unable to access this allegedly most fundamental and basic right in the US, that of education. The squandered future of disabled children is ignored, even as people rail against disabled adults who need government benefits to support themselves, sometimes in no small part because they were offered no support or training when they were younger and had the chance to develop a future.

In another part of the country, a school district retaliated against a California family who advocated for their disabled child by sending a law enforcement officer to their house. It might have worked as an intimidation tactic, except that the family was ready and willing to go to the federal government to complain, being familiar with its rights under the law — and the government sent a clear message that such behaviour was not acceptable.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discrimination against disabled students and their families. They’re forced out of classrooms and into seclusion, denied access to school activities, force to endure bullying and abusive behaviour from students and staff alike, and so much more. School environments can be intolerable for those disabled students who manage to access them at all, and every victory can come at the cost of a huge fight over the most minute of details.

Self-advocates in the school environment who take an active role in the development of their educational plans and the enforcement of their rights in the classroom and on school grounds can be treated especially abusively; while schools should be rewarding self-advocacy and the development of self-confidence, they’re doing just the opposite. Indeed, school environments seem almost precisely calculated to suppress both independence and self-worth in disabled students, keeping them instead in an arrested state of subservience and forced infantalisation.

…in a climate where accommodations are cast as ‘special treatment,’ there can also be tremendous pressure to get along without them, even if this causes extreme hardship.

Disabled access to higher education is even more fraught. While colleges and universities are subject to the same laws in regards to accommodation, their student bodies aren’t there because education is a (theoretically) universally enforced right. To get to college or university, disabled students have to go through the application process, during which they can face discriminatory barriers ranging from inaccessible application materials to biased interview committees who deny admission on the grounds that they ‘wouldn’t be a good fit.’

Once in school, disabled college and university students often struggle to obtain accessibility resources. Many schools don’t publicise their resources, don’t educate staff about how to work with disabled students, and actively discourage requests for accommodation. Students who are new to self-advocacy can struggle, as can those who may not even know which accommodations they want, need, and can benefit from — in a climate where accommodations are cast as ‘special treatment,’ there can also be tremendous pressure to get along without them, even if this causes extreme hardship.

A wheelchair user might find that the desk she needs at the front of the classroom is always taken, and students are rude and uncooperative if she asks them to move. Someone who uses a guide dog or other assistance animal might encounter discrimination in the dorms, cafeteria, or library. Students with learning disabilities might be too shy to ask for more time on tests or other assistance they deserve. Blind students might not be provided with accessible educational materials, making it functionally impossible for them to learn and to interact with the educational environment.

When students file disability discrimination complaints, using their self-advocacy skills to assert their right to engage with the community, they can face stiff opposition. College officials may attempt to use legalese and other tricks to get around disabled students, hoping that they aren’t knowledgeable about their rights under the law, or may simply rely on a war of attrition when it comes to disabled students; through endless rounds of denials, appeals, and other delays of action, they may hope that a student will eventually give up and drop out of school.

For disabled people, access should be something that can be taken for granted, but it never is. The nondisabled community often seems to work in specific collusion to keep the disabled community out, actively making equality more difficult, through institutional, social, and cultural attitudes alike. From the school that tells the mother of a blind kindergartener that her child wouldn’t be a good fit to the teacher who tells her dyslexic college freshman that she can’t have more time on tests to the students who block the wheelchair ramp to the high school that sticks an autistic student alone in a classroom with a minder and nothing to do, disability discrimination is rife in education.

The price is not just the fundamental violation of human rights involved in denying people access to education, although this alone is too high a price to pay. It’s also a loss of independence and self-determination for disabled people, in a world where only some manage to survive through the educational system, where systems of power and oppression endlessly interlock; it is the white child with middle class parents who have stable incomes who gets the benefit of an involved family that has time and education to devote to advocacy, not the Latina with Down syndrome and two busy parents working multiple low-wage jobs who have a limited understanding of the law and may be afraid to interact with officials due to concerns about their immigration status. It is the child of a wealthy, powerful family who can afford to push her way through college with the help of attorneys, support from friends and family, and more; the low-income student who is the first in her family to go to college, meanwhile, will struggle to make her way.

As students of colour are pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline, disabled students are pushed into the school-to-nowhere pipeline, and both forms of discrimination highlight the truth behind ‘universal’ education in the United States. Access to learning is available only for some, and the rest have to fight for it.

When education is a privilege, not a right, everyone loses.

Photo of UC Berkeley’s famous Sather Gate by Karen.