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Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC) is excited to launch our series of articles for EdNC and offer its readers diverse topics relevant to the experiences of students with disabilities at NC public schools. DRNC is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization and our state’s Protection & Advocacy system, with a unique mission to advance the rights of people with all types of disabilities, of all ages, statewide. We use an array of strategies to create a more integrated and just society, with a critical component being our advocacy on behalf of students with disabilities.

DRNC works to overcome a history of systematic discrimination, abuse, segregation, and oppression of disabled people that is not widely understood. The dehumanization and criminalization of people with disabilities is longstanding, pervasive, and ongoing.

Examples include the “ugly laws” of the 18th-20th Centuries that made it illegal for “any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself to public view;” the routine segregation in congregate institutional facilities; and the forced sterilization and eugenics laws, such as those in North Carolina from 1929 to 2003, providing “for the [involuntary] sterilization of mentally defective and feeble-minded inmates of charitable and penal institutions, or for the public good.”

DRNC’s advocates grapple with vestiges of these sordid histories daily. Just as oppression, segregation, and discrimination against Black Americans have evolved from Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration — oppression, segregation, and discrimination against students with disabilities has evolved into current challenges of school exclusion, adverse behavioral interventions, failure to provide individualized instruction that meets the student where they are, school push-out, and the school-to-prison pipeline. The intersection of race and disability exacerbates the disproportionate use of restraint, seclusion, suspension, and expulsion against students instead of schools providing access to proper educational assessments, services, and supports.

North Carolina schools institutionalized disability-based exclusion by statutory law dating back to 1923. In 1931, the original 1923 law was augmented with language making “mental incapacity an excuse for non-attendance,” interpreted as “feeble-mindedness or such nervous disorder as to make it either impossible for such a child to profit by instruction given in the school or impracticable for the teacher properly to instruct the normal pupils of the school.”

Additional amendments to these state statutes in 1955 not only prohibited children deemed to fit this definition from enrolling in or attending public schools, but also provided that “if a parent or guardian of a child banned persists in forcing attendance, he [sic] shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” In 1969, further amendments removed the misdemeanor offense and established an appeal process for children banned from access to public education based on “mental, emotional, or physical incapacities.” Not until enactment of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) did the North Carolina General Assembly repeal these discriminatory laws in 1975.

The IDEA entitles all children to a free, appropriate public education, declaring that “disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.” The law requires schools to find and assess children suspected of having disabilities, develop and implement an individualized education program with parental input, and provide supplementary aids and services to ensure students with disabilities are educated in the least restrictive environment with their non-disabled peers.

DRNC’s work to advance and defend the rights of people with disabilities includes advocacy to enforce the IDEA.

Every child naturally aspires and deserves to reach their potential and participate in the life of our communities with equality of opportunity. By ensuring that people with disabilities can pursue these aims, this work uplifts us all.

Schools are social laboratories offering children important opportunities to embrace diversity and learn, work, and play together. They are critical to building a more integrated society. That is why DRNC greatly appreciates this chance to participate in essential conversations through EdNC, and thanks all for their interest in disability rights.

Virginia Knowlton Marcus

Virginia Knowlton Marcus is the Executive Director of Disability Rights North Carolina. She is a nationally recognized disability rights attorney who has been advocating for disability rights at the state, federal, and international levels for nearly 25 years. Marcus comes to North Carolina from Disability Rights California (DRC), where she served as the director of legal advocacy and led a team of 125 lawyers, advocates and other staff dedicated to advancing the civil rights of people with disabilities.

Marcus spent 11 successful years as executive director of Disability Rights Maryland, and she also served as executive director of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation in Washington, DC. She has been a board member and officer of the National Disability Rights Network and co-chaired its legislative committee. Marcus earned her J.D. and B.A. in International Relations/World Politics at the University of California, Davis.