What Does Disability Mean? And Why Are We Arguing All The Time?


In light of the recent video showing a student attacking another student in Caesar Rodney High School, many folks seem very confused about what the word disability means.  Many think a disability has to be visual, such as a person in a wheelchair.  That is hardly the case with the legal definition of the word.  The Americans with Disabilities Act is very clear about what the word means:

An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.

In the case of special education, disability is just the umbrella word for any number of medical disabilities.  A student could have ADHD, be blind, have Autism, or any number of different classifications.  To qualify for special education, whether it is an IEP or a 504 plan, the school will want to see a medical diagnosis by a certified physician.

To be crystal clear, the child who was punched in the head in the video taken in the Caesar Rodney High School cafeteria, has a disability.  Just because you can’t physically see that disability doesn’t mean he doesn’t have one.  Some took offense to WDEL, this blog, and other media using the word disabled in the title.  Some have gone so far to say this child is not disabled.  He is.

Some have said words said caused the other student to attack him.  No, what caused the other student to attack him was a choice.  A choice to take it to the next level.  A level he got arrested for.  On social media, someone asked me what I would do if they verbally attacked me repeatedly at my job.  I proudly said I would not physically attack him.  I would report it and would even record him in areas where I could.  It isn’t worth the consequence, no matter how upset I might be by words, to ruin my life.  That is something most grown adults should understand.  But for teenagers in a high school cafeteria, among their peers, it is a different world.  Did the student who attacked the other student have the necessary ability to understand that if he followed through with the thought to resort to violence that there would be very real consequences?  Is it defending yourself if you go from words to that level?  I don’t believe it is.  Because the next defense after that could very well take place in a court of law.

We can talk about the failure of adults all day long, but the heart of this issue is making choices.  I’ve made choices in my life that have had consequences.  We all have.  It’s what makes us grow, learn, and hopefully, evolve.  I choose not to let words said by others put me in a position where I have more to lose than gain.  It’s that simple.

I would urge people not to toss the word disability around like it is a visual thing.  Most disabilities are neurological.  Those that come from the mind.  They can’t be seen by others unless it manifests physically.  We can’t see anger in someone’s heart.  We can’t see depression.  We can’t see an obsessive need to want something.  These are very real afflictions affecting the disabled across the world.  I advocate as much as I humanly can for the disabled because very often, they don’t have a voice of their own.  Many parents of the disabled sacrifice so much of their lives advocating for their disabled child.

What has made this situation very controversial are issues of race.  Some have alleged online that the other student used discriminatory words to the student that attacked him.  The school, according to the student’s advocate Diane Eastburn, did not find that to be the case based on first-hand witnesses present before and during the attack.  I’ve heard many parents say their child was in the cafeteria.  If any of those words were said, I certainly don’t condone them.  But I don’t believe they were.  What we have here are circumstances that led to a very difficult week for Caesar Rodney School District.  Parents wrestled with wanting their child to even attend the school.  The district played damage control by only allowing comments of support on their Facebook page and deleting the rest.  People across Delaware saw an employee arrested for sexting a student, a picture of the high school mascot holding a sign with the worst possible racial language, and then the video of this fight came out on WDEL.

What kind of message are we sending to our children that if someone uses words against you it is okay to physically attack them?  Are we really preparing them for the day when we can’t protect them and they get thrown in jail?  As parents or guardians, we want our children to be safe in our schools.  We don’t want them to be bullied and we certainly don’t want them to be attacked.  We expect the adults in the school to be able to take control of a situation as soon as possible because we put our trust in them to do the job when we can’t be there.  We don’t care about official training that has to take place.  We expect that training to happen before our kid is seen in a video getting punched repeatedly in the back of the head.  We also expect that if our child goes to an adult about any type of bullying issue, that they aren’t made out to be a victim all over again with doubting words by the school investigator.

I’ve heard many in Delaware suggest that many of the climate problems in our schools actually come from the home, from what parents teach their children.  Based on comments I’ve seen in the past couple of days, I am inclined to believe that.  The ends do not justify the means.  Once you make that choice to use violence, you become the aggressor.  The crime (and yes, punching someone repeatedly in the back of the head is a crime) becomes worse than any words said and the consequences are much greater.  This is something I tell my own son.

Sometimes I don’t know what to make of the world we live in these days.  Everyone seems so polarized and wants to attack others if they don’t agree.  I find myself in this position often.  It is as if we have been conditioned, over time, to be like this.  We defend certain actions, even if they are wrong, to be able to make a point.  I can’t help but think we need to be better than this.  Somewhere along the way, many have equated race issues with politics.  The two don’t mix.  I hate hearing anyone say something to the effect of “if it was a white person doing this it would be a hate crime”.  How can we ever effectively deal with the issues that divide us if we are always at each others throats?  How can we help our children one day lead us if we don’t know how to do it ourselves?  These are the thoughts I’m wrestling with more than I would like in 2017.  I meandered a bit from the original purpose of this article, and that’s okay.

We need to celebrate our differences, not use them as points in an argument.  No matter what color we are, what disability we may or may not have, no matter what God we choose to believe in or not, no matter how we choose to love others.  We are all in this together, this human race.  We are more than Democrat.  We are more than Republican.  This is our world.  We can get along.  And we should all try to help those who can’t help themselves.

