The Value of IDEA for Colleges and Their Students

Over the past summer, much fanfare greeted the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including a reception at the White House and parades, speeches and gatherings across the country. By comparison, the anniversary of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) -- which came into being the same year -- came and went without public recognition.

The IDEA might seem tangential to those of us involved with higher education because its legislative reach extends only through secondary school. But as my classes get underway this fall, I’m reminded of its powerful impact on the current generation of college students, disabled and able-bodied alike.

The IDEA, which replaced 1975 legislation called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), mandates a “free appropriate public education” to all students from pre-K through high school. Before the passage of the EAHCA, many states had laws barring children with disabilities such as deafness, blindness, emotional disturbance and other cognitive delays from public education.

According to a research study completed in 1970, only one in five children with disabilities had received an education in school.

The 1975 law changed that by requiring schools to place them in the “least restrictive environment,” meaning, to the greatest extent possible, they would be included alongside nondisabled peers. The IDEA of 1990 expanded the age range of protected children, added measures to support families and included new provisions for adaptive equipment and services. Its new name also signaled an important shift away from “handicapped children” (which implied children were defined by their disabilities) to the people-first language of “individuals with disabilities” (which implied that disability was just one aspect of a child’s identity).

The life writing of people with disabilities tells harrowing stories of what it was like to go to school before the passage of the EAHCA. Animal scientist Temple Grandin, whose autism made it hard for her to converse socially, was teased and ostracized by her peers. The parents of Stephen Kuusisto, director of the honors program at Syracuse University, refused to enroll him in a school for the blind and sent him to a school where he received no accommodations for his low vision. Deaf scholar Brenda Brueggemann describes the awkwardness of going with classmates to movies where she was unable to hear or understand the dialogue.

Reading these accounts, I’m reminded that the students with disabilities I find in my classes are the beneficiaries of a very different system. The IDEA ensured that most of them received an inclusive education, and it required the schools they attended to provide adaptive technologies, assistants and support services that would allow them to succeed in classes with their nondisabled peers.

Less often acknowledged is the impact of the IDEA on nondisabled college students. By including larger numbers of students with disabilities in elementary and secondary schools, the IDEA changed how nondisabled kids understood the meaning of disability. It is far less common for today’s students to have attended a school where the “special” kids arrived on the stigmatized “short bus” and marched off to a separate classroom. Having those kids in class -- along with their wheelchairs, canes, adaptive communication devices and assistants -- naturalized disability in a way that would not have been possible in more segregated environments.

Many of today’s students grew up with the assumption that children with disabilities belong in the same classroom and have the same right to an education that they do. Research shows that having kids with disabilities in class teaches valuable lessons about acceptance, patience and diversity. As people with disabilities increasingly participate in the workforce, inclusive education also prepares the current generation of students for a diversity they will likely encounter in their professional lives.

In case I sound overly cheery, let me be clear that the IDEA is no panacea. I’m well aware that many schools still have special classrooms for children deemed too disabled for inclusion. New York City, where I live, is home to District 75, reserved for segregating those "special" kids from their typical peers. On the other end of the spectrum, some of my students attended exclusive private schools that are exempt from the requirements of the IDEA. Their experience of kids with disabilities is limited to the service learning projects that round out their stellar college applications. And despite the law, the families of students with disabilities are often exhausted by fighting for services they are entitled to.

That said, I’m still convinced the law provides a valuable foundation that is worth building on and that should be celebrated.

I’m never more aware of the impact of the IDEA than when I tell my students that I’m the parent of a child with Down syndrome. Because of the IDEA, my son attends second grade at an inclusive elementary school. More than one of my students has responded to this disclosure by saying, “My best friend has Down syndrome!”

In the generation before the IDEA, this scenario would have been virtually unthinkable. If they went to school at all, children with Down syndrome were tucked away in special classes where they learned life skills because nobody thought they were capable of reading and writing. Seeing them banished in this way, their typical peers learned that people with Down syndrome were not worthy of inclusion.

Certainly the world is a better place for my son: ample research shows that people with Down syndrome learn better in inclusive settings. But it is also a better place for his peers, who, thanks to the IDEA, learn to recognize him as a person deserving of respect and friendship. That recognition is high on the list of lessons I’d like my students to learn before entering college.

Rachel Adams is a professor of English and director of the Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University.

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Essay calls for the end to most committees and meetings in higher ed

We’ve all been there -- the crack of dawn, the long narrow table, people with their status shields (aka laptops) open and rattling around the table, some poor soul up front droning on about the project to which he or she just devoted the past six months. Levels of interest torn between the incoming emails and waiting for this person to just get to the point. Yes, it’s the committee meeting. And we’re using it all wrong.

First, ask yourself -- why committees? And why structure the meetings like an evil twin of the 1970s lecture theater? Gather some of the best brains in your organization, gossip/update, dim the lights, pontificate, raise the lights, get your stuff and run like hell to the next meeting. See my point?

Now, many would say, “We’re a decentralized model. We need committees to get the best people working together toward a singular purpose. They help us push forward the agendas that will make this college or university the best in the nation, making education more affordable, accessible and engaging while transitioning innovation from the classroom to the local economy.” Yeah. And when did your committee meeting do that last?

Reality? Somewhere between the august town hall meeting of the commonwealth and today’s committee meeting, we lost the script. Committees became collectibles that connote status. “Oh, are you in the digital reimagination committee? Well, I’ve just been nominated for the rock our health scholarship committee.”

