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RespectAbility Submits Comments to New York State Boards of Regent to Promote the Success of Students with Disabilities

Public Comments on Proposed Amendment to Section 100.5 of the Commissioner’s Regulations Relating to the Superintendent Determination Option

Download the testimony’s companion PowerPoint (PPT).

Overall, only 64 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school compared to 83 percent of students without disabilities

Overall, only 64 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school compared to 83 percent of students without disabilities

Rockville, Md., Jan. 19 – RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities, submitted public comments relating to the pubic education system in New York City. Please read the full testimony below:

The P-12 Education Committee’s goal of increasing graduation rates for students with disabilities in New York is commendable. Yes, New York’s high school graduation rate for students with disabilities is significantly below the national average. Clearly efforts are needed to ensure that all New York students show equal advancements through school. However, RespectAbility believes that lowering the bar and reducing requirements is not the best way to support the dreams and aspirations of students with disabilities or society overall which needs the talents that people with disabilities can bring to us all. We invite the Board of Regents to sustain its commitment to improving the quality of education provided to New Yorkers with disabilities and we offer our help to reach that goal. We encourage you to use best practices that other states have successfully adopted to improve outcomes. We are excited to share our ideas and to find ways to collaborate.

RespectAbility is a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. We are a national organization but believe fundamentally in the positive impact that state leaders can have on disability issues. We work with a broad coalition of partners across government, the private sector and public organizations to help solve problems. As such, we are submitting the following comments to the New York P-12 Education Committee regarding the proposed amendment to Section 100.5 of the Commissioners regulations relating to the Superintendent Determination Option for certain students with disabilities to graduate with a local diploma.

Here are some key facts about people with disabilities in New York state:

  • In New York, the Class of 2016 had an overall graduation rate of 80% and a 6% dropout rate. However, only 53% (17,159) of the students with disabilities graduated, 3% (970) graduated Regents with advanced designation, 29% (9,369) graduated with a Regents Diploma and 21% (6,820) graduated with a Local Diploma
  • Of the 47% that did not graduate, 29% (9,430) are still enrolled, 5% (1,505) received non-diploma credit, 1% (321) are GED transfer and 12% (3,987) dropped out.
  • Only 44% of students with disabilities in NYC graduate high school.
  • Further, 1,920 of those youth had received Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) certifications from New York state’s school system.
  • In 2016, students with disabilities made up 6% (32,514) of the total NYS cohort.
  • A solid education is key to employment. However, with poor educational outcomes, New York’s employment rate for people with disabilities was only 33% in 2016.
  • In total, there are 1,098,072 working age New Yorkers with disabilities, and only 362,397 have jobs.
  • Of the people with disabilities who were unemployed in New York in 2016, 15,704 of them were youth with disabilities who had just graduated high school in 2015.

We know that, like us, you are committed to success for all students. As such, we challenge the Board of Regents to seriously consider the following issues: high expectations, absenteeism, suspensions, staff capacity and apprenticeship. There are critical connections across these issues that have profound consequences for lives of students with disabilities.


Despite progress made in recent years, students with disabilities are lagging significantly behind their non-disabled peers in educational attainment. Nationally, only 65% of students with disabilities complete high school and less than 7% of people with disabilities are completing college. For youth of color with disabilities and English Language Learners with disabilities, those outcomes are even worse. With New York itself, only 53% of students with disabilities complete their high school degree while in New York City that number is barely 44%. The Board of Regents is aware of this gap and is seeking ways to boost student success. By implementing the ‘determination option’ in June of 2016, New York has signaled a commitment to improving education for students with disabilities. That amendment was a significant step forward. However, our organization is deeply concerned that allowing superintendents to relax the standards of determination set forth by the 2016 amendment will have negative consequences in three ways.

First, that by lowering standards the Board of Regent may increase the soft bigotry of low expectations for New York state students with disabilities. Additional efforts are needed to ensure that all New York students show equal advancements through school. Lowering the bar for students will ultimately undercut their future opportunities for income, independence and success.

