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A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

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Sorcha Hyland
Lara Mann
Deb Griswold
Elizabeth Kozleski

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.

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