Advocating for Students with Disabilities

with Peter Berns of The Arc

For families of the nearly seven million students with disabilities, navigating the special education system can be challenging.

Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss an online advocacy curriculum designed to help students and their families effectively navigate the special education system, and advocate for themselves to ensure they receive necessary services.

Posted on:

December 5, 2022

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: With the return to in-person classes across the country in 2022, children and parents are returning to pre-pandemic routines. And for nearly seven million students with disabilities and their families, that means advocating for in-school services. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees students with disabilities the right to free public education and appropriate special education services, but navigating the special education system can be challenging. Joining me to talk about a program aimed to help families and students advocate for themselves is Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc. And, Peter, thank you so much for being here.

Berns: It's great to be with you today.

Anderson: So, you know, navigating the process for children and families who are dealing with disabilities can be a tough one. Why is that?

Berns: Well, part of it really just has to do with the complexity of the system. For special education system to work well, you need parents to work with the school system personnel, the teachers, special ed and regular classroom teachers to really construct a plan that is going to serve the needs of that individual student. And that depends on the parents really knowing and understanding their rights, depends on them really having the time to be actively involved, and it requires the school to have the resources to be able to be responsive to the needs of the student. Unfortunately, the special education system is broken, and we need to fix it because there are too many schools that are simply failing students.

Anderson: So, I want to get at that system failure issue. Why is that happening? I mean, why is that so significant? It seems like that would be the one thing that's working.

Berns: Well, one of the reasons is that the system is really underfunded. When the IDEA was passed in 1975, Congress made a promise that it was going to fund 40% of the extra costs that school systems would incur in serving students with disabilities. And the reality is that they've never funded more than 18%. So that leaves local school systems with large, in $23 billion in extra expenses to cover that they're stretched to do. So, that's part of the problem. And another part of the problem is that there's a shortage of qualified special education teachers and that general education teachers aren't well trained to support students with disabilities.

Anderson: So, this is where a program that you have called The Arc@School comes in to help people navigate. Tell us a little bit about it and how it works.

Berns: So, The Arc@School is a resource for parents to help them learn how to more effectively navigate the special education system and become better advocates for their sons and daughters with disabilities in the system. And it includes an online curriculum, self-paced curriculum, where parents can learn all about the special education system. So when they're sitting in an IEP meeting with school personnel, they know what they need to know and they can be effective advocates for their children. We also have a lot of other online resources available through the site and we're creating new resources actually for students, because when a student gets to be 16, they're entitled to participate in the IEP meetings themselves. And so we're creating new resources for students so they can better advocate for themselves.

Anderson: So, this is one of those programs that really helps all children and families who are dealing with disability issues. But I know that you have a particular focus on people of color. What is it that they are up against? What unique barriers are they facing on top of everything else?

Berns: I mean, bottom line, I think it's bias and intentional and unintentional biases against Black and brown people that impacts, you know, they're being underserved in the special education system. You know, there also is a real problem with Black and brown students being penalized where their behavior is viewed as disruptive as opposed to being a consequence of their disability. And they tend to be subject to higher rates of discipline and suspension than other students. And so all that conspires against them to drive even poorer outcomes for Black and brown students.

Anderson: And all of this wraps up into the advocacy issue, which The Arc is focused on. Talk to us about how you really empower students and their families to be the advocates they need to be for now and the future.

Berns: Our approach to advocacy is really multi-pronged. So, at the core, we want the individual, the parents and the students to be strong advocates, and we do that through our Arc@School curriculum. We're also advocating through the court, and we are bringing lawsuits against school districts that aren't adequately serving students with disabilities in their special education systems. And then we're advocating on the Hill here, at the Capitol in Washington to get the resources and the policies in place that will lead to better outcomes for students with disabilities.

Anderson: I know people are going to want to know more about all of this. What's your website? Where should they go?

Berns: You can go to, our general website. And also we have a separate website,

Anderson: Peter Berns with The Arc. Thank you so much for being here.

Berns: It's great to be with you.

Anderson: And thanks to you for watching as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, just visit I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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