AT advocacy gets a shot of adrenaline with this youth-led back-to-school campaign
This year California's AT Network is partnering with an energized, youth-led, advocacy campaign to educate students with disabilities on their rights to assistive technology.
The campaign, Take Action for Accommodations, was launched last year by Youth Organizing! Disabled and Proud (YO!). Both AT Network and YO! are programs of the California Foundation of Independent Living Centers (CFILC). YO! launched the campaign after CFILC became aware that state budget cuts were putting the civil rights of community college students in jeopardy.
"We began educating the community right away about the cuts, and heard from students that they were getting accommodation denial letters," explains CFILC Executive Director Teresa Favuzzi. "The campaign was born out of decisions that policy makers made."
Today the depth of the problem is well understood. According to the California Association for Postsecondary Education and Disability, while the community college system has experienced cuts averaging about 2.5%, the system has cut disability services more than 40%. As result there have been delays of up to 7 weeks for accommodations, and in some cases outright denials.
Mobility assistance, readers, note takers, large print books, audio books, sign language interpreters, captioning, campus transport services and other essential accommodations are being delayed or denied, putting the academic careers of students with disabilities at risk (TA4A Fact Sheet)
AT Network Director Kim Cantrell teaches within this system and reports hearing first-hand from students how disability services is turning them away. "They're telling them they can't serve any more students. Yet legally, under Section 504 of the Rehab. Act, they have to serve them."
The fundamental right to equal education for people with disabilities is guaranteed under both federal and state law (Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Section 11135 of the California Government Code). Budget difficulties do not relieve the state or the community college system from the responsibility to provide reasonable accommodations (TA4A Fact Sheet)
The cause, however, is helping to energize YO!--a membership organization of over 300 teens and young adults with disabilities. In the spring of 2010, YO! launched TA4A in partnership with Disability Rights California (DRC, the state's protection and advocacy agency). This year they are working with another legal partner, Disability Rights Advocates.
Here is how the campaign has evolved, what's been learned so far, and links to YO!'s other school-related initiatives:
Initial TA4A campaign strategy
- to reach out to graduating high school seniors and current community college students with disabilities;
- to educate them about their rights to accommodations;
- to train them to get students involved on their own campuses who, like themselves, may have been denied services; and
- to assist students with filing complaints with the U.S. Dept. of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
"We won't change the situation if we don't show that enough students with disabilities are impacted"--YO! Organizer Christina Mills
Key campaign activities:
- In October of 2010, DRC and YO! provided a training on accommodations and Section 504 at the 5 Disability Rights California offices: San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno, Sacramento, Oakland. The trainers were in Oakland and the other sites were included via video-conference.
- Attendees were encouraged to train others on their local campuses and file their own complaints as appropriate. (Check out this TA4A Web page for the "Campaign Resources and Organizers Toolbox").
Results to date:
- 75+ students and parents have been trained.
- 7-10 community college campuses are now active with the campaign.
- Nearly 50 complaints have been filed with OCR.
"Looking back I would have thought about collecting student stories and experiences myself and then shared them as a group with OCR," reports Organizer Christina Mills. "Students feel safer about sharing their stories with a third-party versus filing a first-hand complaint with OCR." Mills reports that students felt vulnerable to retaliation when filing a complaint, particularly those in smaller rural communities.
A new partner helps shift the strategy
YO! is now collaborating with another legal advocacy group, Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), to engage students to share their experiences.
"We were about to change our campaign strategy when we noticed that Disability Rights Advocates [had] sent out a call for students experiencing denial of services," explains Mills. "DRA is taking anonymous complaints which is different than what OCR require[s]. We're hoping that more students will come forward with their stories if they know their information is secure." If DRA can get enough evidence to show that accommodations complaints are an issue, then they will look into taking further legal action.
More YO! advocacy
YO! has two additional campaigns, both relevant to back-to-school:
- "Own My Own Power," an anti-bullying campaign working to see passage of AB9--Seth's Law--in honor of the 13-year-old who took his life in California.
- Disability History Week Campaign (DHW), an effort to get Disability History Week recognized and taught in California schools. Check out: Resources for Educators and Organizers, Organize DHW in Your Own State, and the Youth Organizer's Toolbox.
For more information:
Contact: Kim Cantrell, director, AT Network