A Brief History of Disability in Schools
Prior to 1975, children with disabilities were often absent from public school settings. In 1970, schools educated only 1 in 5 children with disabilities and many states had laws preventing children with specific types of disabilities - like deafness, blindness, cognitive, and emotional disabilities - from attending public schools.
In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was the first federal statute enacted to ensure that children with disabilities had access to education and due process rights. Today, federal laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (although not without their own flaws) provide children with disabilities important rights, including the right to receive a free and appropriate education and the opportunity to physically access and participate in a school setting.
But even though the United States has come a long way in providing civil rights for children with disabilities, these children still face many challenges, some of which are unique to rural areas.
Access to Treatment and Intervention
Recently, The Atlantic touched on some of the challenges that families of children with autism face in small towns. In the article, reporter Ann Griswold focuses on a family who lives in rural Madrid, Iowa. The family's daughter, Izzy, was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and has behavioral difficulties both at school and at home. Because Izzy's family lives in central Iowa, they have fewer options for services like therapy, school, and pediatricians. For example, applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy is often recommended to improve behavior for children with autism. But ABA therapy requires frequent contact between the therapist and child, and these providers may be located hours away, as they are for Izzy's family.
Under the IDEA, schools are responsible for providing the educational services and supports that children with disabilities need. But in reality, this may not be possible if there aren't any service providers (like speech therapists, occupational therapists, or psychologists) available.
Some universities, like the University of Iowa, are researching the effects of telehealth services (interactive video conferencing) to deliver therapy services to children and families with autism. The results are promising, but it is too early to tell whether this will prove to be a truly rural option over time.
Funding for Medical Services
Even though children with disabilities may be able to access some therapies and medical services through their local schools, these services alone may not be enough, or the child may be too young to receive the services through their district. So many families rely on in-home intervention services for their infants and toddlers with disabilities. Some states cover the costs of these treatments through Medicaid, but when these programs are cut - like they recently were in Texas - rural families are often left without alternatives.
Facilities like the North Texas Rehabilitation Center, which serviced 10 north Texas counties for 30 years, have been forced to close their early childhood intervention programs because they cannot continue to operate without Medicaid reimbursements. Moreover, if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, the children with disabilities who live in states where home therapies and early interventions are currently covered may also be left without alternatives.
Community and Social Support
Even though children with disabilities are likely to attend their local school district and often have the opportunity to participate in community activities, these families and their children may still feel like outsiders in their own community. As Griswold writes:
[a]lthough getting a diagnosis [of autism] has helped, it does not change one brutal fact of geography: People in the small town have little experience with autism....Izzy's erratic behavior has left the family feeling emotionally disconnected from their community.
A rural child with a disability, like autism, may be the only one in her grade or even in her school. Izzy's mother says that sometimes she thinks about moving to a place where there are more opportunities for her daughter and chances to meet other families in similar situations. But Izzy's father likes the fact that in Madrid, people know who they are and the family feels safe in their surroundings.
And it does not help families like Izzy's when national political leaders like Jeff Sessions publicly attack the federal law that affords children with disabilities these civil rights, or when Besty DeVos reveals that she does not fully understand what the IDEA is. These statements do not set an example of inclusion, tolerance, or understanding for people with disabilities.
This discussion leads me to my next question: given the challenges that rural children with disabilities face, what kinds of opportunities will be available to them when they become adults? My next blog post will examine the historical treatment of adults with disabilities in rural areas and the challenges they face today.