Betsy DeVos at her confirmation hearing.

Update: On Feb. 7, the Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary.

Betsy DeVos is not right for our children.

When I learned President-Elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, donated over $900,000.00 to his campaign, I was troubled. I became more concerned when I learned DeVos does not hold a college degree in education or any related field and that she has never worked as an educator. When I read that she has never attended public school and neither have any of her children, I was confused. It seemed to me she was lacking any of the obvious and necessary experience to hold such an important position in our federal government.

At the start of the confirmation hearing, DeVos failed to demonstrate any knowledge about a basic education policy, referred to as Proficiency vs. Growth. Later, when asked if schools should be required to follow the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), whether they are public, private or charter, she refused to answer with a “yes or no,” and she stated: “I think that is certainly worth discussion, and I look forward to discussing it further with you.”

No, Betsy, this is not open for discussion. IDEA is not just a suggestion; it is a federal law and must be enforced by the states. This is what we as parents of children who have special needs fight for during the sometimes long and arduous IEP process — not because it is merely a suggestion but because it’s the law that guarantees our children the right to a free and appropriate education (FAPE) no matter where they live or what their parent’s income might be.

Finally, when asked if she would protect the rights of children with disabilities should a voucher system be implemented, she appeared to dodge the questions. Why would she do that? I’ll tell you why: because the model for her proposed education system does not protect the rights of children with disabilities. In fact, for families to be able to participate in the voucher program located in Florida, parents must sign away all their legal rights in the event they are not satisfied with the special education services their child is receiving.

Today I went from concerned and confused to furious and also afraid — not only for my children but for all the children who depend on the special education services they receive from their local public school systems. Services they desperately need to be able to reach their fullest potential.

Betsy DeVos is not the person to represent our most precious resource — our children. I implore the Senate Confirmation Committee: please, do not sell out our kids.

Editor’s note: This story reflects an individual’s experience and is not an endorsement from The Mighty. We believe in sharing a variety of perspectives from our community.

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On Friday, January 20 Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, and I will not be watching. Personally, this was a hard choice for me, as I love history and have fond memories of watching President Obama being sworn in on a snowy January day. However, this time is different; this time, it’s personal.

I stood idle as Mr. Trump attacked opponent after opponent in the primary, and as he insulted opponent after opponent on Twitter. I listened as he insulted Carly Fiorina’s looks in a Rolling Stone interview, then as he lambasted Megyn Kelly after she asked a question he did not like. Then, I watched as Mr. Trump mocked Serge Kovaleski, an award winning reporter for The New Times, who happens to have a disability. I knew then that I could no longer stay silent, that I could no longer be counted as merely an observer to Mr. Trump’s unrelenting cruelty and meanness. I wrote Mr. Trump a letter asking him to apologize, which was shared over 30,000 times. However to this day, Mr. Trump has not apologized and denies he has done anything wrong.

Mr. Trump, my whole life I have fought to prove that I am just as capable as any of my peers, and that I too deserve a seat at the table. You see, I have cerebral palsy, a disability which makes my hamstrings tight and causes me to walk with a slight limp. My whole life, I’ve felt like I’ve been looked over simply because I am different. People look at how I walk, and decide they are scared of different, that they want “normal,” whatever that means.

Now that I am 19 years old, I am thankful for my disability. I am thankful for the lessons it has taught me, how it’s made me a better person. I would not wish for a life without CP, even though it would be easier.

Mr. Trump, I wish you all the best in your Presidency. But when you mocked Serge, you mocked me. I will not be watching your speech, as you have insulted me and the millions of other Americans with disabilities.

I hope you can unify this divided country, and that your speech gets the ratings it deserves.

Brooks Fitts

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Many self-advocates in our community, myself included, are redefining what it means to have special needs. As we begin a new year, let us reflect on what it means to have special needs and what redefinition of special needs can mean to the mainstream community. Together, as we look at the state of special needs, we can redefine new opportunities, and enhance current ones, helping to bring full inclusion to our community. Eliminating division and decreasing challenges within our community will give us a greater ability to dream and to support each other’s dreams.

Twenty-eight years ago was a different time filled with much frustration for those of us with special needs. In my early years, I had lots of therapies that helped me develop and, to some degree, avoid frustration in my communication. Like others my age, I didn’t have access to as many resources as are available today to help us with communication. One therapy taught me a small amount of American Sign Language (ASL). According to my mom, there seemed to be only a few professionals using ASL at the time with hearing children. They were signing only minimally and not encouraging the families to embrace ASL fully.

In my early years, “we didn’t realize that, had we as parents used sign language with you, even though you could hear, we could have helped you avoid much frustration and helped you develop faster,” said my mom Linda. If there had been an innovation such as Signing Time, my family could have learned ASL alongside me and thus helped me avoid so much frustration with communication. Signing Time, a video series promoting ASL to eliminate communication barriers, was created 15 years ago by Emmy-nominated host Rachel Coleman. A quarter-century later, we are slowly making some progress.