Second, we have concerns about the stigma that may be associated with a degree that can and likely will be perceived as “inferior” or less rigorous. Our hope is that if that is the choice the Board makes, it is clearly differentiated from a mainstream degree and is only used in specific cases.

Third, we are concerned about the intersectional consequences of this proposed change for student of color and ELL students with disabilities. Several years ago, a detailed assessment of lowered standards for students with disabilities found that “African-American students with learning disabilities were up to six times more likely to be assessed on these low-rigor tests than were similar Caucasian or Latino students.” As such, we are concerned that minority students with disabilities will be seriously impacted by the proposed change being considered by the Board.

As it is vital to promote high expectations, we invite you to read the words and work of David Johnson from the Institute on Community Integration. He wrote that “if you’re setting high expectations for everybody…that should mean everybody.” Lowering standards just to boost graduation rates rans contrary to what needs to be done.


New York state schools serve over 300,000 students with disabilities. Each of those students faces risks for missing classes. When a student misses too much school, they can get too far behind in their academics, and drop out/get expelled. As your Department itself has said “Chronic absence from school….diminishes successful student outcomes and undermines education and learning.” There are several factors that impact the risk of absenteeism among students with disabilities:

  1. Health – Physical issue, mental health and access can impact attendance.
  2. Abuse – Youth with disabilities are 3 times more likely to be victims of abuse. This happens both inside and outside of school. The school climate around bullying and abuse dramatically impacts students with disabilities who may stay home because they feel unsafe/unwelcome.
  3. Suspensions/Expulsions – The data is clear on how suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement impact students with disabilities These experiences are especially important for students who are people of color (POC) or English Language Learners (ELL)
  4. Teacher Training – Preparing teachers to adequately, appropriately and successfully teach students with disabilities can be challenging. However, teachers make or break the classroom environments and this issue merits further attention.
  5. Lack of diagnosis and accommodations that are appropriate for the student, which leads to failure, frustration and worse.
  6. Dumping” of students in poorly performing alternative schools so that their home schools can boost their own performance metrics.

We raise these issues because of their consequences for students with disabilities. Evidence shows that chronic absenteeism is a problem in many communities across New York state. As reported by the advocacy organization Attendance Works: “Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and Utica, for example, each have chronic absenteeism rates.” This issue is especially important when you look at minority communities in New York. In looking on the data, Attendance Work found that “in Rochester, Schenectady, Troy and Ithaca, the chronic absenteeism rates for African Americans, Hispanics and students with disabilities are all close to 40 percent, and in some cases, considerably higher.” As the Board of Regents looks for ways to increase the graduation rate of students with disabilities overall, we want to encourage the Board to confront the issue of absenteeism. We hope that the Boards will deeply explore what policy levers, priority programs or new efforts can be made to confront this challenge.

It is axiomatic in public policy that what gets measured, gets done. As such, there is a further issue we want to raise before the Board of Regents. There is a clear need for better data and stronger performance metrics around chronic absence among students with disabilities in New York state. In general, the Civil Rights Data Collection from the U.S. Department of Education provides a clear break down of data with breakdowns by gender, ethnicity, disabilities, etc. However, we are aware that the chronic absence data that New York state sent to the Office of Civil Rights was systematically erroneous (drastically underreported, approaching 0% in most cases). We know that New York late reached out to other organizations to corrected data for other reports. However, that was only the TOTAL number of chronically absent students. We certainly believe that everyone involved is acting in good faith, but we hope greater attention will be given to these crucial issues from now on.


When students with disabilities are suspended, they are very often the proverbial canary a coal mine. Our perspective is that the suspension of many students with disabilities is an evidence of an underlying problem of lack of adequate staffing and training in that school. As a recent article on the subject of suspension said, “Local realities matter.” Whether it is a lack of a good diagnosis, an inadequate IEP/504, a missing Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) or a school that does not use positive behavioral supports. Put differently, high suspension rates for students with disabilities are warning signs of a lack of knowledge, competency and capacity to appropriately educate children with disabilities.