Governor Markell Gave Keynote Address At UN For World Autism Awareness Day


Governor Markell travelled to New York City today to give the keynote address for the observance of World Autism Awareness Day by the United Nations.  From the Governor’s website:

New York, NY – With an opportunity to advocate alongside the head of the United Nations, Governor Markell today gave the keynote address at the UN’s observance of World Autism Awareness Day. Joined by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as well as multi-national corporation executives, civil society advocates, education and policy directors, and advocates and members of the autism awareness community, his remarks focused on ongoing efforts in Delaware and across the country to increase employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. The Governor’s leadership on this issue, most prominently through his initiative as chair of the National Governors Association, was cited as the reason behind the invitation to provide the keynote address.UNAutismAwareness

“We absolutely can greatly increase the number of people with autism and other disabilities in the workplace, but to address this challenge on a large scale, we need everyone to do their part,” said Governor Markell during his remarks. “Let’s not make this someone else’s problem to solve. Today, let’s take responsibility for what we can change and let’s give millions of people with autism the opportunities they deserve.”

With “Employment: The Autism Advantage” as its theme, the event focused on the work and employment of people with autism, with the goal of this day’s observance leading to the establishment of a coalition of companies pledged to employing persons with autism in the future. Also appearing were Specialisterne founder Thorkil Sonne and Computer Aid, Inc. Managing Director Ernie Dianastasis, who have partnered with the Governor in efforts to increase employment of people with autism in Delaware.

Governor Markell’s remarks (as prepared for delivery)

It’s an honor to join you for this special event. You have helped to debunk myths, while ensuring governments and their citizens understand what the diagnosis of autism really means and how to best serve people across the autism spectrum. That has meant a better quality of life for so many. However, we gather today knowing that to give these individuals a chance to realize their potential, we must do more to give them access to employment. Anyone with the ability to work deserves the chance to experience the self-fulfillment, confidence, and gratification that comes from a good job.

So the employment statistics are discouraging. A recent study found that among young adults with autism, only half have ever held a paid job outside the home even though many more want to work. That figure reflects a long-time struggle to increase employment among people with disabilities.

In the United States, we passed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act nearly a quarter century ago. But today only about 30 percent of working age people with disabilities are in our workforce. We can change these trends. A more rewarding future is possible for millions of people with disabilities, including millions of people with autism.

As chair of the National Governors Association a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to choose the issue of increasing employment of people with disabilities as a year-long initiative. After engaging with the disabilities community, business leaders, and government officials across the country, we developed a roadmap – a series of straightforward ways that government and business can partner to solve this challenge.

I’m going to speak more in a moment about the findings of our national effort and why that should rally us to put more people to work. But there is no better inspiration for realizing the potential of people with disabilities and of people with autism specifically than one of our presenters today.

Let me briefly tell you the story of my friend Thorkil Sonne, who moved to Delaware two years ago, leaving Denmark with his wife and their 16 year old son, Lars. Until 14 years ago or so, Thorkil was an executive at a Danish information technology company.  He was on the fast track, creating a good life for him and his family. Around that time, Lars was diagnosed with autism. Thorkil and his wife didn’t have much experience with autism or with disabilities generally. Like for so many families, having a son with autism wasn’t something they had considered as part of their life plans. And they didn’t know what the future held for Lars. The more they learned about autism, the more they worried that Lars’s future was limited and learned why parents of children with autism worry that their kids will grow up with few friends; few social opportunities; and few chances to get a job.

So in a great act of fatherly love, ten years ago, Thorkil quit his job at the IT company and created a company called Specialisterne, which translates as “the specialist people.” He just knew that people like Lars could contribute real value for businesses and other employers if given the chance. But he could tell they too often were not given that chance.

Thorkil tells the story of watching Lars one day take out a blank piece of paper and start to draw connected and overlapping boxes with letters and numbers inside. Thorkil was puzzled, but then had an epiphany.  He went out to his car to pull out one of those books of maps of Europe and looked at the front pages. He had remembered that several months earlier, his family had taken a trip through Europe and Lars had sat in the back seat looking at the maps. Now, several months later, without using any reference materials, Lars sketched out a replica of those boxes and numbers – without error.

That kind of memory and trait is something that many people with autism share – and it’s highly valued by lots of employers for jobs like software testing, programming, data analysis, data entry, and the like. I’ll let Thorkil speak about his mission, but I’m proud that his organization — Specialisterne — is based out of Delaware. And you will hear today from others who have been inspired by his work.

Working with Specialisterne, the giant IT firm SAP has committed to employ hundreds of people with autism over a few years. And CAI, another IT company based out of Delaware, has committed that three percent of its consultants will also be people with autism.

As a former business executive, when I meet the people hired through these initiatives on the job – people like Patrick Viesti of SAP – I see they are as focused and determined as you could ever hope an employee would be. Parents of the young people that find jobs call the opportunity a godsend for their children. It allows families to see a career path that wasn’t visible before when barriers that prevent people with autism from getting a job are removed. Thorkil’s success is proof that with leadership and determination, we can identify and fill jobs in areas in which people with autism excel.