As many parents receive a diagnosis of a disability when their baby is born, doctors tend to present it as tragic. It is, of course, often a very scary time for families. Many times, families within our special needs community spend months or more in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), or the “Baby ER” as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes says in his book of the same name.

Often in the special needs community we end up divided among all the various types of disability diagnoses: from the deaf community to the Down syndrome community and everything in between. This division within our community can originate from a lack of understanding, and lead to a lack of acceptance and exclusion within society. In my early years I dealt with tons of frustration in communicating my wants and needs and personality.

As future families have children with special needs, “it is going to be different,” said Diane Compton, mother to a daughter with Down syndrome. “Maybe hard times, but it doesn’t have to be a tragedy.”

An innovation that has made a tremendous impact and eliminated communication barriers for Diane’s daughter, Erin, was Signing Time. “What I love about our Signing Time events, they’re unlike anything anywhere else,” said Coleman. “Even as families who have children with special needs, we divide ourselves up like ‘oh I’m going to the deaf stuff or ‘we’re going to the Down syndrome Buddy Walk.’”

Today we can point to examples of the progress that brings people together. Through the work done by nonprofits like my own Special Chronicles, nationally like Signing Time and Miss Amazing, and internationally like Special Olympics, positive change in the disability community is redefining what it means to be diagnosed with special needs. Today, we are seeing those of us with special needs in the workplace; at your local grocery store, coffee shop, and even as a newspaper columnist. Through movements like Special Olympics and Special Chronicles, we create a culture of understanding that leads to acceptance and inclusion for people of all abilities.

This year, we must redefine opportunities for people with special needs in innovative and creative ways. We can create a culture where diversity is not just appreciated, it’s celebrated. Amy Wright in Wilmington, N.C., started Bitty & Beau’s Coffee, a coffee shop that employs over 40 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This unique coffee shop is “pouring it forward” as their advertising says.

Special Chronicles, a nonprofit, new media network I created to give respect and voice to people with special needs, has redefined what it means to have special needs. In creating a media platform that reaches over 38,000 viewers in over 85 countries, I am redefining opportunities not just for myself but many others across our nation as contributors and on-air personalities.

“Full inclusion means the ability to dream, to support each other’s dreams and to dream big,” said Compton about Special Chronicles.

Although we have come a long way since the Americans with Disabilities Act and since  the  time when those with special needs were hidden away and institutionalized, our work must continue. This is especially true in light of news of President-Elect Trump’s possible attitudes towards the disability community. We must create more understanding and education, which will lead to more employment of those of us with disabilities.

Join me and let’s redefine what it means to have special needs. Together, we can create full inclusion by supporting the ability to dream big.

This column was originally printed on January 11, 2017 in The Bugle Newspapers.
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Disability isn’t funny. It’s not rare; it’s a part of life for many. It can be hard, scary, and something those who experience it have to come to terms with. It’s often something people fight not to be defined by, even when they are open about it.

What happens when your disability becomes someone else’s joke? I experienced this myself not long ago, when somebody who I’d known from school, but not spoken to in several years messaged me out of the blue with a degrading joke, apparently an inside joke between him and his friends about me and my disability.

Was it a simple joke? Yes. Was it fairly basic, without any real intellectual value? Yes. Was it completely random, and therefore a sign that this person was thinking about me much, much more than I was thinking about him? Yes. Did it hurt anyway? Too right it did.

For many of us, disability is the hardest thing we have ever, or will ever, have to face, because it can be life-changing, and isolating. Mean, targeted jokes about disability do not run off like water off of a duck’s back, they stick like oil, and they leave us feeling dirty, and attacked.

Nasty, uninformed jokes about disability do not make feelings of loneliness easier, they do not make us feel more liked, and they do not put us in the mood for the fights we have to face each day, sometimes just to get up in the morning. They are degrading, and they are harmful. They make us feel like we are nothing.

We are not the only victims. There are people in the spotlight who this has happened to, and to whom we can look for example when we wonder how to handle it. Lizzie Velasquez has more than once been a victim of awful comments made online, by strangers, and by supposed peers. Was she upset, hurt, violated, degraded? I’m sure she was, but it did not defeat her. She rose above. She is now a successful motivational speaker, author of multiple books, has made a documentary, and is said to soon be working on a television show.

A reporter with a disability at a press conference during the American election was belittled by Donald Trump; his disability was ridiculed. Did this hurt him, degrade him, and make him doubt himself? It must have done, but Serge Kovaleski is not only a person with a disability, but a person who has achieved, who has risen to an esteemed position in his career because he is good at what he does. A degrading remark is not nearly enough to steal away these things.

