Students’ View: Three Ways Congress Can Support Students With Disabilities — Now

We testified before Congress about the challenges facing neurodiverse youth, and what lawmakers can do to help them succeed in school and in life

Anna Higgins and Claire Robinson

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Last month, we took to the Capitol to fight for our rights as young people living with disabilities. Sitting across from our elected officials, we — two young, able-bodied, confident women — didn’t appear to be disabled. But between us, we live with five learning differences that make living in a neurotypical world a herculean task. 

It doesn’t have to be this way.

With the appropriate support, accommodations and allies, our invisible disabilities — including ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia and processing disorders — are our strengths. Unfortunately, by isolating, ignoring and reprimanding students who don’t fit the neurotypical mold, the U.S. education system fails the one in five students across this country who learn differently. Congress must take action now by boosting funding under the IDEA Act, passing the RISE Act and appropriating more funds to the National Center for Special Education Research before the new school year. 

Many youths are labeled as “troubled” due to undiagnosed learning disabilities and are relegated to the back of their class, and they are bullied and ostracized by peers. Not surprisingly, a sense of hopelessness tends to follow. Roughly half of the neurodiverse student population struggles with anxiety and depression, contributing to the youth mental health crisis. Learning lags and social isolation make neurodiverse students three times more likely to drop out of school than their peers. Additionally, preliminary studies have estimated that anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of incarcerated people in this country struggle with learning disabilities — the great majority of which are undiagnosed. 

Beyond the obvious human and moral implications of supporting neurodiverse individuals, lifting up those who learn differently is good for American business and politics. It’s estimated that one in four CEOs are dyslexic, and leaders like New York City Mayor Eric Adams, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk have celebrated their neurodiversity for its driving role in their success. 

As a high school and a college student living with learning disabilities, we both know the great power that lives within us and our neurodiverse peers, and we are in the midst of a national reckoning around diversity in all its forms. That’s why, on June 14, we went to Washington for the fourth annual Learning Disabilities Day of Action. There, alongside 21 members of the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ Young Adult Leadership Council and 22 of our fellow student leaders from Eye to Eye, we shared our stories with members of Congress and the secretary of education and advocated for change. 

Just as we did that day, we urge Congress to adopt the following three policies and funding priorities that support students with disabilities.

1. Expand funding under the IDEA Act as part of fiscal year 2023 appropriations process.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ensures students with disabilities have access to free and appropriate public education, and allocates funding annually to do this work. We are calling on Congress to increase Part B State Grants funding to $16.26 billion and Part D Personnel Preparation funding to $300 million. This represents a 22% and 315% increase in funding from Fiscal Year 2022, respectively, and would provide the early screenings, specialized teachers and social-emotional support that students like us need to thrive.

2. Pass the RISE Act.

Under the current system, college students with learning disabilities must navigate an extensive array of hurdles — including expensive, duplicative screenings — to formally register their learning disabilities with their schools and receive the life-changing accommodations, such as extended testing time and exam breaks, that they desperately need. Proposed changes to the RISE Act (Respond, Innovate, Succeed and Empower Act) would change that by allowing students to submit documentation of special accommodations they received in K-12 so they get those same benefits in college. This would save students and their families thousands of dollars in screenings and make higher education more equitable. 

3. Increase investment in the National Center for Special Education Research as part of Fiscal Year 2023 appropriations process.

Finally, it’s critical to prioritize research to ensure teaching methodologies are effective for students with learning disabilities. To do so, we call on Congress to up its funding for the center, the leading body that conducts this research, from $60 million in 2022 to $70 million in 2023 through the upcoming round of annual appropriations. 

If these actions are taken, there is no limit to what neurodiverse youth can achieve. If left unaddressed, neurodiverse students will continue to flounder, with consequences that can be seen quite clearly for youth mental health and mass incarceration. We call on Congress to stop wasting our nation’s brainpower and potential by investing in the IDEA Act, passing the RISE Act and boosting funding for the National Center for Special Education Research.

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