Thorkil, as well as companies like SAP and CAI, should inspire us to take action. Through the National Governors Association initiative I mentioned, we outlined the actions that can make the most difference.  We called the project “A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities.” That title was meant to focus attention on one of the key points of our initiative: employing people with disabilities makes good business sense. As many CEOs involved in our initiative emphasized, employing people with disabilities is better for their business’s bottom line.

Focusing on employment of people with disabilities is also smart for government.  It is a workforce competitiveness issue. It is part of preparing for an aging workforce and meeting the needs of business for skilled workers. And it’s reducing the reliance of this population on government assistance while taking advantage of what they can contribute to their communities.

Our NGA Blueprint offers these five recommendations: First, making employing people with disabilities part of the broader state workforce strategy; Second, we must find and support more businesses who hire people with disabilities; Third, government must be model employers of people with disabilities; Fourth, we must prepare youth with disabilities for the workforce including through promoting opportunities for internships and career exploration; and fifth, we must make the best use of scarce resources to advance employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

I’m proud that in the State of Delaware we are following through on a commitment to address employment in our efforts to support the disabilities community. In July, 2012 I signed the Employment First Act (HB 319) legislation to further help open the door for people with disabilities to work side-by-side with other employees. It encouraged State agencies to give people with disabilities more choice and more independence seeking competitive employment as their first and primary option toward independence. Today, more than 20,000 Delawareans are contributing, are engaged in their communities, and have purpose like never before.

Employing people with autism and other disabilities is simply a win-win-win situation. It makes good sense economic sense for business, it helps government improve the competitiveness of the workforce, and it transforms the lives our citizens who often want nothing more than to use their skills to contribute to society.

I applaud companies like SAP, CAI, Walgreens, and so many others represented here. You are setting an example of what is possible in workplaces around the world, both through the commitments you’ve made and because of the awareness they are raising.  To the larger business community, and to companies needing IT help in particular, remember that the commitment you are being asked to make today is not in response to a request for charity.

We absolutely can greatly increase the number of people with autism and other disabilities in the workplace, but to address this challenge on a large scale, we need everyone to do their part. Let’s not make this someone else’s problem to solve. Today, let’s take responsibility for what we can change and let’s give millions of people with autism the opportunities they deserve.

Federal Guidance States Specific Interest Is Not An Enrollment Preference For Charters, Delaware In Violation

Specific Interest Enrollment Preference

“A charter school may weight its lottery to give slightly better chances for admission to all or a subset of educationally disadvantaged students if State law permits the use of weighted lotteries in favor of such students.”

Early College High School, the new charter school that opened in Dover, DE this academic year submitted a request for a major modification.  On February 2nd, they had their meeting with the Charter School Accountability Committee.  What happened at this meeting looks like it took the Charter School Accountability Committee completely by surprise.  It turns out, Federal charter school law does not allow specific interest as an enrollment preference for admission to a charter school.

Early College High School’s major modification request was to change their enrollment preference to take out both the specific interest clause and weighted enrollment preference for the children of any of the school’s founders.  The school said they were applying for a Federal grant through the non-SEA Charter School Program, and found out through the US Department of Education that specific interest is not an allowable enrollment preference for any charter school in the country.  They wanted this modification to be in alignment with Federal practices.

I looked for this, and found out that yes, specific interest is not an allowable enrollment preference under any circumstances.  And this is based on Title VI of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, and Section 5204 (a) (1) of The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

This is all written out in the Charter School Program non-regulatory guidance document from Fiscal Year 2014, with Section E, pages 17-22 giving all the details.

So now my question would be how in the world would the two charter school authorizers in the State of Delaware not know this?  Those would be the Delaware Department of Education and Red Clay Consolidated School District.  Who gives these authorizers legal guidance?  How many students in Delaware were picked for charter schools under the specific interest clause and how many students were turned away because they did not pick it?

Ironically, Delaware state law grants permission for the specific interest clause.  It allows the following enrollment preferences for charter schools:

  • Students residing within a five-mile radius of the school
  • Students residing within the regular school district in which the school is located
  • Students who have a specific interest in the school’s teaching methods, philosophy or educational focus
  • Students who are at risk of academic failure
  • Children of persons employed on a permanent basis for at least 30 hours per week during the school year by the charter school.Preference may also be given to siblings of current students and students attending a public school that is converted to charter status. Children of founders may also be given preference up to 5 percent of the school’s total student body.

The most noteworthy charter school in Delaware that utilizes the specific interest category is the Charter School of Wilmington.  This is one of the three named schools in the ACLU lawsuit against Delaware Department of Education and Red Clay Consolidated, along with Newark Charter School and Sussex Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Newark Charters School actually grants the school director discretion to pick applicants before the lottery.

Even the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools gave Delaware a bad rating in this category for their national state rankings report for charter schools, found here: http://www.publiccharters.org/get-the-facts/law-database/states/DE/

Stemming out of Delaware’s House Bill 90, State Rep. Kim Williams created the enrollment preference task force which is still in force.  The next meeting will be very interesting given this information.