It is vital to upskill not only the 600,000 people who work either as special educators, para-educators and professionals helping students with such issues at speech therapy, OT etc., but also to enable general educators, school resource officers and administrators to understand the basics of helping students with disabilities. This is especially true of “invisible disabilities” such as dyslexia, ADHD, mental health disorders etc. For example, many may not recognize a difference between when a child CAN’T follow instructions due to an executive function disorders or other cognitive issue, as opposed to WONT follow instructions due to defiance. 


Schools are only a part of the equation. We feel that much more must be done to empower the parents of children with disabilities. Especially, parents for whom English is a second language. As a diverse state, New York is home to growing immigrant communities and communities of color. Consequentially, as those communities grow, more and more children with disabilities will be enrolled in New York school. Our own organization has made a serious commitment to increasing the number of resources that we provide in both English and Spanish. If the Board of Regents does move forward with the proposed change to the Superintendent Option, then we hope effort will be made to fully educate parents about these changes regardless of their native language.


Should the proposed amendment pass, any student who is granted the credential based on determination (here assumed because they have been unable to meet as-written standards) would not be able to “use such credential to meet the requirements for the career development and occupational studies graduation pathway to a local or Regents diploma. In addition, if the credential (or a diploma) is granted by determination that must be clearly stated on the document received. Such a statement may prove stigmatizing when a graduated student attempts to use either credential to obtain a job or further training. Especially if it has been deemed by the P-12 Education Committee that being awarded the credential in such a way as it is then unequal to a standard diploma. New York already has an employment gap of 41.9 percent between those with and without disabilities in their current job market. Maintaining the standards of education provided to those with disabilities is a vital primary step to decreasing this gap.

RespectAbility wishes to raise the opportunities that apprenticeship programs offer. Anyone who works hard should be able to get ahead in life. Students with disabilities deserve the opportunity to earn an income and achieve independence, just like anyone else. For those students with disabilities who are not diploma bound, RespectAbility believes that apprenticeships can offer precisely those opportunities. The Board of Regents has clearly signaled a commitment to employment success for students with disabilities by adopting and implementing the Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS) Commencement Credential. We hope that the Board will make a special commit to ensuring that those students and other students with disabilities who are not diploma bound are connected to apprenticeship programs across New York state. Nationally, apprenticeship has rapidly become a key priority in the world of workforce development. We hope that the Board of Regents will consider and prioritize apprenticeships as a way of promoting positive outcomes for students with disabilities who are non-diploma bound. Nationally, there already are two models that are achieving extraordinary success with work based learning opportunities: Project SEARCH and Bridges from School to Work. SEARCH is a unique, employer driven transition program that prepares students with disabilities for employment success. Likewise, the Bridges offers assessments, workshops and job matching. This model has grown to more than 300 programs in 46 states and served nearly 3,000 youth in 2015. Among those young people, more than 78 percent found jobs. These are transformative results for a population that faces serious barriers to pursuing life and liberty. These results also show how a focused commitment to school-to-work transitions can create brighter futures for students with disabilities.

In closing, we hope that the Board of Regents will continue its deep commitment to supporting students with disabilities in New York state. Our organization is ready and eager to partner with you. If you have further feedback or questions on our Comments, please contact our Policy and Practices Director Philip Kahn-Pauli at 240-483-4134 or [email protected].

Acknowledgements: Critical research and writing support on these comments was provided by the following Policy and Employment Fellows: Adrienne Baez, Stephanie Farfan and Nicholas Olson. These young leaders helped to write these comments and researched the key statistics included in this report.

Meet the Author

Adrienne Baez

Adrienne Baez is passionate about where community interaction and policy change meet in the nonprofit sector and hopes to be an active and helpful part of her own disability community. With a desire to increase accessibility, her focus is on education and employment.

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