Profiles in Education Equity: Judith Bradley, Founder of JackBeNimble
Judith Bradley is founder and managing partner of JackBeNimble, a nonprofit organization based in Kentucky that is dedicated to re-imagining special education systems so that they work for all—students, families, educators, and policymakers alike. JackBeNimble also supports families for whom accessing special education services is difficult with coaching and support.
Judith presently serves on Kentucky’s Coalition for Advancing Education, the Prichard Committee’s Equity Coalition, the KY Collaborative for Families and Schools Advisory Council and her local school district’s special education advisory council. She is an active member of the Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys’ (COPAA), serving on the Government and Policy committee.
What does education equity mean to you?
Education equity means that it doesn’t require a battle to have access to the same opportunities and quality education as others. For the over 7.3 million students with disabilities, an appropriate education is often a function of their family’s capacity to negotiate on their behalf and even for families with that skill, getting the right services for their particular student is not easy. Imagine having to negotiate with your mail carrier to get your mail every day. That’s what special ed can be like. Students with disabilities tend to be viewed primarily through the lens of their disabilities which might explain why, despite relatively high graduation rates, their outcomes after graduation pale in comparison to their non-disabled peers. For the overwhelming majority, it is not because they aren’t able to be educated; it’s because the ed system has failed them.
How does your organization advance education equity for students with disabilities?
JackBeNimble encourages families to push policymakers and administrators to consider how students with disabilities as well as their educators will be impacted by their actions and to reject the status quo of special education. For example, most states set reading goals based on past performance instead of establishing goals based on evidence that, when given the right kind of instruction, most students with disabilities can learn to read. Just one out of every 10 children has an intellectual or other disability that might mean they won’t ever become a proficient reader, but the other nine could. However, according to the Nation’s Report Card, 62% of students with disabilities will graduate not being able to read and another 25% will graduate despite reading at a very basic level and despite their ability to learn. The status quo accepts that 87% of students with disabilities won’t be reading when they graduate after 12+ years of instruction.
The special ed status quo also accepts family engagement as appropriate when holding a bake sale but not so welcomed when they ask why their students are being restrained or secluded for behaviors related to their disability. Despite the language in regulations, the reality is that families and educators are often discouraged from authentic collaboration.
I’ve had teachers confide in me that they are afraid of being fired for recommending a service or program that they feel a student really needs. So, it’s not only the special ed students we need to consider; we must also consider the kind of culture we’ve created for their educators.
What is the conversation that needs to be had to achieve equity for students with disabilities?
Of course, COVID-19 has impacted the delivery of all education and it has exposed the systemic problems that already existed—especially for students with disabilities. For example, most students with disabilities graduate from high school with a regular diploma. Yet, according to the US Department of Education, just 13% of those students graduate being able to read at a proficient level, compared to 40% of their non-disabled peers. This situation pre-existed Covid.
Students with disabilities, and particularly Black and Latino students and those with “invisible” disabilities like autism, have experienced a deeply embedded structural ableism that has greatly curtailed their access to high quality, expert instruction for a very long time. They are still placed in segregated classrooms all too often, and despite federal laws which are supposed to protect them, they are not necessarily exposed to the same curriculum as their peers. They are also secluded, restrained, or suspended from school at disproportionately higher rates.
So, the equity conversation for this population is long overdue. And that’s the first place to start—with insisting that DEI, or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, initiatives include disability, that all education policies explicitly address how students with disabilities will be included or impacted, and most importantly, that students with disabilities be viewed as students first and foremost.
What (or who) motivates you to advocate for education equity?
My advocacy journey started when I gave birth to a baby boy, now 21, who was whisked away from me at birth and came home on a heart monitor. When he finally got to high school, the entrenched bias and ableism of the system became apparent. My son, and children like him, are the reason I get up each day to fight for educational justice.
Education is a core value with which I grew up—in my house we never discussed not going to college; the question was always “which college?” To see students not get what they need to succeed in creating as independent a life as possible, because their family lacks education, resources, or capacity, keeps me going every day. An individualized, free, appropriate public education should not be a function of a family’s capacity to advocate. Disability rights are civil rights.
What’s your favorite quote? Why?
I recently heard an interview with Rashad Robinson who founded the racial justice organization, Color of Change. There was so much that Rashad spoke about that I can relate to, especially, “when institutions are not nervous about disappointing your community, it doesn’t matter what kind of research report you have that illustrates all the facts and figures.”
There are millions of students in the US with disabilities, yet they and their families are practically rendered voiceless by society. Rarely are we on the ed policy radar or at the decision-making table and even when we are, it’s often token representation. So right now, I am holding onto Rashad’s admonishment to “force institutions and decision-makers to be nervous about disappointing us.”
Share one big success from your work to date and how you measured success.
In response to a letter we wrote last summer, the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services recently confirmed that students with disabilities can participate in college credit courses while still in high school without being required to give up their Individual Education Plans (IEPs). This has been a focus of my advocacy for several years; too few students with disabilities get the preparatory education they need to be successful in college because there is little or no expectation that they could be college material. Getting our message out that children with disabilities are students first and foremost and that compliance with the law needs to be the expectation, not the destination, is an essential first step toward transforming the system.
What’s next regarding your work?
JackBeNimble is developing a special education accountability initiative to help families hold their districts and states accountable for actually educating our children. We will provide families and advocates with tools they can use to help accelerate improved outcomes for disabled students in their schools.