It seems to me that lately, the disagreements within the community of individuals who are concerned about children with disabilities are starting to outnumber the agreements. Which is pretty ludicrous, because when it comes to at least the IDEA (if not a number of other laws), we really have far more common ground than not. They include securing appropriate, meaningful special education programs for kids who need them; making sure that parents and children are full participants in the process; and generally protecting the civil rights of individuals with disabilities.
And yet, it seems a day doesn’t pass that I don’t hear or read about some horrible “in-fighting” among different populations of disability.
Do all children with reading disabilities benefit from a multi-sensory approach? Should kids be medicated or shouldn’t they? Can all children with special education needs be mainstreamed? Are cochlear implants a great technological advance or an offensive attempt to force sameness? Do vaccines cause autism? Should we teach sign language to young children with speech and language delays? Is giving a student with dysgraphia a laptop to use in school a disservice or an appropriate accommodation? How old does a child need to be before he can be diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder?
These are all legitimate questions to be raised, but if our disagreements over the answers prevent us from effectively changing the establishment, then we are our own worst enemies.
I, personally, have very strong feelings about some of the questions posed above, although my own opinions matter little. My job as a parent’s attorney is not to decide what a special education program should look like, but to assist my clients in obtaining what they believe is appropriate for their child, provided it is made in consultation with valid experts and is in keeping with what the law requires. Over the many years I have represented children with special education needs in Connecticut, I have advocated for services under every single eligibility category under the IDEA.
Trust me, it doesn’t matter which box is checked on the IEP as the child’s disability, ultimately, the challenges in fighting school districts are the same.
I am not suggesting that educating (let alone parenting) a child with one type of disability is the same as any other. Far from it! Anyone who has read any of what I’ve written knows that I am constantly railing against making mass educational decision-making, as if all kids with special needs were the same. What I am saying is that, when it comes to advocating for your child with your school system, you are going to hear dozens of the same arguments that another parent will hear, regardless of what your child’s needs are. Over, and over, and over again.
We will continue to hear them if we don’t stop fighting with each other, and start coordinating our efforts to force public educational agencies to comply with the IDEA.
I recognize that my position as a lawyer for children with all types of disabilities gives me a perspective that is difficult to have when you are trying to find a way to save your own kid. Most of my clients are just doing their best to understand their child’s unique special education needs, or to figure out which interventions are effective. I’m not asking parents or professionals who are reading this to suddenly start reading up on a whole bunch of other eligibility categories. Rather, I urge you to realize that pitting parents of children with one type of disability against parents of children with another only accomplishes one thing: division.
We have allowed a sizable percentage of the population (parents of children with disabilities) to be splintered into little, tiny, ineffective parts.
Just imagine all the vitriol, anger, passion and energy that is currently being spent arguing with one another, directed at local, state and federal governments to finally stop treating children with special education needs as second class citizens! If parents of all children with disabilities really joined together, now THAT would be force to be reckoned with.
And don’t think for one fraction of a second that school districts don’t know it.
I won’t blame the problem entirely on our special education system, but just consider how often the seeds of division are sown by your school district. Comments like “well, we are really tight this year because of the new LD program,” or “the building renovations really tapped our special ed budget this year because we had to make it wheelchair accessible” or “17 kids with autism moved into district this summer and so our speech pathologists just don’t have the time” are heard regularly. Instead of questioning the motives of the people making the statements (to save money), many parents get right on board the scramble for limited resources, and become convinced that their child’s disabling condition is more important than another child’s.
Each child with special education needs is entitled to an appropriate program, and every single one of them is at serious risk if they don’t get it.
It doesn’t matter what the disability is, failure can come in the form of any number of tragic outcomes, including lifetime institutionalization, homelessness, addiction, jail, and even death. If I didn’t believe firmly that, for many, many kids, getting the appropriate special education interventions can make the difference between success and failure, or even between failure and basic independence, I wouldn’t be doing what I do. And while I’m not asking anyone to start singing coom-ba-ya, I’m convinced we could all be doing a better job of it if we joined forces.