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A Priority without Borders: Empowering Students with Disabilities

By President George J. Hagerty, Beacon College


President George J. Hagerty, Beacon CollegeAmong the manifold benefits of a long life fairly lived are the strokes of good fortune that can be enjoyed.  Over the past decade, two such opportunities have been granted me: the privilege of living and working as an educator on four continents and the advantage and honor of returning to a career path that has drawn me back to the service of students with disabilities.

After over four years of full-time work and life overseas, I returned to the States after being selected as the President of Beacon College in Florida, the first accredited baccalaureate institution exclusively devoted to the undergraduate preparation of students who learn differently.  It is in this role that I have been gratefully invited to make my way abroad again in the last year to keynote two international conferences on disabilities, one in the Middle East and another in sub-Saharan Africa.

These occasions afforded me, as well, the much-desired time to visit schools, and engage with parents, educators, and advocates.  It is understatement to suggest that this exposure propels one to gain a deeper appreciation of the issues surrounding the arena of special education globally.  It takes little time wherever one travels to recognize that the conditions and environments that define the delivery of education and services to students with disabilities are matters of concern that transcend borders and are, as in the U.S., enormously consequential for affected children, youth, and families.

For most of the world, the elements of the past civil rights battles for access and empowerment that were waged in New York and the United States in general over forty years ago (with the passage of P.L. 94-142 at the Federal level and its associated State statutes) are now being contested in both developed and developing countries.  Our own present challenges in the arena of special education in this country are tangible, including issues of effective assessment, access to and the availability of services equal to our own legislated mandates, and the opportunities offered students as they transition from our schools.

It is my observation, however, that as America continues to strain with the very real issues of access, accommodation, and equity, our struggles pale in comparison to the issues confronting many of those beyond our borders.  In many countries, the testimony of parents, consumers, and activist educators is that sustained and broad-based national progress in the arena of special education is stifled in the face of scarce resources, underdeveloped structures, well-intentioned but ambiguous priorities, and, sometimes, intervening cultural norms and taboos.

Most nations recognize that there is much to gain for their own country in examining the history, motivation, programming, and structures that define America’s special education system.  It is clear to me that, internationally, educators and parents draw inspiration, hope, and ideas from the U.S. model.  They are quick, nonetheless, to point out that any reforms in their own country must be culturally attuned adaptations of our model rather than a replication of “what we do and how we do it in America.”

This position represents clear-eyed, from-the-ground-up, policymaking as one weighs the circumstances posed by just three of many questions:  How does a nation reconcile millennia of cultural norms and taboos in establishing an effective countrywide Child Find system? How can students with disabilities be served in the least restrictive (and integrated) environment in countries and regions of the world in which class sizes in the “regular education” venues average 60-100 students?  Where will sufficient numbers of teachers and related service personnel be trained in the wake of necessary government action and reform?  In asking these questions alone, we can understand the daunting challenges confronting governments and educators as they seek to advance internationally what is now a nascent special education agenda.

U.S. lawmakers and the advocates who galvanized them forty years ago enacted special education legislation for one overarching purpose: that, for students with disabilities, “their ‘island of challenge’ would not become the defining landscape of their lives.”  It is this focus, as well, that motivates literally tens of millions of students and family members worldwide.

All this said, there is hope that the international community is beginning to coalesce around the human rights and educational imperatives of at least one-tenth of their school-age population: children, youth, and young adults with disabilities.  Although the United States has not yet ratified the Treaty, the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2008) offers its 160 signatory nations a sound foundation and starting point in the arenas of education, rehabilitation, employment, and other equally compelling issues of human rights.

As in the America of the 1960s and 1970s, when court cases and legislation began to frame a system of special education, it is the world’s parents (and, especially, the mothers) whose advocacy, tenacity, and passion are moving systems ever so slowly forward.  They are on the front lines persuading their governments to listen and act. They are regular visitors to local schools, often volunteering, but, sadly, frequently attempting to gain entry or services for their son or daughter.  As in the early advocacy days for the educational rights of all students with disabilities in the U.S., parents are the driving force and, to my mind, the heroes behind change globally.

Internationally, the demands of students and parents seeking the benefits of sound special education programming are, for the most part, of a fundamentally different nature and intensity than that of the United States.  In America and the leading countries of the EU, there is the need to reform systems that have been in place for decades.  In the majority of developing nations worldwide, however, the policy task is largely foundational: the creation of sustainable structures and systems, the addressing of cultural issues, and, certainly, the organization and direction of scarce financial resources.  All of this, at its bottom-line, is consequential for students and families… and the keeping of faith and purpose with the U.N. Convention:

… to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity (Article 1) #

Dr. Hagerty is the President of Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.  From 1979 through 1985, he was an officer in the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education. After a fourteen-year tenure as the President of Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, he spent the next four-and-a-half years prior to his Beacon appointment living and working in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In 2004, he chose to spend his mid-term presidential sabbatical of five months in South America. His ‘bucket-list” includes visits to all seven continents.



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