When it comes to support services for people with autism—an exponentially growing population of 1 in 68 births—finding good news is like digging for buried treasure. However, this week we struck gold. The Supreme Court unanimously overturned Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s ruling against a family that sued its school district on behalf of their son with autism. In 2008 Gorsuch ruled that Luke’s school district had “met its education obligation” by providing “merely more than de minimus.” To clarify for readers who skipped Latin class, “de minimus” means “so minor as to merit disregard.” In essence, Gorsuch had decided school districts could meet their obligation to disabled students by giving them next to nothing, simply ignoring children’s unmet needs. The father of the boy in this case claims that his son actually lost skills after preschool and started to go downhill, so his son actually received LESS than nothing.
The good news here is that all 8 justices—even the conservative ones like Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas—said Gorsuch was wrong, because his approach denies disabled kids an education and fails to comply with IDEA. Even if Antonin Scalia was alive, and the vote was 8 to 1, it’s reassuring to know that the majority of judges currently on the bench understand the difference between warehousing our most vulnerable kids and providing a “free” and “appropriate education” to ALL America’s children. The Supreme Court reversal of Gorsuch came right in the middle of his confirmation hearings, offering senators a tiny loophole to oppose his nomination along with a glimmer of hope for a more compassionate, inclusive future.
What’s the bad news? The bad news (which is pretty terrible) is that Gorsuch will almost definitely be confirmed in spite of his disregard for the disabled. He’s well educated and extremely “qualified,” and some Democrats may believe that he’s a lesser evil than whoever else might be nominated. If the Republicans decide to eliminate filibustering, Gorsuch is a shoe-in. He’s devastatingly handsome, Harvard brilliant and completely heartless—a smarter and more eloquent bully than our president. I can’t help but wonder how he’d feel if he had a family member with autism or some other disability. Would he make the same educational decisions? Maybe he’s wealthy enough to afford an appropriate education for a child who learns differently (like another famous father we know…) and doesn’t want to pay higher taxes to support disabled kids from less affluent families. Hmmm…sound familiar?
Sadly, the disabled are at the bottom of the list of minorities, and all but invisible to conservative Republicans. Our president would prefer to spend tax dollars deporting illegal aliens, building walls and escalating our military. Still, children on the spectrum WILL grow up to be adults on the spectrum. If we don’t provide them with an appropriate education and support services, now and throughout their lifespan, our society will end up paying substantially more in the long run than the taxes wealthy Republicans hope to save on reduced educational spending now.