How The IDEA Act Changed My Life

It’s nearly impossible to know the challenges, heartache, and beauty that comes with being a child who grows up with a disability unless you’ve been one yourself or the parent of a child with special needs. My experience was so much less difficult than so many others — though to me overcoming my challenges were formative in my life and career.

I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1980’s and 1990’s. As you may know, the Milwaukee Public School system is a notorious proving ground of education techniques and policy. It fails as much as it succeeds. Milwaukee is one of the original homes of charter schools, one of the first to adopt phonics, one of the first to try whole word learning, and a key region for disabilities education.

When I was a child, I was one of the millions diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I struggled for years to just keep up with my coursework, grasp basic concepts in mathematics, and read at my grade level. ADHD was a crushing weight on me both educationally and emotionally. Being the kid in class who can never keep up leads to cruel ostracism from other children, narrows your world view, and makes you feel like your incapable of success. The stigma associated with disabilities is daunting. Because of those particular and unique challenges associated with disability education, such as the specialization required from educators to teach students with disabilities, we need to ensure that disability education be made available to all children in America.

Without specialized disability education, we are discarding children before they have the opportunity to learn how to achieve, how to overcome, and how to be their authentic selves. I was lucky — my wonderful parents are also educators. But more than this, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provided the Milwaukee and Wauwatosa public school systems with the funding and capability they needed to change my life. My success was not happenstance — it was engineered by my educators, catalyzed by my parents, and put into motion by me.

Even though my condition was relatively mild compared to children with autism or down syndrome, I required intensive accommodations. One to two of my classes each term was replaced with a special education class. We had our own instructor — a wonderful man named Mr. Calarco — and our own classroom. We also had special educational materials, guidance counselors who were trained to manage the developmental and emotional issues of disabled children, and instruction on how to manage our disabilities. Later in life, I also got funding from the State of Wisconsin for a computer with software geared towards improving my reading and writing capabilities, a tutor in reading and one in mathematics, and a counselor through the State to help me apply to colleges.

All of this work, this commitment, and this compassion for me was made possible by the IDEA Act. Without it, I am certain that I would be leading a very different life.

Today, I hold a masters degree in engineering from the University of Colorado, a masters degree in national security from the US Naval War College, and cofounded my own company focusing on cybersecurity. I served my country by being a civil servant, am active in my community, and do everything that I can to give back. I earn a six figure salary, have contributed to bring in millions of dollars of investment capital to Colorado, and provide a career and paycheck to the employees of my company.

There is no return on investment model for children with disabilities — and we cannot think that way. Education isn’t like business — opportunities are people, they are children, and they cannot be thought of in terms of dollars and sense. Disabled children are children of interesting potential who need special support so they can achieve.

All children begin their lives with potential. And it is up to us to enable them, support them, and motivate them to succeed. In a very real way, children with disabilities are much like the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat. They are simultaneously both successful and unsuccessful. We cannot know until they are given every opportunity to achieve.

If we deny them ability — if we deny them IDEA — we are making that choice for them and taking away perhaps the only chance they have to equal the playing field. That same thought experiment may be helpful for those young people on the fence. Given that 1 in 7 people can be considered disabled in some sense, every parent may one day be faced with the harsh realities of raising a child with disabilities.

If you’re like me — and no…I don’t mean someone with ADHD — you may be a visual learner. If you are, here are some key statistics about the IDEA Act. The following comes from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In 2013–14, the number of children and youth ages 3–21 receiving special education services was 6.5 million, or about 13 percent of all public school students. Among students receiving special education services, 35 percent had specific learning disabilities. — National Center for Education Statistics

National Center for Education Statistics — Children and Youth With Disabilities (Last Updated: May 2016)

From school years 1990–91 through 2004–05, the number of children and youth ages 3–21 who received special education services increased from 4.7 million, or 11 percent of total public school enrollment, to 6.7 million, or 14 percent of total public school enrollment. Both the number and percentage of students served under IDEA declined from 2004–05 through 2011–12. There was evidence that the number and percentage of students served leveled off in 2012–13 and 2013–14. By 2013–14, the number of students served under IDEA was 6.5 million, or 13 percent of total public school enrollment. — National Center for Education Statistics

We should not politicize the tens of millions of students served by this law. We can find a better way forward.

It is critical to protect the IDEA Act. Yes, it is appropriate to reform certain aspects of it to ensure its efficacy. But it is incumbent on all of us, all parents, and all socially aware people to stand up and support it.

It breaks my heart to see policy-makers disregard the importance of the IDEA Act. I am sure that there are many areas of reform an improvement that can be made. But some seem to take joy in beating up on disability education — or they wear their opposition to the IDEA Act like a badge of honor. Scoring cheap political points on the backs of children with disabilities is perhaps the most dishonorable move a politician could make and they should look back on their actions with great shame.

When public officials dismiss the IDEA Act, they forget the human impact of their statements. When they threaten to over-haul the program for right or for wrong, they make children and their families fear the jeopardy of a life without the support for equality, without game changers like Mr. Calarco, and without the programs that provide disability education. That isn’t right — we can do better.

Disability eduction for all people isn’t a liberal or conservative fight. It isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue. This is an human issue.

I will admit that some of this is nearly understandable. Many policy-makers have good intensions but cannot find the words or actions to support the goals of the IDEA Act while pushing for reform. That is why it is up to people with disabilities, families supporting them, and businesses employing them to get involved. Because of the stigma associated with disabilities, the realities are often hidden from plain view. So it is up to us to speak out, inform our representatives, and advocate for the best outcomes for our children.

In the coming weeks and months, you will likely hear about how wasteful the IDEA Act is, how it needs to be replaced by something else, and how the IDEA Act doesn’t result in real outcomes. When you hear that, remember my story and think of the millions of others just like me. And then put your feelings into action. Run for school board, get active in your community, and at the very least contact your Member of Congress and Senator. Tell them you stand with children with disabilities —tell them you believe in reasonable reform — but be sure to tell them America stands for opportunity for all people.

Cybersecurity executive, recovering startup founder, tech philosopher, hacker, traveler, early-stage investor. Independent. Faithful optimist.