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Legal Analysis Paper: Identity Beyond Ability: An Examination of the Impact of PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on the Lives of Students with Disabilities

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Romi Laskin
            Identity, Access and Innovation in Education
Professor Jody Cohen
October 10th, 2014

 Identity Beyond Ability: An Examination of the Impact of PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on the Lives of Students with Disabilities

            There are currently over six million students with disabilities in the United States public school system (NCES). Today, all of these students are legally entitled to a free and appropriate education. However, only forty years ago public schools would routinely and legally refuse to allow students with special needs to enroll, effectively forcing students to stay home or to live in an institution without an education (PILCOP). “Lucky” students were permitted to attend schools, but received no individualized attention. PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (“PARC”) was the seminal special education case in the US. This paper aims to explain the profound influence PARC had on the lives and educational rights of students with disabilities. PARC marshaled in two normative shifts in how government and families with children with disabilities perceived special education. These had extremely significant implications particularly for students with disabilities, but also for typically abled students. In addition to establishing disabled students’ rights to a meaningful education, PARC v. Commonwealth had a major impact on identity building for students with disabilities: for the first time, these children were empowered to develop an identity other than that of a “person with disability.”

            Until the 1970s, children in the United States with special needs were not guaranteed an education provided by the government. In fact, a Pennsylvanian law allowed public schools to blatantly deny education to all students who did not reach a mental age of five years by the start of grade one (PILCOP). In the first case of its kind in the country, the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) and 13 parents of children with “mental retardation” sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in a class action lawsuit to challenge this deeply harmful and discriminatory law. The case quickly settled, which led to a consent decree in which Pennsylvania agreed to provide a free public education for all children with special needs until the age of twenty-one. The court’s decree laid the foundation for the establishment of the right to an education for all children with disabilities. PARC also set the standard that each child must be offered an individualized education and that students should be placed in the least restrictive environment possible (PILCOP).

            PARC signaled a normative shift in which governments began to accept the responsibility of educating students of all abilities. Mills v. Board of Education was decided just months after PARC, in which eight families in the District of Columbia sued the district for excluding children with disabilities. The district claimed that students with disabilities were too much of a financial burden and that it could not be expected to provide and fund their education. Unlike PARC, this case went to the District Court, in which a judge firmly established the state’s obligation to educate all children, regardless of their abilities and disabilities. Furthermore, the District Court explicitly ruled that inadequate resources was not a legal basis for excluding students, and that the financial responsibility of educating students could not fall more heavily on parents of children with disabilities than on parents of typically abled children (Facts).

             Together, PARC and Mills are considered to be the foundational lawsuits for access to special education. They set an important precedent, and paved the way for nearly fifty similar special education cases across the country over the next two years (Minow, 73). In that time period, forty-five states followed in Pennsylvania’s footsteps, and enacted some piece of legislation that addressed the provision of education to students with special needs (Minow, 73). In 1975, the PARC agreement was codified into federal law as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (PILCOP). As a consequence of PARC and the litany of special education cases that followed, governments recognized their duty to provide an appropriate education to students of all abilities. Mills expanded on that responsibility, and established that governments must fund students’ education, regardless of the cost, and even if the district has limited resources (Martin, Reed-Martin and Terman, 28). (A very apt standard to be reminded of, given the proximity of the cash-strapped School District of Philadelphia and the many special education lawsuits it continually faces). In a process that has been compared to that of Brown v. Board of Education, the government was forced to recognize the inadequacy of its current practices. Before PARC, the government placed the burden of educating students with special needs on families. Unless parents were able to afford meaningful private schooling, nearly all students with special educational needs in Pennsylvania were robbed of the opportunity afforded to their typically abled peers to grow intellectually and socially, in a school environment (Martin, Reed-Martin and Terman, 29).

            The second normative shift PARC represented was a direct consequence of government assuming the role of education provider to students of all abilities: families and caregivers of students with special needs no longer needed to fulfill that responsibility. While this is an obvious by-product, it is still important to recognize. As students gained the fundamental right to a tailored education, they and their families gained the right to demand that education. As mentioned above, PARC galvanized the legal battle for access to an individualized special education. As more and more families sought to obligate the government to provide an education to their children with special needs, the educational landscape was drastically altered. By the time federal legislation was codified, children and young adults in America with disabilities were finally and universally afforded access to a meaningful education - and families finally had a both a normative belief in their children’s right to free education, and a legal arsenal to deploy in the enforcement of that right (Minow, 75).

