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Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation: rise and fall ... and rise again?

Office Of Special Education and Rehabilitation: Rise and Fall . . . and Rise Again?

* New leadership for the U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and most of its subcomponents has now been nominated and is in the approval process. The nominees present promising backgrounds of professional experience in services for persons with disabilities and also are familiar with the problems people with disabilities face in our culture. These appointees offer the promise and hope for new energies and opportunities for the special education and rehabilitation communities across the nation and within the U.S. Department of Education.

Historically, the federal government's role in special education and vocational rehabilitation has been an unusually significant one, particularly given the general emphasis on state and local control of education. The federal Rehabilitation Services Administration and its predecessors played a major role in developing the field of rehabilitation as it exists today. The agency's long-time Commissioner, Mary Switzer--a master bureaucrat in the best sense--formed coalitions with top professionals like Dr. Howard Rusk to create a field, as well as an agency.

In the mid-1960s, the special education community lobbied successfully for congressional activity, which led to the establishment of the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on the Handicapped in the U.S. House of Representatives. The subcommittee, chaired by Hugh Carey of New York, held extensive hearings; and Carey introduced legislation that led to the first Education of the Handicapped Act in 1966 (Martin, 1968). A key ingredient of that legislation, opposed strenuously by the Administration, was the establishment by law of the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped.

The creation of the bureau was a key element in bringing about a kind of "Golden Age" of special education in federal programming. The bureau played a leadership role in bringing together coalitions of parents and professionals, articulating needs of children with disabilities, building effective relationships with national and state special education leaders, and establishing a trust relationship with members of Congress and their staffs. During the next decade Congress passed a variety of federal programs building the supply of teachers, establishing research competencies, developing model programs in areas such as early childhood education and programs for children with severe and profound disabilities, and supporting new technology. The highlight of the bureau's activity was the establishment of a goal calling for education for every handicapped child by 1980 and ending the practice of exclusion of handicapped children from education programs (Martin, 1971). This goal was reached with the passage in 1975 of Public Law 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, and its subsequent adoption by the states. From 1967 to 1980 federal funding for special education programs grew from $37 million to more than $1 billion.


Progress by the Executive Branch in special education and rehabilitation since 1981 has been uneven, marked by some significant leadership activities, particularly its emphasis on the transition from school to work and the related concept of "supported employment" (Will, 1984), and by some spectacular failures.

The most significant of these failures is the development of unfortunate divisions between key participants in the special education and rehabilitation communities and the federal agency, and, in some instances, within and among both groups.

Deep divisions arose early in the Reagan Administration when the Administration proposed legislation that would have repealed the Rehabilitation Act and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, essentially undoing the efforts by citizens with disabilities and their advocates over the past 20 or 30 years. When the Congress rejected these attempts summarily, the Administration attempted to revise the regulations of P.L. 94-142 so that the protections for parents and children would be illegally weakened. Under great public pressure, the regulations were finally withdrawn. To reduce the distrust and divisiveness created by this and later actions will require great skill on the parts of new leaders.


Close working relationships with various constituencies was a major hallmark of the special education and rehabilitation agencies in the past. Legislative development of the Rehabilitation Act and the Education of the Handicapped Act was possible because affected parties met together, frequently with executive branch assistance or support, put aside rivalries, and presented the Congress with a united front. Disagreements, when present, were discussed within the context of relative unity and concern for the larger good.

At present there is considerable separation between the federal agencies and key constituencies. There has been a series of unprecedented public conflicts, including a call by the leaders of the state vocational rehabilitation agencies for the removal of a past assistant secretary. Similar negative sentiments were expressed at recent meetings of the state directors of special education, although formal actions were not taken. College and university special education program directors joined together several years ago to boycott a grant competition, refusing to submit applications and accept federal funds, because they felt so estranged from the process that had led to the competition. Persons familiar with federal programs could not recall similar instances in the past.

There are significant problems with at least some groups of parents who did not feel included in the agencies' priorities. Conversely, other groups, who once felt well received, may fear for the future. A key issue underlying parental concern and that of many professionals lies in the area of "least restrictive environment," the legal phrase referring to education of children with disabilities in what is commonly called the "mainstream," that is, with or near children who are not disabled. Although this general philosophy receives almost universal support, there is a sharp division over whether all separate school or class settings are undesirable. Federal efforts to enforce this provision of the law have seemed to some to violate the act's promise of an available continuum of placements, as well as an important role for parental choice. Parents and professionals of good will differ on this issue; some see recent federal policies as "arrogant" and based on a "we know best what is good for your child" attitude. Others, conversely, believe that the federal government is doing too little to make the states conform to the law as they see it.

