Disabled students can now check ‘diploma’ box on job applications

When Gov. John Carney recently signed the alternate diploma bill into law, parents, educators, advocates and students were delighted. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

When Gov. John Carney recently signed the alternate diploma bill into law, parents, educators, advocates and students were delighted. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

Delaware students with serious disabilities now have a better chance to land a job after leaving high school, courtesy of a new law that grants them an official diploma.

Previously, a small subset of special-education students — those with Down syndrome, autism and other serious disabilities — received a certificate of completion after accomplishing the requirements of their individual education program.

So when they tried to get a job, they couldn’t check the box that said they had a high school diploma.

“One of the advocates was telling a story about a student wanting to work at the distribution center for a large company and that, without checking the box for a diploma, couldn’t even get in the door,” said Emily Cunningham, chief of staff at the state Department of Education. “But they were more than capable of logging in merchandise as it was loaded off of trucks and stacking it on a shelf or restocking shelves.

Now, under the bill recently signed into law by Gov. John Carney, those children will get a “diploma of alternate achievement standards” and a chance for a job interview. Cunningham said the law will benefit 100 to 150 students a year.

At the joyous bill signing, parents, educators, advocates and students such as Zach Simpler of Cape Henlopen High School said the new measure will be a big help.

“From the bottom of my heart and my dad’s heart,” Simpler said, eliciting a big “awwwww” from attendees, “he and I are so grateful that the bill passed, because it gives people like us an equal opportunity to graduate high school.”

Children such as Simpler won’t be official graduates who meet the state’s requirements for a regular diploma and are included in the state’s graduation rates. But the alternate diploma will give them a major boost when it comes to job prospects in grocery stores, clerical work and so much more, advocates said.

Kristin Pidgeon, a Brandywine School District board member whose daughter Eliza has Down syndrome, said the law will help her in myriad ways.

“A diploma in this country means you have achieved a certain status, and you have worked hard to get to that place,” Pidgeon said after the bill signing.

Giving disabled kids a certificate of performance was a way of saying “their work wasn’t valued,” Pidgeon added as Eliza stood nearby. But “that’s absolutely not the case because my daughter works as hard as her peers, if not moreso, to understand and comprehend what’s being instructed to her.”

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