Democrats are fighting hard to resist Donald Trump's manifestly unqualified nominee to head the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, and as a parent of two autistic children, I could not agree more. DeVos' demonstrable ignorance on the subject of children with disabilities is so deep that she cannot even correctly identify one of the most well-known such disabilities.
During the Democrats’ all-night effort to #HoldTheFloor and resist the nomination of Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) took to the floor to raise concerns about DeVos on the subject of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). At her confirmation hearing, DeVos revealed that she did not even know this was a federal law, and Kaine zeroed in on her attempt to repair that damage:
Another member of our committee who is supporting Mrs. DeVos, Senator Isakson of Georgia, also found it of concern enough that he had a written exchange with her, wrote her a letter, and asked her some questions about, you know, ‘Do you really understand what the IDEA is?’
And she wrote a letter back, which I’ve had the opportunity to review. But I still don’t believe that the letter that she wrote demonstrates a real understanding for this issue of the rights of kids with disabilities. And this is a really important point. Some of the states that have voucher programs — we don’t have these programs in Virginia for the reasons I’ve described, but there are states that do — Indiana, Florida, Michigan. Some of the states that have voucher programs, and receive public money for kids, they make children sign away their rights under the IDEA as a condition of being admitted to the school. ‘Oh, you want to come to our private school, and you want to use voucher money to do it? Well, we’ll let you in, but you have to sign saying you’ll never take us to court for violating your rights, for not treating you fairly under the IDEA. And only if you sign such a waiver will we allow you to come to our school.’
I just don’t think that’s fair.
As The Washington Post points out, the letter DeVos sent to Isakson pays lip service to the IDEA, but makes no mention of public schools, and includes lengthy reference to the voucher programs that Kaine describes. This is a serious issue that should concern anyone who cares about public education, but DeVos’ letter contained a much more fundamental gaffe than cuts deeper than policy.
In the last paragraph of her letter, DeVos offered an anecdote about personal friends of hers, and described their son as having “Down’s Syndrome,” rather than the correct term “Down Syndrome.”
To the average person, this might seem like a small error, but nomenclature matters a great deal. I found that out when I wrote about my experiences as a parent using the “people with autism” terminology that is favored by many parents of autistic kids — but which many people who have Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) find extremely hurtful. There are varying opinions on “person first” language, but as an ally to kids, I absolutely hew to their preference.
In DeVos’ case, there is no debate: “Down Syndrome” is the actual name of that disability, and her ignorance of that fact is a strong signal that she is not an ally to kids with disabilities. That is not to say she does not care about disabled kids. But her ignorance of the issues, which is reflected in her policies, shows that she is simply not qualified to protect their rights.