Why do President Obama’s children go to a segregated school?

Recently, marking the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, President Obama called the Supreme Court ruling the “first major step in dismantling the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine that justified Jim Crow.”

“We recommit ourselves to the long struggle to stamp out bigotry and racism in all their forms,” he said in a statement. “We reaffirm our belief that all children deserve an education worthy of their promise.”

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In Topeka, Kan., to commemorate the landmark decision, first lady Michelle Obama said, “Every day, you have the power to choose our better history — by opening your hearts and minds, by speaking up for what you know is right, by sharing the lessons of Brown versus Board of Education.”

Yet President and Mrs. Obama (like the Clintons before them) send their own children to Sidwell Friends School, a school that while not segregated by race is nonetheless segregated. 

According to Sidwell’s head of school, Tom Farquhar, not one of that school’s more than 1,100 students has a physical disability.  They also have not done any recruitment of qualified students with disabilities to remedy that injustice. 

“It’s an environment that is rather unforgiving around issues of performance,” he explained, “and we have to think about that when we are enrolling students...Does this child have the robustness and resilience to be in this environment, and not that they are unable to fully participate or hold their head high?”

Ah, the pure bigotry of low expectations. Almost 25 years after the bipartisan passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), architecture has changed, but attitudes have not. Doesn’t Farquhar know that Ludwig von Beethoven made beautiful music while deaf? Or that Thomas Jefferson was dyslexic? Or that Albert Einstein had disabilities? Is he aware that Stephen Hawking is still unlocking secrets of the universe while using mobility and communications devices? Or that Ernst & Young, SAC, numerous Internet companies and Walgreens actively hire people with disabilities because doing so is a great business practice that yields excellent results? Do members of Congress and the Senate know that many of their own children also still go to segregated schools?

Sidwell is one of the nation’s best schools, and many of its graduates will become top policymakers, CEOs and leaders in other fields. The richer and more diverse their school experiences are, the deeper the background they will draw on as leaders. And numerous scientific studies show that inclusion of children with disabilities can be of great benefit to both those students and the general population. Yet, without a single school peer with a disability, how will Sasha and Malia Obama and their classmates learn about people with disabilities? Only as pity and charity cases?

Farquhar is leaving Sidwell and will soon open a private school in Dubai. He doubts that his replacement will even look at changes in his first year. Sidwell’s director of admissions, Josh Wolman, who is leaving to head a school in Aspen, Colo., openly discouraged parents of bright kids with disabilities from applying to Sidwell, asking if they thought of applying instead to the Washington area’s segregated schools for “kids with differences.”

But this is hardly just about Sidwell.  It’s a dirty secret that more than 80 Washington area private schools do not actively welcome or serve children who have anything but the most minor disabilities. While the schools’ websites generally tout robust diversity policies that include children of different races, religions and national origins, they skip the word disability and the population that now comprises 18.6 percent of America. While not every child (with or without a disability) can handle the rigors of Sidwell Friends School, there are plenty of children with physical differences who are fully capable to be in Sidwell’s community of 1,100 talented children.

On the flip side, more than 30 local private schools exclusively serve children with disabilities — its own form of segregation.

Negative attitudes toward people with disabilities are major barriers to competitive and integrated employment; 70 percent of working-age Americans with disabilities are not in the workforce (compared with 28 percent of those without disabilities). Poverty affects a disproportionate number of people with disabilities — approximately 28.6 percent — and reduced access to adequate health care and integration expands the risk of acquiring another disability, and even fewer employment prospects.

Trapped by good intentions and low expectations, people with disabilities often have the most need but the least access.

Too many Americans, like Sidwell’s head of school and others, believe that people with disabilities are not competent, having never heard the expression “twice exceptional” — a term used for people who are both highly gifted and also have a disability. If schools like Sidwell would actively welcome highly qualified students and faculty members with disabilities into their community, we would take a big step toward addressing this injustice. The time for real equal rights and inclusion is now.

Mizrahi is president of RespectAbilityUSA, a nonprofit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream. She is an alumnus of Carolina Friends School.