Valerie C. Williams joins the Department as director in the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) within the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. In this role, she is responsible for overseeing the administration of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
1. How did you begin your career in special education?
I took a very unconventional path. I had over 18 years’ experience in finance and budget at various agencies in the Department of Defense, and then our son was born. That led me to doing local advocacy with my county chapter Arc, which promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and actively supports their full inclusion and participation in the community, being on their board, and then on the state Arc. Through a series of twists and turns that I could not have orchestrated myself, I wound up leaving finance and going into special education, specifically policy. One door literally closed and another door opened. That led me from local and state work to the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee working on disability policy and civil rights, to working with the state directors of special education. I kept walking through the open doors, maximizing opportunities to learn, grow, and serve, and here I am.
2. What is your vision for young children with disabilities and their families?
It isn’t just one thing, but several. My vision is that we would all raise our expectations of our young children. In life we all rise and fall to expectations. If you expect more you might not get all that you expect, but you will get the effort, and likely progress. But if you expect nothing, then generally speaking that’s what you’re going to get. We need to remember the humanity in each other and not think of kids with disabilities as “other,” “they,” or “them.” We have lost our collective sense of community. If we could regain it, then it wouldn’t be “that child” or “that community,” it would be more of “our children” and “our community.” I would like to see inclusion, where it’s not something that people try to do but it’s intentionally weaved into everything that’s done. Making everything that we’re doing more inclusive means that it’s not an afterthought; There needs to be more collaboration up front on everything. I would like us to dream about a vision for the future beyond school. I think there are too many families with children with disabilities that believe that their child will always be dependent on them and not able to work or live independently. When we help our families establish a vision early on of what is possible, the whole family can move toward it as opposed to thinking that their child is going to be home for the rest of their life. All this is possible with collaboration. I think it’s positive when people recognize that parents have value and something to add. In some situations, “It’s oh, you’re just a parent.” While in other situations, it’s, “What do you think about this? We were going to go down this road, but from your perspective are we missing anything?” I think when we all collaborate things turn out much better.
3. In your previous role, you worked with State leaders in special education. What do you see as the benefits of collaboration among early childhood programs and systems for young children with disabilities and their families?
The education experience does not start in kindergarten and does not end in 12th grade. We can all collaborate on education across the lifespan. The more we work together to discuss what it is, what it should look like, and how we can make it more seamless, the more the children and students we work with will benefit. Our systems should not be fragmented. It could be something as simple as an established way to transition from early intervention onto the next stage, or our systems being able to talk to each other so they can share information. I don’t think kids with disabilities can afford to wait another generation while the adults in the room figure out how to get this right. It’s past time and COVID has created a sense of urgency. It has shined a spotlight and magnified things that were already broken in the system and in need of some attention. While we have a captive audience we need to figure out and prioritize what those things are, and next steps that will benefit those we serve. Everyone needs to have a sense of urgency about moving forward and making substantive changes for all our kids.
Additionally, I think we need to go back to basics. We assume that people know what the IDEA is, why it was created, and what it means to implement it well. There has been such turnover in the field even pre-COVID. We can’t assume that everyone knows what it means to implement IDEA with fidelity. All of the solutions are not new. Let’s go back and make sure everyone understands why we’re here and what we are supposed to be doing. We need to collectively regain and maintain the humanity, that desire to care, and to do their very best. I really think that if we all did our very best, even if it wasn’t perfect, that would propel us forward.
4. What are you looking forward to in your new role?
I’m looking forward to continuing to support the professionals that are already here, that have a depth of knowledge about what needs to be done and what is possible. Even though COVID has been traumatic in a lot of ways for a lot of people, what is positive is that our system that typically makes changes slowly had to pivot quickly. While we are in the mindset of doing things differently and making changes, we need to thoughtfully and intentionally look at how we can better serve our children and youth with disabilities and their families. We should not want to return to where we were, as it did not work for everyone. I am not here to do business as usual, but instead want to support everyone in propelling our work forward so that we can get to an even better place, so more children will experience the benefits of the research and the work that we know needs to be done to ensure success.
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