Disabled Education (NYU Press 2013)

Enacted in 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act – now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides all children with the right to a free and appropriate public education. On the face of it, the IDEA is a shining example of law’s democratizing impulse. But is that really the case? In Disabled Education, Ruth Colker digs deep beneath the IDEA’s surface and reveals that the IDEA contains flaws that were evident at the time of its enactment that limit its effectiveness for poor and minority children.
Both an expert in disability law and the mother of a child with a hearing impairment, Colker learned first-hand of the Act’s limitations when she embarked on a legal battle to persuade her son’s school to accommodate his impairment. Colker was able to devote the considerable resources of a middle-class lawyer to her struggle and ultimately won, but she knew that the IDEA would not have benefitted her son without her time-consuming and costly legal intervention. Her experience led her to investigate other cases, which confirmed her suspicions that the IDEA best serves those with the resources to advocate strongly for their children.The IDEA also works only as well as the rest of the system does: struggling schools that serve primarily poor students of color rarely have the funds to provide appropriate special education and related services to their students with disabilities. Through a close examination of the historical evolution of the IDEA, the actual experiences of children who fought for their education in court, and social science literature on the meaning of “learning disability,” Colker reveals the IDEA’s shortcomings, but also suggests ways in which resources might be allocated more evenly along class lines.
“A shocking, important, and even frightening book that unveils the mistreatment of disabled learners seeking an appropriate education in public school settings. We meet innocent children and desperate parents trying to navigate an entrenched bureaucratic and uncaring educational system that is further enabled by inept hearing officers who turn a deaf ear to the needs of the children and to the law. A must read for parents, educators, policy-makers and anyone who cares about the future of education in America. Scientific knowledge has progressed too far to accept this shameful treatment of children from all backgrounds and socio-economic groups; this book is a wake-up call for up-dating policies, procedures and laws affecting children who struggle in school.”
-Sally Shaywitz, MD, author of Overcoming Dyslexia
Disabled Education is a unique and important work. For the first time, this book tells the stories of the families who set key precedents for children with special needs. It also gives a novel and in-depth description of the political and legislative process of the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In so doing, Professor Ruth Colker offers an unprecedented historical account of this law, while also offering a timely critique and suggestions for reform.”
-Julie K. Waterstone, Southwestern Law School

“For anyone intent on our public schools providing equal educational opportunities to students with disabilities, Disabled Education is a comprehensive vision of how far we have yet to come and why. For attorneys and advocates, it provides insight into why there is such a headwind against students with disabilities receiving an effective and meaningful education. For judges, it delivers a challenge to reach more just, informed decisions, fully respecting the free appropriate educational opportunity guarantees of the IDEA.  For those who teach, develop and enforce education policy through our civil rights laws, it presents a compelling insight into how and why the shortcomings of the special education system fall hardest on poor students, students of color and limited-English speaking students.”
-Paul D. Grossman, Hastings College of Law, University of California

“Colker’s work provides both a broad and deep examination of the central legal—and moral—conundrum of the special education system: why the very same system can provide helpful and desired support for wealthier, often white, children with disabilities while providing less helpful and even exclusionary programs for low-income, often minority, children with disabilities. A leader in the field of disability law, Colker persuasively traces the answer through statutory analysis and legislative history, Supreme Court opinions and their back stories, and state-level administrative hearing officer decisions. The result is a compelling study that should inform policy makers and advocates in discussions about reforming the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the years to come.”
-Eloise Pasachoff, Georgetown University Law Center

Disabled Education confronts head-on an unfortunate truth that all of us who are special education advocates have known for a long time:  the system is, at best, inconsistently meeting the needs of low-income and minority children. Unlike other accounts of the system’s imperfections, Colker’s delves deeply and painstakingly into the rich human narratives contained in federal and state judicial decisions so that we can see in real terms the difficulties many families face as they crusade to obtain an appropriate education for their children. Not content to simply notice the disturbing reality, Disabled Education’s detailed analysis provides a much more valuable contribution; it moves us closer to understanding whythe system is not working equally for all families, how the system came to be this way, and what we need to do to fix it.”
-Michael Gregory, Harvard Law School
NYU Press (description)