We will receive hate, we will be bullied, ridiculed, judged, and degraded for our disabilities. We will be told we are lying, or making it up, or that we are just a little too precious, or that the bullying is not as bad as we make it out to be. We will not listen.

We need to educate those who do not understand, teach them what is OK, and spread the definition of ableism, so people know when they are perpetrators of it. We must treat ourselves with kindness, and strive to overcome those who aim only to tear us down.

The oil this comment has left on me will not wash off overnight, but it will eventually, and my skin will be stronger for having soaked in it.

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Parents of children with disabilities and special needs are urging one another to call their Congressperson’s office following Tuesday evening’s senate confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Department of Education Secretary. DeVos is a well-known advocate of charter schools – which receive government funding and can be privately owned but operate outside of the public school system – and voucher programs – which give students money to attend private schools – as well as a billionaire whose family, according to DeVos, has possibly donated $200 million to the Republican party.

Concern over DeVos’ appointment comes after questioning from multiple Democratic Senators regarding her knowledge of federal protections for disabled students. Throughout the evening DeVos appeared to be largely unfamiliar with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law ensuring special education services to children with disabilities.

When questioned by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who asked DeVos if she agreed that “…all schools that receive federal funding — public, public charter, private — should be required to meet the conditions [of IDEA],” DeVos said, “I think that is certainly worth discussion.”

Later in the evening, when questioned by Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH), whose son has cerebral palsy, DeVos avoided answering whether or not she would enforce IDEA, the nationwide law protecting children with disabilities.

Hassan said:

My son, Ben, experiences very severe physical disabilities. He has cerebral palsy. He can’t speak, he can’t use his fingers for a keyboard. He doesn’t walk, but he is smart and the best kid on earth, if I do say so myself. He got a quality public education at our local school…. And I am concerned that when students who experience disabilities receive a publicly funded voucher to attend a private school, they often don’t receive adequate resources, and in some cases have to sign over their legal rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. So, do you think that families should have a recourse in the courts if their child’s education does not adequately meet his or her needs, whether it’s at a school where they get a voucher or in a more traditional public school?

After thanking Hassan for her time and question, DeVos replied, “I would advocate for all parents to be able to have that opportunity to choose the right school for their child,” to which Hassan responded:

I had the opportunity to send him to the same public school that my daughter went to because law required that school provide him resources that were never required before that law was passed – because they’re hard. And so the question is, will you enforce the law with regard to kids with disabilities if the voucher program did allow them to go someplace else and the school said, “It’s just too expensive, we don’t want to do it.”

DeVos responded by citing Ohio’s success with its voucher program, to which Hassan interrupted, saying:

Because my time is limited, excuse me for interrupting you. What I am asking you is, there is at least one voucher program in Florida, the McKay voucher program, which makes students sign away their rights before they can get that voucher. I think that is fundamentally wrong, and I think it will mean that students with disabilities cannot use the voucher system that a department under your leadership might start. So I want to know whether you will enforce, and whether you will make sure that children with disabilities do not have to sign away their legal rights in order to get a voucher should the voucher program be developed.

DeVos replied with more statistics, this time regarding Florida’s voucher program, but did not say if she would enforce the existing law.

After moving on from her original line of questioning, Hassan followed up later in the evening, asking, “So were you unaware, what I just asked you about the IDEA, that it is a federal law?” 

“I might have confused it,” DeVos replied.

Hassan then explained what IDEA does, following up with her concerns about DeVos’ nomination:

One reason that it is difficult to have this hearing and feel that we fully understand your perspective is because we do know that children with disabilities, in at least some of the voucher programs that you have supported, have gone with a voucher to a school. Because of their disability, [they] had to leave the school. The school keeps the money, and then they go back to public schools, which now have even less resources to deal with them. And many of us see this as the potential for turning our public schools into warehouses for the most challenging kids with disabilities, or other kinds of particular issues, or the kids whose parents can’t afford to make up the difference between the voucher and the cost of private school tuition.

Hassan went on:

I just would urge you to become familiar, should you be nominated, with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. And I do have to say, I’m concerned that you seem so unfamiliar with it, and that you seem to support voucher schools that have not honored, that made students sign away their rights, to make sure that the law is enforced. That is very troubling to me.

DeVos vowed she would be “very sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that,” prompting Hassan to reply:

And with all due respect, it’s not about sensitivity, although that helps. It’s about being willing to enforce the law, to make sure that my child, and every child, has the same access to public education – high-quality public education. And the reality is, the way the voucher systems that you have supported work, don’t always come out that way, and that’s why it’s something we need to continue to explore.

You can watch the full exchange between Hassan and DeVos below. 

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