Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) speaks about his experiences during the Civil Rights Movement to the NCLD Young Adult Leadership Council with other advocates.
“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
—President Franklin D. Roosevelt
When President Roosevelt made this statement to commemorate American Education Week in 1938, he had already grappled for nearly two decades with a disability that had left him paralyzed from the hips down. He spoke as someone who saw how his own education contributed both to his empowered, self-determined state and to his confidence in the longevity of the democratic principles he sought to defend.
This isn’t just a nice historical anecdote. It’s a present-day challenge to claim rights and improve opportunities for traditionally marginalized groups (racial and ethnic minorities, lower-income individuals, LGBTQ individuals, and individuals with disabilities) in our society today. Education, and specifically a strong civics education, not only safeguards our democratic institutions, but also empowers these groups to use institutional levers to advance social justice. In our democratic system, individuals do this through the learning and practice of speaking out, debating, discussing, empathizing, organizing, nonviolently protesting, serving, and, ultimately, voting.
These civic actions have contributed to one of the least talked about but most successful civil rights movements of modern times: the disability rights movement. It was FDR’s distant cousin, President Teddy Roosevelt, who cruelly advocated for eliminating individuals with disabilities from society. The disability rights movement fought for and won a right to existence and then legal protections—including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and other bipartisan statutes—that aimed to safeguard those rights and advance full inclusion in society. These historical gains are not and were never inevitable; they were gained through civic action.
Empowering that action isn’t a function of groups simply getting more education and mastering literacy and mathematics, which, along with science, have come to reflect the core focus disciplines. We often hear about achievement gaps in these academic subjects. But there are other gaps as well: Individuals with disabilities—and other traditionally disadvantaged subgroups—are also significantly less likely to vote and to engage in other civic behaviors. That fact underscores the essential need for a strong civics education for its own merits. When implemented effectively, it helps individuals understand an arc of history and how to effectively and constructively leverage their power in a democratic system to, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated, bend that arc toward justice.
Effective civics education isn’t just about learning historical facts. It includes immersive and integrated experiences with explicit instruction in civics, discussion of current events, applied learning activities like service learning, democratic participation, and school governance. While these actions can have benefits for all students, they are particularly powerful for students with disabilities who need skills to advocate for themselves in school and later in life, especially after they leave K–12 education and the supports provided by their families, IDEA, and dedicated special educators and other staff.
When students with disabilities are explicitly taught and experience the skills and dispositions associated with high-quality civics education, they show greater capacity for self-advocacy and self-determination. They are more capable of taking empowered actions regarding their learning and lives. We help students with disabilities develop these capacities when we change the national conversation, speak about access to high-quality civics education as a civil rights issue, and explicitly integrate into civics education the essential skills and dispositions that traditionally disadvantaged groups need to succeed. This takes place when educators, communities, parents, and students’ peers:
- Explicitly teach about the disability rights movement and other civil rights movements within history courses, and support students in understanding similarities and differences between the present and past;
- Incorporate classroom discussions and debates about how to improve accessibility in schools and communities;
- Provide service learning opportunities to students with and without disabilities that leverage all students’ strengths;
- Ensure that civic-related extracurricular activities, such as 4-H or student council, are inviting and inclusive for all students; and
- Prepare students to take a leadership role in meetings where their needs and goals are being discussed, including IEP and transition meetings.
These types of inclusive school experiences don’t happen without explicit planning and implementation. When the Founding Fathers lay the groundwork for our system of public education, they ultimately established opportunities for all of us to come together as equal citizens. Because this democratic experiment is far from over—and indeed may never be over—it is more important than ever to protect and expand the civic mission of schools for all students and especially for those so often pushed to the margins of our society.