Why Does Michigan Fail People Like Miguel Perez? by Colleen Allen

Miguel Perez is a 27-year-old man facing a life of dependence, isolation, and limited opportunities to be fully included as a member of our community. It didn’t have to be that way.

Miguel is deaf, without any other disability, and his school failed him for years and years. His family was led to believe he was graduating with honors, only to find out months before leaving high school, he would not earn a degree, but a certificate instead, which would significantly limit his post-secondary potential. He was denied basic, appropriate educational supports, such as qualified interpreters, although he couldn’t read or write anywhere close to grade level. He tried to get legal relief through the administrative process and the federal courts. He was denied his day in court and with nowhere else to go, he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Now that the Court has decided that his case can go forward, we hope for a just result at the federal district court.

The question remains, how? How does this still happen? A family who doesn’t speak English as a primary language, a child with a hearing impairment, a school that passed him from grade to grade without the critical, basic skills needed to prepare him to live in his community or without a thought to his future. What happened to a free and appropriate education, whether you are a child with a disability or not, the protections of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and expectation for the highest standards, a right to literacy, access to peers and community, the skills to secure employment and live independently?

Nationally, the Department of Civil Rights has seen a surge in disability discrimination complaints over the past two years, some including the use of restraint and seclusion and/or failing to meet the needs of students with disabilities during the pandemic.

Over the past three years, all of us have been reminded about what civil and human rights really means in our country, given so many movements like Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Pride and so many other marginalized groups who fought to bring their voice forward.  Another, “harder to hear” voice is that of the disability community. The Ford Foundation is driving other philanthropic organizations to recognize how persons with disabilities have been denied certain civil rights and to prioritize funding for critical, disability issues. Darren Walker, the Foundation’s President states, “There is no justice without the inclusion of people with disabilities”.

The Autism Alliance of Michigan has embraced this movement for years. Our history of advocating for access to early, life changing therapies, competitive, integrated employment opportunities, affordable, quality direct care support, and safe, affordable housing options for those with the least to the greatest support needs are a few examples. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. But there is so much more do. Through the lens of human rights, we have a long way to go, and Miguel’s case proves as much.

We can do better. Our state can do better. All children deserve to learn in the most supported, inclusive and safe environment. AAoM is working with several advocacy groups to be the voice of children with disabilities and autism. No more examples of children slipping through the cracks or a family faced with the realization their child won’t leave high school prepared for a life of work and independence.

We need your help. Please join us in our advocacy efforts to further the rights of people with autism and other disabilities. As we approach April, autism awareness and acceptance month, please take the time to learn about people with disabilities and autism – the unique skills and talents every person brings to their school, their job, their community and how we can better support, include, and celebrate the ways we are all better when people with disabilities are afforded the same rights and opportunities as all of us.

Colleen Allen is President and chief executive of the Autism Alliance of Michigan, a resource for people on the spectrum and their families. At its annual gala April 22, AAoM will reaffirm its commitment to the civil and human rights denied to people on the spectrum and other people with disabilities.