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Helping Young People with Disabilities Reach their Full Potential

The first ever Department of Education National Transition Conference focuses on improving transition services for students with disabilities by forging new partnerships among federal, state and local officials, as well as private entities and community leaders.

Last week, I had the pleasure of kicking off the first ever Department of Education National Transition Conference. More than 700 students, educators, advocates and other leaders came together to work on improving transition services for students with disabilities.  

This conference, part of a Department of Education initiative called “The Year of College and Careers,” will help young people with disabilities reach their full potential. It will forge new partnerships among federal, state and local officials, as well as private entities and community leaders. Over the next year, the Department of Education and partner agencies will be providing more information and making announcements regarding this new effort.

The President is fully committed to this endeavor because he understands that supporting Americans with disabilities is not just about a set of principles or a set of programs. This is about people. 

It’s about people like Shelby Nurse, a remarkable young woman who I met at the conference. Shelby lives with cerebral palsy and a visual impairment. But because she has worked incredibly hard, and received the appropriate supports and services, Shelby will be able to graduate with an Associate’s degree from St. Petersburg College and enroll in the University of South Florida this fall. 

Stories like Shelby’s motivate us to keep fighting for young people with disabilities, and for all Americans who are doing everything they can to achieve their dreams. That is why President Obama has laid out a blueprint for an America where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. 

Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress have laid out a different vision for our country – a vision rooted in the belief that young people such as Shelby should be left to fend for themselves. Nearly every Republican in the House voted to cut Medicaid by 34 percent and gut our investments in education, which could result in cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. At the same time, the Republican budget would give millionaires and billionaires an average tax cut of $150,000. That simply does not make sense.

More than 35 years ago, Democrats and Republicans came together to pass what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In doing so, they recognized that as a country, we had to do more for students with disabilities. They refused to settle for a society where more than one million children with disabilities were being turned away from the schoolhouse doors and hundreds of thousands of students were in institutions that didn’t meet their needs. Today, it is up to us to continue this legacy of leadership. 

As we embark on the next 35 years, our goals are more ambitious, our aspirations are higher, and our dreams are bigger. Students with disabilities, like all students, are reaching greater heights. And, we need to do our part. I am proud that the National Transition Conference and the Year of College and Careers will help put millions of students on the path to reaching their full potential. 

Valerie Jarrett is a Senior Advisor to the President.