Davonda Ferrell (left) speaks at a hearing on the Missisippi social studies standards with her daughter, Taylor Pierson on Nov. 18, 2022 in Jackson. Ferrell advocated for the inclusion of the disability rights movement in the state standards. Credit: Julia James/Mississippi Today

Advocates are urging the Mississippi Department of Education to include the disability rights movement in the state’s social studies standards.

Late last year, MDE officials were accused of removing civil rights content from the standards, which then became a focal point for numerous frustrations with social studies education. 

The revised social studies standards were first presented to the State Board of Education in December 2021. The proposed changes removed many specific names, events and details in lieu of more broad descriptions. During the first public hearing in January 2022, education department officials walked back this change to the satisfaction of several groups present. Still, other people expressed concern that officials were adding critical race theory to the standards. MDE officials have repeatedly stated the theory is not taught in K-12 classrooms. 

The newest version of the social studies standards was made available for public comment in September. 

At the hearing Friday, seven of the eight speakers advocated for the inclusion of the disability rights movement in U.S. History and minority studies courses, as well as broader education about disabled individuals in earlier grades.

Davonda Ferrell, whose seven-year-old daughter has Down syndrome, felt that the exclusion of the disability rights movement sends the message to her daughter that she is not important. 

“It’s only right that when students first start school, they learn about all of the diverse groups that are within our school and community,” Ferrell said. “It is vitally important to start early and often to promote inclusion of all students.”

Scott Crawford, of the Mississippi Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities, said that one in three Mississippians have a disability, but few know how the struggle to be included benefits them today. Crawford mentioned sit-ins led by Judy Heumann, transportation boycotts in Denver, and the “Capitol Crawl” as important examples of activism that led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

“This didn’t just happen,” Crawford said. “People put their bodies on the line.” 

Other activists said that the representation of the disability rights movement shows disabled children that it is possible for them to lead productive lives.

“All civil rights movements matter, and all should be included in the curriculum,” said Christy Dunaway, a disability rights activist. 

Jean Cook, spokesperson for MDE, said they plan to bring the final version of the standards before the State Board of Education at its Dec. 15 meeting, where any changes in response to these comments will be noted. 

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.