Over the past few years, a lot has been written on effective corporate structures and meetings. Below are some of the nuggets colleges and universities may consider when looking to improve how they utilize their best talent. My division at Pennsylvania State University is currently employing these approaches. The most precious thing we have is our people and their brainpower. Innovation demands that we look at absolutely everything within the organization and say, “How can this be better? How can this be more sustainable? How can this be more productive? How can this be less painful?” Whereas we first got some pretty strange looks when we skirted the opportunity to create committees, we are now finding that others are taking our practices and employing them across more than just our activities.

My dear academicians -- you want change, you like working together and you are perfectly capable of getting stuff done. Let yourselves have some license to go there. (Warning, some of these thoughts are completely contrary to the way higher ed now functions.)

1. Keep it small. A recent report on the most responsive modern companies that are best at elastically meeting new demands shows the optimal size for getting work done is five to nine people -- max. Higher ed committees tend to be much larger than this in many cases, and corporate leaders are stunned that a 15-person committee in academe is a pretty normal thing. How big are your committees? Is each person in that committee carrying his or her weight? Do they come prepared, informed and ready to intelligently move your initiative forward? If there are people who aren’t doing that -- they’re not committee members. They are subject experts you should call on occasionally but not pull into a meeting room every week.

Consider: What if you shifted your mind from “committee” to “working group”? At the center is a five- to nine-person team who can reach out to the greater universe of the campus to gain consensus. I still lean heavily on the RACI principle. That’s one person responsible for the initiative, two or three approvers, consultants who can be called on if and when needed and the informed, who … well, you need to keep them in the loop.

Within the initiative itself, you should staff to win. Put in place a creative mind who will stretch the tried and true who is an expert on the audience for whom you are developing the initiative, an editor who is familiar with your system and can make your idea ironclad, an engineer who can manifest your ideas, a networker who can work through the system to get the right approvers and, finally, a monetizer who knows how to get you the funding you need and can measure all performance for further enhancement or sunsetting.

2. Meetings are for working together, not being talked at. Most of the people who are at committee meetings are there specifically because they hold veto power, a specific skill/knowledge or the purse strings. Their schedules are tough to get onto. Do you honestly want them sitting there passively at your meeting? Or would your time be much better spent working together?

Consider: What if each of your meetings had clear and concise goals and involved exercises to meet those goals and attain answers you critically need? And what if a core priority of each meeting was to gain consensus on a topic, decide a direction and appoint a small group to get it done within that quarter? Hard work framing your meeting, timing your agenda and constructing productive (and dare I say fun?) exercises is critical in designing a truly effective meeting.

Increasingly, our engaged scholarship meetings are moving from committee meetings to working meetings. Everyone now knows that when he or she comes to ELT (Engaged Leadership Team), goals of the meeting will be framed, team exercises will tackle shortlisted issues, report-outs will include rapid enhancement editing from the larger team and no one leaves the meeting until next steps and responsibilities have been assigned. Those meetings move.

3. Relaying information is best prior to discussion/activities so people have time to move from collection of information to connection of information. Meetings often go sideways when you’re trying to reach consensus among people who have varying levels of literacy on a topic. Also, we frequently forget that people have different cognitive processing. Some can scan and immediately see broad implications that they want to discuss immediately; others need time to digest the information and check the facts. I have a colleague who comes to each meeting with reams of highlighted information. She rarely talks. But when she does, you bet I listen.

Consider: How much time is spent on making flash presentations that are meant to explain complex issues in the simplest visual terms? What if we just did one-page explanations of our idea, which outlined the why, what, how much and for how long? Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of, puts 30 minutes at the front end of meetings aside just for the reading of these reports. He knows “preread” often stands for “never read.” This practice allows everyone sacrosanct time to review, and the information is fresh in their minds while they are discussing during the rest of the meeting.

4. Nothing beats one-on-one, face-to-face. Some consider committees a reason to no longer have one-on-ones. Wrong. Many of the issues you’re going to deal with in your groups are contentious and political -- in short, subjects that many don’t want to first be exposed to when surrounded by their peers. Take the time to treat your team members like the flawed human beings we all are. Give them the safe, private space they need to openly discuss their issues/passions. When you give them time and respect, you’ll understand them more, and as a result they will be more open to your ideas.

Consider: Sure, one-on-one takes time. So schedule for it. Block out one day of your week just for one-on-one meetings. Be ready to listen. Do not spend the time pushing your current agenda. Find out about your members’ priorities, goals and responsibilities. Understanding what they consider to be success will help you understand the best ways to employ them to meet the goals of your institution.

When I first moved to Penn State University last October, I knew there would be many people thinking, “Oh, here comes the innovation lady. She’ll think she’s all that.” In actuality, I have absolutely no interest in force-feeding innovation to unreceptive souls, and I fully realized that, without support from others in our great institution, innovation would go nowhere. So I met with many people one-on-one. To each, I asked, “What are your goals? What is your role? What are the barriers getting in your way? How can I help?” Then I sat back and listened and took notes. Those meetings defined and continue to define my job. These one-on-ones gave me my priorities, the pains that needed to be addressed, the passions I needed to feed and foster. Everything I could never get from a committee meeting.

Let’s start with that. Give it a try. And let us know at Inside Higher Ed what you experienced. Did it work? Did it fail? What dynamics were at play? After all, life is about learning, making incremental improvements and hopefully progressing to better and better models for us all to succeed.

Rose Cameron is director of innovation, outreach and online education at Penn State University.

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