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A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

By Dr. Yvonne Bui

A rising tide lifts all boats.” A colleague recently reminded me of this quote. I had vaguely heard it before but couldn’t remember the context or if I was really sure what it meant. As an English learner, I struggle with English idioms. To ensure I didn’t embarrass myself further by using it incorrectly, I did what every good researcher does…I “Googled” it.

According to Wikipedia and other questionable internet sources, the author is unknown although President Kennedy gave significance to the phrase when he used it during a speech in Ohio in 1960. The phrase is mainly used by politicians and economists, and the gist is that when improvements are made in the general economy, all participants benefit. I’m not a politician or an economist, but this seems like common sense to me. The phrase has also been used in education, particularly in discussions around educational inequities and the redistribution of resources as a means to reduce the achievement gap in the U.S.

In this short blog, I would like to consider the phrase in the international context of persons with disabilities in other countries, including “developing countries.” [Note to reader: while not perfect, “developing countries” appears to be the most politically correct term to use and refers to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that are still developing systems of health care, education, water, and electricity].

The global statistics around persons with disabilities are sobering. According to the World Health Organization, more than 1 billion people (15% of the world’s population), live with disabilities. One billion! That is close to the entire population of India. Given the aging population, increase in chronic health conditions, and recent and ongoing conflicts around the world, this number will only grow. Eighty percent of persons with disabilities live in developing countries (WHO, 2011), and 90% of children with disabilities in these countries do not attend school (UNESCO, 2009). Women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to being excluded and abused because of their gender and disability. Approximately 6.7 million persons with disabilities are forcibly displaced from their countries due to persecution, violence, and conflict and live in rural/urban centers, refugees camps, or camps for internally displaced persons (Women’s Refugee Commission, 2013). While these statistics are grave, they are not hopeless.

As a university professor and a special educator, I have had the privilege to travel to many countries, including several developing countries, to visit local and independent schools, universities, and communities that are grappling with the issues of how to provide educational and vocational services for persons with disabilities. As you can imagine, this is not an easy task, and in most cases, the costs are prohibitive. When a community is struggling to secure safe drinking water, basic health care, reliable power, and free or reduced-cost public education for the mass population, providing services for persons with disabilities is typically not a priority.

When I travel internationally, I am often reminded of how fortunate we are here in the U.S. No other country has encompassing federal legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that mandates free and appropriate public education for children and youth with disabilities or prohibits discrimination through civil rights legislation such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In many ways, the U.S. has been a leader and the model of how to provide inclusive educational services for children with disabilities and integrate individuals with disabilities as active and productive members of mainstream society.

However, where the U.S. has failed the international disability community is by not ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRDP is the first comprehensive human rights treaty in the 21st century and was entered into force on May 3, 2008. It represents a paradigm shift from viewing persons with disabilities as “objects” to be fixed or pitied to “subjects” who have human rights, can make their decisions, have avenues to defend their rights, and can contribute to society. The purpose of the CRDP is to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity (UN-CRPD, 2008).” Some of the general principles include: participation and inclusion, accessibility, non-discrimination, and individual autonomy.

Currently, over 151 countries have signed and ratified the treaty including: Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Morocco, Tunisia, United Kingdom, and Vietnam. President Obama signed the treaty on behalf of the U.S. in July 2009, and it was almost ratified by the Senate in 2012, primarily because of the dedication and commitment to the treaty by former Kansas senator, Robert Dole. Sadly, the ratification failed because they were short 5 votes. Today the treaty languishes with the 114th Senate.

I mention the United Nations CRPD because I feel it is important that we (and here I mean the collective we) must stretch beyond our borders. Like you, most special educators I know in the U.S. are brilliant, passionate, and compassionate, people, and they have dedicated their professional careers to this work because they want to make changes and improve the quality of education and life for individuals with disabilities and their families. In essence, they want to raise the tide. To do this, we cannot just lift the boats floating on our own shores. We have to reach across the borders and raise the global tides overseas.

My overseas travels have brought me to Vietnam, Tanzania, Nigeria, Rwanda, Peru, Belize, Malawi, El Salvador, and Uganda where I have visited special schools, prepared teachers, provided professional development, and presented at conferences. At these conferences, I have met international special educators from all over the world. Every person that I have encountered through these experiences want the same things that we want for our children and adults with disabilities in the U.S.—something better for their communities with all the same principles outlined in the CRPD. There is no lack of brilliance, passion, or compassion. What is lacking are resources (political and financial), facilities and technological assistance, and most of all, teacher preparation and professional development around research and evidence-based practices in special education.

