Students are at heart in disability-inclusive bill for Pa. schools

HARRISBURG, Feb. 11 – Lawmakers heard bipartisan testimony over a bill Thursday that would encourage disability-inclusive curriculum in schools across the commonwealth, ensuring that all Pennsylvania students see the lives of people with disabilities reflected in their schoolwork.

The pair of legislators championing the plan, state Rep. Joe Hohenstein, D-Phila., and H.B. 726 sponsor Republican House Special Education Subcommittee Chairman Jason Ortitay said that the testifiers made a clear case that representation matters and that students with disabilities excel when they see and learn from people who are like them. The concept of seeing one’s self represented in a role model fights the effects of exclusion and installs essential pride into learning minds, testifiers said.

“When I was young, I wore a hearing aid that embarrassed me because of the way people treated me. Many people can relate to a feeling like this,” Hohenstein said, noting that one out of five people have a disability. “Now, when I look at kids who have colorful wheelchairs, and even hearing aids, my heart swells with pride for how far we’ve come.

“This legislation could take us even further, so that students better see the ‘diversability’ in themselves and others.”

The bill number “726” refers to July 26, 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law.

“Hopefully, this bill can be passed this year,” Ortitay said. “Today was one of the best hearings I've ever had in my seven years in office. We built a lot of momentum, and we’re going to make some progress.”

Testifiers also spoke at a news conference following the hearing.

“When you were in school, I’m sure your lessons, books, movies, and posters all included pictures and stories of children who looked like you,” said Sharon Janosik, a disabled adult and the parent of children with disabilities who is a school director for the Bethel Park School District, serves on Pennsylvania’s Special Education Advisory Panel, and as a regional family leader with Families To the Max. “That’s how it should be, for all children.”

Many people consider Justin Dart Jr. the author of the ADA. His wheelchair is on display in the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

“I like to share one of Justin Dart's favorite quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King, who said ‘an injustice anywhere affects justice everywhere;’ therefore, I feel it would be a true injustice if our children never had the chance to learn about him and the contributions of his peers, people like Ed Roberts, Wade Blank and Judy Heumann, and so many others involved in the rich history of the disability rights movement,” said Lisa Aquila, a home care worker and disability advocate who testified.

House Bill 726, which encourages funding and partnerships to shape curriculum, awaits a vote in the Education Committee.

“One of the reasons why I am so enthusiastic about this bill is because of how many diverse, disabled people will have the opportunity to be involved in the process of designing the curriculum.  As the motto goes, ‘nothing about us without us,’” said Sharon Pennock of Havertown, who testified.

The rest of the testimony can be found here.