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Congress Thinks Plane Passengers Are More Important Than Kids

One can only wish that Congress would go to bat for kids with disabilities in the same way it has for airplanes.

(Image: Child silhouette via Shutterstock)

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With impressive speed, Congress approved a bill on Friday to ensure sufficient funding to keep the nation’s airplanes flying. By a vote of 361 to 41, the House passed legislation approved not quite 24 hours before by the Senate, to allow the Secretary of Transportation to move as much as $253 million from other parts of the Transportation Department to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The additional funds will keep the U.S.’s air traffic control system operating at a normal pace until September 30, when the current fiscal year ends. Cuts to the FAA had occurred due to “sequestration,” the $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that went into effect March 1 when Congress proved unable to reach a budget deal in 2011.

“Sequestration” is an unwieldy word and, despite repeated mention of “looming cuts” due to it, Congress has remained in limbo about creating a budget deal. It apparently took the concrete reality of almost a thousand delayed flights and thousands of displeased passengers — due to furloughs of air traffic controllers — to bring about Friday’s vote.

But other budget cuts resulting from sequestration have also been coming into effect. These include significantly reducing the amount of funds for special education and students with disabilities.

On Friday morning, I became abruptly aware of the sequestration, not because I was standing in a long line at the airport with other aggrieved people and their suitcases. I got a call informing me that, at the public New Jersey center for students with disabilities that my teenage son Charlie attends (making it possible for him to learn essential skills to use throughout his life and for my husband and me to work), all the non-tenured speech therapists and the last therapist who had gotten tenure had been informed their jobs are “at risk.” A number of occupational therapists have already been let go.

That is, some therapists who teach kids with disabilities life skills such as communicating, brushing their teeth and more are disappearing from my son’s school. What will the effect be on his services and those of the other students — fewer 1:1 hours, more “group therapy” sessions in which he sits and squirms and struggles to understand what’s going on?

The speedy passage of the FAA bill has quickly led to Republicans (who provided the majority of support for the bill, along with some Democrats) proclaiming a political victory by showing how quickly things can get done. Democrats have as readily pointed out that it’s notable that the House could pass a bill so rapidly while programs for the poor and education (including Head Start) are stuck in limbo.

School districts make funding and staffing — hiring and firing — decisions in the spring with a view to the 2013-2014 school year. Families anticipating necessary therapies for their children will be, are being, shortchanged. It’s nothing most people think about every day, but losing staff could well wreak havoc in schools like Charlie’s.

Autistic children and kids with other disabilities rely on continuity, on seeing the familiar faces of those who know their peculiar and particular ways of communicating and doing things. It’s not every person who chooses to work with kids who (like Charlie) have extra challenges (he has neurological issues, intellectual disabilities and a tendency for major anxiety attacks on top of his autism diagnosis) and who may show little of what many consider “progress” after weeks and months of effort.

It is a good thing that travelers can now go about their business. But at schools throughout the U.S., it will be anything but “business as usual.” One can only wish that Congress would go to bat for kids with disabilities in the same way it has for airplanes.