            In addition to establishing the right of children with disabilities to attend school, PARC and Mills built on Brown v. Board of Education, and further protected African-American students’ right to education. Before PARC and Mills, school districts could utilize laws that permitted them to exclude students with special needs as a means to exclude African-American students, regardless of their true abilities. Remnants of this persist today, as students who are African American are vastly overrepresented in special education programs (McDermott, Goldman and Varenne, 12). While this disproportionality is an extremely important issue that must be addressed, it is less severe than African-American students with alleged disabilities being barred from schools altogether. The specific implications of PARC and Mills for African-American communities serve as a reminder that these laws affected an extremely wide variety of students.

            The laws applied to any child with any kind of disability, which encompasses students with a very diverse set of educational needs. For some students, such as Peter Mills who experienced behavioral issues, their special needs would not impede them from thinking as complexly as their peers (Daugherty, 3). With a tailored education, Mills and students with similar educational needs should, at least theoretically, be afforded the opportunity to graduate on equal ground as typically-abled peers. For other students, such as students with severe autism, their disabilities could prevent them from achieving certain normative milestones and accomplishments, such as graduating with a normal diploma. However, to borrow from the argument used in PARC, all students stand to benefit greatly from an education, and the absence of an education will have a negative impact on the child or young adult’s development (Li).

            An analysis of PARC and its implications would be incomplete without evaluating the problems that surfaced from the legislations. As is often the case, the intersection between the legal and the practical left substantial fissures. For example, the laws ignited the debate that had been waging regarding racial compositions of classrooms- whether inclusion is the best practice, and how it should be implemented. It is evident today, even after revisions to national legislation, that the law leaves a great deal of space for schools to choose how to create and implement comprehensive education plans. Additionally, determination of the least restrictive environment continues to be a murky process. The law established a clear preference for inclusion, but this can lead to classrooms with a high number of students with special needs (Don’t Cram). Inclusive classrooms have been shown to be highly beneficial for students of all abilities, but if there are problems such as shortages of aides and properly trained teachers, inclusion can become harmful for the students involved (Lipsky and Gartner). Furthermore, McDermott, Goldman and Varenne highlight the negative repercussions of labeling students “learning disabled.” For example, they explain that after being labeled, students have to work to mask their struggles in school, which renders learning even more difficult, and amplifies their struggles.

           While it is clear that PARC and its descendants were far from flawless, they did open the door to classrooms for millions of students across the country. Congress hearings in 1973 discovered that over 3.5 million children with disabilities were not being provided a meaningful education, and nearly a million children were receiving no education at all (Minow, 74). PARC endowed these children across the country who previously had a non-existent or inadequate education with legal access to a classroom in which their individualized needs were addressed.

            Once students gained access to an education, they could begin to meaningfully benefit from it in a variety of ways. Academic growth is of course a central tenet of education, but there are also other ancillary benefits such as socializing and relationship development, the fostering of ambition and goal setting, and a widening of perspectives. If an individual is denied an education, then she or he not only is deprived of academic learning, but also of these other valuable experiences. If students are provided an education, but it is inaccessible to them due to their unique learning needs, they will similarly not reap these benefits. When students with disabilities are capable of accessing these benefits, they gain the ability to employ the benefits and develop an identity other than the ascribed, likely dominant identity of a “person who is disabled.” While it is problematic to make assumptions about other people’s identity, children who had zero or limited access to an individualized education likely did not have many opportunities to develop their identity. It is important to mention that students with disabilities will develop identities in different fashions depending on their specific set of abilities. For students who were prevented from attending school because of behavioral or sensory issues, or issues that today would be considered learning disabilities, they could now have an opportunity to develop identities in a manner similar to most other classmates. For students experiencing disabilities that have a more universal impact on their life, such as intellectual disabilities or severe autism, their identities might develop in different way. However, all students are capable of forming a self-concept, and furthermore have the right to be able to form a rich self-concept that encompasses identities beyond a list of obstacles society uses to repress and oppress them.

