The Chicago Community Trust and the Persons with Disabilities Fund recently hosted a panel of federal legislators and business and community leaders to discuss current Illinois policy concerning people with disabilities, how it compares with the rest of the nation and what measurable goals have been set for the future.
The panel's report, the first of its kind, identifies current challenges in community living, education and employment and sets state goals for 2015. No other state has held this kind of meeting, but not many other states have Illinois' poor track record when it comes to disability policy.
"A lot of (individuals in the field) who are leaders in Illinois and leaders locally are also leaders internationally," said Andy Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. "But Illinois is not a leader. Illinois is behind on a lot of those things."
By grade 11, according to the report, only 14.5 percent of students with disabilities who took the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE) met or exceeded Illinois State Board of Education standards compared to 59.4 percent of their peers without disabilities. Although federal law requires special education students to have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) by age 16, 76 percent of eligible students do not have a plan that meets the specified criteria. At 5.8 percent, the percentage of Illinois special education students in separate schools is nearly double the national average of 3 percent. And these are just a few of the ways Illinois falls short.
During the discussion, all the panelists agreed universal design and classroom integration were necessary, not only for independence and sufficient flexibility to succeed but for funding as well. "It's about taking the 'special' out of education," said Kathy Martinez, assistant secretary for Disability Employment Policy with the U.S. Department of Labor. "When the budgets go, so do the 'special issues.'"
Dr. Vinni Maria Hall, secretary of the Illinois State Board of Education, said they are addressing the goals stated in the group's report, despite the strain of budget cuts and delayed funding. Some of the goals for 2015 in the report include increasing the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms and cutting the dropout rate of students with disabilities in half.
Although no definite solutions or strategies were mentioned, the tone of the meeting was hope, excitement and becoming unified.
"Across the nation there is no such need for this kind of debate," said Tony Paulauski, executive director of The Arc of Illinois. "Let's end this debate, and let's just move forward."
Esther Han is a Chicago Parent intern.