Remarks At the
Individuals With Disabilities
Education Act Bill Signing
June 4, 1997 — Individuals With Disabilities Education Act Bill Signing Ceremony, The White House, Washington DC
Mr. President, Secretary Riley, distinguished members of Congress, students, parents, friends, and colleagues—
Mr. President, one month ago you spoke at the dedication of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial here in Washington. On that proud and sun-filled day, you spoke about President Roosevelt’s great faith in our nation and the American people. And you also spoke about his faith in himself.
You said — “It was that faith in his own extraordinary potential that enabled him to guide his country from his wheelchair…and from that wheelchair. . . he set America to march toward its destiny.”
Mr. President, today we come together to celebrate the extraordinary potential of millions of disabled young people who are ready to help America move toward our common destiny in the 21st century.
It was, however, one of the great ironies of this century that President Roosevelt, who was so sure and resolute in his leadership, often felt the need to hide his disability. Today we understand why. He lived at a time when disabled people were segregated, hidden away, and ignored.
I was born in the midst of that period. When it was time for me to go to school, the school officials did not see me — they only saw my wheelchair. And they barred me from class. I was a fire hazard, they said.
Well, it was pretty easy for them to push around a kindergarten kid, but my mother was something else again. She is one of the toughest kinds of woman you’ll ever meet — a housewife from Brooklyn, New York. Without experience, she and my father became activists and my strong advocates. And I finally did get my education. Thank you, mom.
Years later, when I applied for my teacher’s license, the Board of Education of the City of New York refused me again. I was still a fire hazard. But this time I could fend for myself. I sued them. And I got my license, and taught elementary school for three years.
Today, thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, those days have been replaced by the light of hope and opportunity. And this light has given us a brand new vision.
Today, we can see a future where no child is denied his or her civil right to get a quality education. We can see a future where young people learn in different ways — but all are expected to learn to higher standards. And I am talking about young people like these — Josh Bailey, Danielle Boustos, Lamar Lawson, Will McCarthy, and Cecilia Pauley — and all the others here today and in our nation’s schools.
We can see a future where we finally put an end to the divisive, false argument that goes, “something for your child means something less for my child.” If the American experience tells us anything, it is that expanding opportunity lifts us all up. Let us be a proud nation that takes responsibility for all our children.
Today, we can also see a brighter future for the parents of children with disabilities — parents like my mother and those here today, like Mary Samosa, Penny Ford, Paul Guzzo, Connie Garner, Barbara Ramondo, and so many others. The new I.D.E.A. helps make sure that parents won’t have to resort to superhuman means to get what they need for their children.
Most importantly, we can see a future where the tyranny of low expectations is overthrown once and for all — and that’s really what this I.D.E.A. reauthorization is all about. So to all the young people here today, I say —
You have a great opportunity — but also a great responsibility. We can open the door for you, but it won’t mean a thing unless you study hard and make the most of your education. Be proud and have high expectations for yourselves. Join with your classmates and build America’s accessible house together, as equal partners.
As we moved forward on reauthorizing the I.D.E.A., we were guided by the goals the President has identified for all disability programs and policies — inclusion, not exclusion; independence, not dependence; and empowerment, not paternalism.
Today, we are closer to achieving these goals than ever before. I want to thank those who helped to make this happen:
President Clinton, who has worked so tirelessly to give all our citizens the tools they need to make the most of their lives;
Secretary Riley, whose support and counsel means so much — it is such a great honor to work for this caring and committed leader, who believes that “all means all.”
My colleagues at the U. S. Department of Education, including Tom Hehir, Patty Guard, Joleta Reynolds, Carol Cichowski, Susan Craig, Suzanne Sheridan, Theda Zawaiza, Charlotte Fraas, and everyone else who worked so hard.
The members of Congress and their staffs who worked in the finest spirit of bipartisanship and openness, and taught me so much.
And the members of the education and disabled communities and their advocates, who worked fairly and in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration. There are so many that I cannot mention all of you by name, but we thank you so much.
We have come a long way, but we know that we can and must do better. Making progress will require continued partnership, aggressive collaboration, and a love for all children. This Act will give disabled young people more opportunities for quality education and meaningful employment than ever before in our nation’s history.
This is a splendid day of reaffirmation and promise. I thank everyone who worked so hard to allow this day to finally arrive.
Thank you. Now the real work begins.
Source: Disability in American Life: An Encyclopedia of Concepts, Policies, and Controversies, ed. Tamar Heller, Sarah Parker Harris, Carol Gill, Robert Gould (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO), 2019, p. 801-802.