By Darian Eswine
For more than 25 years, Indiana has made advances in helping provide a better life for people with disabilities. But in terms of providing opportunities, some wonder, could the state could be falling behind?
Gregory Fehribach, an attorney in Indianapolis practicing law for 30 years, was a part of the original group that helped move the Americans with Disabilities Act forward in the late ’80s before it was enacted in 1990. Fehribach has a disability, utilizing a wheelchair for mobility.
In terms of accessibility and care for people with disabilities in Indiana, Fehribach said he would give Indiana a D-.
“In some situations, an F,” he said.
Kim Dodson, executive director for The Arc of Indiana, said roughly one-third of Indiana’s population has a disability. That’s more than two million people.
“People with disabilities is one of Indiana’s most vulnerable populations,” Dodson said. “The types of services we provide make the difference between them being an active community member and not.”
The Arc of Indiana serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. They provide services including family and caregiver training, insurance assistance and vocational rehabilitation.
The Arc is known for its public policy advocacy work. As the registered lobbyist, Dodson said she spends much of her time at the Statehouse.
Dodson said the state has done a “tremendous job” including people with disabilities in recent years, but there is always room for improvement. Others, however, would argue the state falls behind in providing ways in which people with disabilities can support themselves.
Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, worked with The Arc to develop House Bill 1219, which advocated earlier this year for people with disabilities in terms of education.
“A growing number of school corporations had stopped offering the general education diploma,” Clere said. “The general diploma is the type of diploma that is the most attainable for many students, including many students with disabilities.”
Indiana has four types of high school diplomas—academic honors, technical honors, Core 40 and general diploma.
Clere said many students with disabilities have reached the end of their high school careers and received either a certificate of completion or of attendance, instead of an actual diploma. HB 1219, which the governor signed into law in March, requires all schools offer the general diploma.
“[A certificate] really limits their options for employment and post-high school training or additional education,” he said.
Katie Richards, a special education teacher at Warsaw Community High School, said secondary education testing has also been reconstructed in the past two years, becoming much more academic instead of testing skills the students already have.
Richards works with students with mild to severe disabilities.
“Last year, when they first started testing… there were a lot of repetitive questions and it kind of didn’t make sense in the way they were testing the students and the level they were expecting them to answer,” Richards said. “Students who couldn’t sit down for more than five minutes were being asked algebra questions.”
Richards said the testing has improved and is now divided into three tiers. The first tier determines where the student will be for the second test, the second test measures skills, and the third test shows where the student falls in terms of what assistance he or she will need in order to be most successful.
Richards would still like to see further improvement in the form of standardized curriculum for all special education classrooms, along with the Individualized Education Plan goals, also referred to as IEP goals, that teachers already develop.
“Special education teachers come up with their own curriculum,” she said. “There are standards to teach to, but no materials. We buy a lot of our materials…. That’s hard because that’s time-consuming.”
Another step in providing educational opportunities for people with disabilities starts much earlier than high school. First Steps of Indiana provides early childhood intervention. The program is funded by the government and provides services for children from birth to three years old who show signs of developmental disabilities or delays.
“That time frame—from birth to five—is a critical time frame for brain development and to impact a child’s brain that early can greatly improve their prognosis and really help them reach their full potential,” said Stacy Holmes, Local Planning and Coordination Council program director.
First Steps is a federally and state-funded program serving nearly 23,000 children statewide. In terms of state care for people with disabilities, Holmes said there could still be significant improvement.
“A lot of the financial things that happened in 2010/2011—a lot of programs that served people with special needs really took a hit and have not [been] replenished,” she said.
Holmes said much of it comes down to the money and it’s not a cheap endeavor.
“But it’s a worthy one in terms of what the actual result is for our dollars,” she said. “I think we do as well as we can with the money we have.”
Although organizations and school systems seem to be fostering awareness for people with disabilities, Fehribach said he still thinks Indiana isn’t progressing as quickly as it could.
He said while awareness is important, the deeper issue is employment and sustainable income opportunities.
A report by the Eskenazi Health Foundation found that while 64 percent of people without disabilities have employment, only 17.6 percent of people with disabilities are employed.
Fehribach said this amount of economic insecurity is too severe.
“There’s no way you can guarantee that you will be able to make enough money to get off the government dole and the government support,” he said.
He also said he believes some forms of advocacy present in today’s society may do more harm than good.
“People look for role models like themselves,” he said. “When women are running corporations, they are looking for other women. So if you look around, where is your role model for people with disabilities?”
Fehribach said students with disabilities are often not eligible to be recognized for certain kinds of achievement, such as a science or math award. Fehribach argued this is a negative civil rights model—to recognize a student with a disability for something, which a student without a disability would not be recognized.
“When you see a student with a disability highlighted, it’s not because they’ve just figured out how to do the mousetrap, it’s about how they got to go to prom,” he said.
He argued a positive civil rights model would include recognizing students with disabilities for achievements in science, math, leadership and other areas in which he said there should be more available opportunities.
Fehribach said there is a difference, however, between people with cognitive disabilities and people with other disabilities who still maintain intellectual capabilities. He said these are the people being glossed over.
“I think that [Indiana’s] program is relatively incompetent,” he said. “I think they get a lot of touchy-feely satisfaction because they are dealing with lower-skilled level people, but when you look to the idea of–are they employing people with disabilities, has the government appointed people with disabilities to different leadership positions?”
Fehribach said he sees this is a basic civil rights issue related to all minority groups, not just people with disabilities.
“At some point, we’ve got to get more people with disabilities, more women, more African Americans, more LGBT, more Latinos, involved in these positions [of leadership] so there can be quality conversation,” he said.
He said this would be a step toward integrating all people with a variety of disabilities into the best area for the individual.
“Once they become leaders, they can then integrate cognitive and emotional disabilities into areas they can be successful in along with people with physical disabilities. [People with] disabilities can be successful,” Fehribach said. “That’s where the victory comes.”
Fehribach said sustainable income opportunities are essential to any sort of progress.
Clere said he agrees the state needs to supply more employment opportunities, stating the employment process for people with disabilities is “bleak.”
Clere said issues relating to people with disabilities should be involved in all policy decisions.
“Just as accessibility ought to be part of the initial planning and design process for any building or renovation today, it also ought to be part of our initial discussion on any public policy issue, whether it specifically concerns people with disabilities or not,” Clere said.
Dodson said the Statehouse has only one wheelchair accessible entrance, located in the basement, and it is currently under construction.
“Just the fact that people with mobility issues can’t enter the Statehouse through the front door is a statement about where we are with accessibility,” Clere said. “We have many, many more steps to take and we need to take them much faster.”