I have been very fortunate to have these international experiences. They were life-changing and have shaped who I am as a person and as a special educator of a global community. At the same time, there is nothing particularly unique about me or these experiences. There are many professional organizations to help connect volunteers overseas and thousands of international schools and universities that want and need well-trained special education teachers and professors. With today’s technological capabilities, you don’t have to actually have to leave the U.S. to make an impact overseas, as there are also ways to provide assistance through online sources.

What I like most about this phrase, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” is that it represents interdependence and connectedness. It doesn’t matter which boat you are in. We can all ride with the tide or we can work together to raise it for everyone… A rising tide can lift one billion boats.


World Health Organization (2011). World report on disability. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/en/

Women’s Refugee Commission (2013). Disability inclusion: Policy to Practice. Retrieved from https://womensrefugeecommission.org/programs/disabilities/disability-inclusion

UNESCO (2009). Towards inclusive education for children with disabilities: A guide. Retrieved from http://www.uis.unesco.org/Library/Documents/disabchild09-en.pdf

United Nations (2008). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html


Yvonne Bui earned her Ph.D. in Special Education at the University of Kansas in 2002. She is presently Professor and Chairperson in the Department of Special Education & Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University.

Yvonne has been the Project Director of several personnel preparation grants from the Office of Special Education Programs. Her research interests include developing curriculum and instruction and culturally relevant strategies for students with disabilities in high-poverty, urban settings. She has worked in the field as a paraprofessional, classroom teacher, mentor teacher, and volunteer in international settings.

She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Council of Exceptional Children and on the Advisory Committee for Exceptional Children and Youth for the Office of Overseas Schools at the  U.S. Department of State.

Quality Lives of Youth with Intellectual Disability: Reforming Transition to Integrated Employment

Dr. Mary Morningstar

The purpose of transition services is to support students with disabilities as they exit high school special education programs and move into the next stage of their lives, including to postsecondary employment or educational settings. Transition is both a federal mandate as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), as well as an organizational framework for providing high quality planning and services to meet individual student outcomes. For almost 30 years, it has been seen as a bridge between the security of school, and the risks and opportunities of an adult life (Will, 1984). Youth with intellectual disability often have complex support needs, especially when it comes to finding and sustaining integrated employment. Unfortunately, when compared with other students with disabilities, youth with intellectual disability, continue to experience among the least successful adult outcomes (Sanford et al., 2011). Given the prevalence of segregated employment for this group of youth, combined with false assumptions about capabilities and strengths, many youth with intellectual disability find that innovations in the field are beyond their reach, including the transition services and supports necessary to support them in moving from school to a quality adult life inclusive of working in integrated community settings (Braddock et al., 2013; Certo et al., 2006).

The recent settlement of a class action lawsuit disbanding sheltered workshops as the primary option for adults and youth with intellectual disability is the culmination of many years of extended work and effort among a wide range of advocates, including the lead attorneys, self-advocates, community members, schools and families. It is important to consider how such compelling legal decisions shake loose tightly held beliefs of limited expectations. The experience of serving as advisor and litigation expert for the plaintiffs in one recent case has confirmed the importance of confronting injustices from multiple leverage points. We are at a point in time where the constellation of emerging research, effective practices, federal legislative actions and strong legal advocacy is producing strong impetus for change, probably more than I’ve seen in the past two decades of work.

Research and innovation certainly lead to new practices; yet may require an extended arc of time to see such changes implemented within schools. Certainly the same is true of the past decades of focus on transition-related teacher preparation efforts as well as 25 years of federal transition statutes. Don’t get me wrong; class action lawsuits take several years to litigate; yet the immediacy of the impact can be unprecedented. In this case, essentially the front doors of sheltered workshops are now permanently closed in Oregon. No longer will any youth exiting high school or transition services be funneled into segregated employment. Youth with disabilities most vulnerable to meaningless and low paying jobs must now be prepared to make a seamless transition to integrated employment – meaning real work for real wages.

This decision fundamentally alters the provision of transition planning and services, because schools cannot continue to maintain the status quo perpetuating low expectations for sheltered employment. Restricting entrance to sheltered workshops halts youth from entering the pipeline of special education resulting in low paying, and often lifetime segregation. Like closing the front door of large, residential institutions, it is the only practical strategy to reduce segregation over time. It does not deprive youth and their families of the freedom to choose employment services – only from being relegated to segregated ones.