            Two scholars, Lennard Davis and Hazel Rose Markus, offer particularly useful frames through which to examine identity formation. Davis defines a disability as “the social process that turns an impairment into a negative by creating a barrier to access” (265). PARC was an integral step in moving towards complete access to education, and allowing an impairment to just exist as one aspect of a person, rather than a defining feature. To illustrate his definition, Davis provides an example of people in wheelchairs who do not have a disability unless they are in an inaccessible environment that limits their movement (265). It could be further argued that when people in wheelchairs are immobilized by society, they will likely either become invisible due to the difficulty of leaving home, or forced to constantly announce, silently or otherwise, something resembling “I am stuck! I am in a wheelchair, and because of the layout of this space it is impossible for me to navigate it on my own. Help me.” It seems likely that the society-imposed disability would become a dominant piece of identity as the constant focus on the disability leaves very little space to cultivate other identities. To utilize Davis’s language, the legislation that gave students with special needs access to schools moved towards rejecting essentialism, and recognizing that identity is not “tied to the body” but rather is socially constructed (265). Acknowledging that students with disabilities stand to gain from attending school is tantamount to asserting that each student is a multi-faceted person who is not only defined by her or his abilities. This acknowledgement and the action of attending school, offer space for children and young adults to develop identities beyond ones of disability.

            Markus’s article focuses mostly on implications of racial and ethnic identities, but the arguments translate powerfully to ability identities. Her primary argument is that in order to succeed in school, children must form “an understanding of oneself as a student, learner or achiever” which can be reached “when students feel that they are welcomed, included and belong” (64). Markus quotes a Filipina student whose educational needs were overlooked while in school: “After a while you figure it out- you don’t get anything and you don’t give anything… We just don’t matter!” (63). This statement could be applied to students with disabilities in schools before PARC who attended school, but gained very little from it. Most of them likely carried out the school routine, but did not return home any wiser, more empowered, or well rounded than when they walked outside of their home that morning. Markus further asserts that “equality requires attention to difference” (88). Markus’s postulations mirror the ideas of both inclusive classes and individualized education plans. Inclusive classes, when executed with tailored educations, work to make students feel comfortable in school, and learn from school in a way that displays to the student that it is logical for she or he to attend school. Addressing the educational needs of students with disabilities was the first step towards attaining equality across abilities. The learner identity is an extremely important example of the identities that have the potential to develop when students with disabilities are provided a meaningful education.

            PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania transformed a marginalized, invisible population into a visible, rights-bearing community. Within just four years, it led to one million more children with special needs attending schools, and schools nationwide being legislated to focus on students with special needs, rather than the previous practice of ignoring them (Martin, Reed-Martin and Terman, 29-32). Once the educational needs of students with disabilities were individually addressed, students could begin to cultivate complex identities comprised of more than ability. PARC is a fantastic example of how the law can be utilized as method of achieving normative shifts, social change and educational reform. As is always the case, it did not solve every issue pertaining to special education. It did however solidify access to education for children with disabilities. Students with special needs, their families, advocates, and lawyers have since been able to shift the legal battle from issues of access to issues of quality, in the hopes of truly accessing the principles agreed upon in PARC.



Works Cited

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Davis, Lennard J. "The End of Identity Politics: On Disability as an Unstable Category." The Disability Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2013. 263-76. Print.

"Don't Cram Special Education Students Into Classrooms." Chicago Teachers Union. Web. 08 Oct. 2014.

"Facts On File History Database Center." Facts On File History Database Center. Encyclopedia of American Disability History. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.

Li, Louie. "PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Mills v. Board of Education, DC." PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Mills v. Board of Education, DC. Disability Rights Galaxy, 11 Dec. 2013. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.

Lipsky, Dorothy K., and Alan Gartner,. "The Evaluation of Inclusive Education Programs." NCERI Bulletin 2.2 (1995): Web.

Markus, Hazel Rose. "Identity Matters: Ethnicity, Race, and the American Dream." Just Schools: Pursuing Equality in Societies of Difference. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008. 63-89. Print.

Martin, Edwin W., Reed Martin, and Donna L. Terman. "The Legislative and Litigation History of Special Education." The Future of Children 6.1 (1996). Web. 06 Oct. 2014.

McDermott, Ray, Shelley Goldman, and Herve Varenne. "The Cultural Work of Learning Disabilities." Educational Researcher 35.6 (2006): 12-17. Web.

Minow, Martha. In Brown's Wake: Legacies of America's Educational Landmark. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

PILCOP. "Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania - See More At: Http://" The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.

"Students with Disabilities." Students with Disabilities. National Center for Education Statistics, 2013. Web. 08 Oct. 2014.