In the rehabilitation arena, there is considerable separation between some groups of persons with disabilities and the professional rehabilitation community. This is not a problem directed solely at the federal level, but reflects dissatisfaction with the delivery of services through the state vocational rehabilitation agencies. As persons with disabilities have become more independent and enfranchised by society, they have more frequently expressed concern about service providers who, they believe, are still operating on old-fashioned assumptions of their dependency.


Within the federal agencies, there has been considerable turnover in leadership ranks, including the public defection during a congressional hearing of a presidentially appointed Commissioner of Rehabilitation. Several directors of the Office of Special Education also left with less-public expressions of frustration. The third agency in the umbrella office, the National Institute for Disability and Rehabilitation Research, also has been plagued with leadership problems. In general, morale within the professional staff is very low in all three subagencies. Although many excellent staff members remain, a number of good people have departed (Education of the Handicapped Report, 1989, September 13).


Despite this rather impressive list of problems, many positive forces are evident. Most people in the overall community involved with disabilities are dedicated to the improvement of services and the enrichment of the lives of people with disabilities. They have worked together successfully to bring about many improvements in public policy and programming. They are capable of bringing tremendous energy and dedication to revitalization efforts.


Efforts should be made to reach out to the community, perhaps through public meetings in various areas of the nation, to gather information and recommendations and to establish face-to-face relationships. Particular attention should be given to groups that have felt specifically devalued recently, particularly parents of children with learning disabilities and sensory problems. These initial efforts should lead to continuing meetings designed to bring about consensus, wherever possible, on important issues. Debates and divisions within the community that spill over into congressional hearings will cause great harm to future legislative prospects. That does not mean that disagreements will not continue and that discussion will not be necessary, but it is possible to develop broad areas of agreement that can drive public policy. The solutions to these problems are based on developing mutual respect and trust. The government can be a very effective convener of meetings to forge working relationships for the common good.

Considerable time also needs to be spent reestablishing a partnership with state leaders in special education and vocational rehabilitation. Without the active cooperation, support, and initiatives of state and local officials, no federal program can succeed. It was ironic that under the Reagan administration, with all its rhetoric about "getting the government off your backs," there was widespread belief that federal officials were overly intrusive and authoritarian.

Though there are limits imposed by any administration on contacts with Congress that are not approved, there is considerable latitude to provide information, seek advice, and share ideas with the professional staff of Congress, and thereby establish mutual respect and set the stage for cooperation. Working closely with professional and parent groups and having good relationships with them also heightens the agency's credibility with Congress.


One of the most frustrating aspects of being a government executive is the limitation on personnel. Despite the general assumption that the government employs too many people, that does not seem to be true in the management of disability programs. Responsibilities have multiplied, but staff has not; and monitoring and program quality has suffered. Moreover, in times of low morale, good people either leave or are less effective.

One strategy for strengthening federal administration has been to recruit top leaders from the field for relatively short stays. Whereas this policy results in more frequent turnover than one would wish, it is very difficult to recruit the highest quality persons into permanent positions in the government, particularly when things have been going badly. In the past, leaders from positions such as chairpersons of departments of special education from several major universities, heads of research institutes, state directors of special education, and others have been willing to spend 2-year periods in government service. Their participation made service more attractive for others who might stay for longer periods.

Discussion with colleagues leads me to believe this strategy can work again, if the new leadership creates the kind of climate that invites colleagues to share and work together. The current staff should also be reviewed carefully to ensure that talented people are assigned to appropriate positions and have not been set aside in various power struggles.


Persons with disabilities have demonstrated again and again the incredible ability of the human spirit to triumph over adversity. Professionals in rehabilitation and special education and their partners, the families of persons with disabilities, have demonstrated the enormous commitment they have to creating a society that includes full participation for people with disabilities. These strengths are there for new leadership to use in revitalizing the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. The time is ripe.

EDWIN W. MARTIN is President of the National Center on Employment and Disability, Albertson, New York.
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Author:Martin, Edwin W.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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