Nationally, several states have established policies affirming that sheltered work is no longer a reasonable or valued option for young adults with intellectual disability. When such bold alterations in services take place, a domino effect occurs, whereby transition expectations and preparation also must change. Schools can and should presume competence and high expectations, and then ensure that youth with intellectual disability are prepared to achieve integrated employment outcomes, including customized and supported employment. This shift in perspective ensures that evidence-based programs and practices known to lead to employment success will be incorporated when previously, not considered. For example, research is clear that utilizing personalized and person-centered approaches such as Discovery (Condon, 2012) targeting the interests and preferences of youth and families is more likely to lead to integrated employment. Models of successful approaches to career development and work experiences specifically for youth with intellectual disability have emerged over the past two decades such as, the systematic provision of work-based learning experiences such as Project SEARCH (Rutkowski, Daston, Van Kuiken, & Riehle, 2006; Wehman, et al., 2014). The importance of intensive paid internships (Carter et al., 2010) and seamless transition models that incorporate high levels of interagency collaboration are emerging as strong predictors of success (Certo & Luecking, 2010; Luecking, Cuozzo, Leedy, & Seleznow, 2008). Schools in collaboration with community agencies must now unilaterally implement such effective models.

More and more doors are opening with passage of federal policies and requirements such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA, July, 2014). Federal focus is now targeting youth with disabilities and the effective preparation for competitive, integrated employment. For the first time, Rehabilitation services will be offering pre-employment transition services (PETS) that expands employment services to youth with disabilities as young as 14 years old, even if students have not yet applied for VR services. Services include effective and evidence-based practices (i.e., job exploration, work-based learning, counseling, workplace readiness training and self-advocacy) as well as strong expectations for supported employment, among other requirements. While transition planning has always been done best with strong interagency collaboration, the federal initiatives such as WIOA substantially strengthen the foundation and operation of IDEA. Other exciting efforts, such as the transition to postsecondary education programs for students with intellectual disability (TPSID, supported by the Higher Education Act) offer further opportunities to established collaborative and innovative methods for improving quality adult outcomes. The next five years at KU, with support for a new postsecondary education program on campus will pave the way for Kansas youth with intellectual disability to experience inclusive college experiences leading to integrated employment and full community participation.

Indicators of transition and career development for youth with intellectual disability are now well established and multi-dimensional. Models of effective programs leading to postschool employment have been established through research and development. Essential pillars of transition success require a student-driven and self determined approach to career assessment and job development; and access to work-based learning and paid integrated employment. It is only through such directed and explicit experiences will youth with intellectual disability and their families be ready and able to achieve their dreams. It is an exciting time to be engaged with adolescents and youth with intellectual disability!


Luecking, R. G., Cuozzo, L., Leedy, M. J., & Seleznow, E. (2008). Universal one-stop access: Pipedream or possibility? Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 28(3), 181-189.

Sanford, C., Newman, L., Wagner, M., Cameto, R., Knokey, A. M., & Shaver, D. (2011). The Post-High School Outcomes of Young Adults with Disabilities up to 6 Years after High School: Key Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). NCSER 2011-3004. National Center for Special Education Research.

Wehman, P., Schall, C., Carr, S., Targett, P., West, M., & Cifu, G. (2014). Transition from school to adulthood for youth with autism spectrum disorder: What we know and what we need to know. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 1044207313518071.

Will, M. (1984). Bridges from school to working life. Interchange, 20(5), 2-6.

Condon, 2012. Create a Model Transition Program surrounding the concept of customized employment. Retrieved from http://www.imdetermined.org/files_resources/408/self_determination_and_the_discovery_process.pdf

WIOA Overview, 2014. President Barack Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law on July 22, 2014. Retrieved from https://www.doleta.gov/wioa/Overview.cfm


Dr. Mary E. Morningstar is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas and Director of the Transition Coalition, which offers online transition professional development and resources for secondary special educators and practitioners. Her research agenda includes evaluating secondary teacher quality and professional development, culturally diverse family involvement in transition planning, and interagency collaboration. She is also examining the impact of inclusive secondary experiences for students with significant disabilities on postschool outcomes. Currently, she is developing a multi-dimensional model of adult life engagement for transition.

Dr. Morningstar coordinates an online masters program, focusing on preparing secondary educators across the country to provide transition education and services to youth with disabilities. She has designed and teaches several of the online classes and is currently coordinating the online masters in transition program. She also coordinates the teacher education program for teachers of students with significant disabilities, and in this role, is working with colleagues to transform special education endorsement coursework to support inclusive practices in schools and the community.

Dr. Morningstar has been involved in training, professional development and research regarding transition from school to adult life for over 25 years. Prior to moving to Kansas, she worked as a teacher for students with significant intellectual disabilities. Mary has been an active advocate for all persons with disabilities based on her experiences as a sibling of a brother with disabilities.

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