Ten years ago today, my dad, William “Bill” Laviano, died. I have written about him before, and his profound influence on me and on special education advocacy in Connecticut. As this sad anniversary has been approaching, I’ve been trying to think of something to write that will appropriately honor him. I’ve been looking for inspiration, which, let’s face it, is rather hard to come by during IEP season. In fact, most days from April through June I’m happy if I avoid the increasingly strong urge in IEP meetings to scream, cry, laugh, or all of the above.
So inspiration? Not likely in June.
Then came Father’s Day. It’s always a bittersweet day. This year, the kids and I got up early, and I had the brilliant idea that I should let my husband sleep in, and bring him breakfast in bed. The girls and I set about making eggs and bacon. Now, you need to know that my husband does all of the cooking in our house, and with good reason. You also need to know that this was the first time I had ever tried to cook bacon. And yes, I am forty-one years old. Long story short, instead of waking up to breakfast in bed, my husband woke up to the smoke detector going off. I had to laugh at myself, because trust me, everyone else was.
The next day brought the inspiration. It was my older daughter’s last day of kindergarten. As we were talking about the summer, a conversation about bike-riding and training wheels somehow ended up in a discussion about wheelchairs and equipment, during which I mentioned the word “disability.” She asked me “what is a disability again?” This isn’t the first time we have talked about disability.
I see these discussions as gems of opportunity to make her care, so I gave it my best shot.
I said “well, it’s kind of hard to describe, but a disability is when a person’s brain or body makes it harder to do certain things. We call that a ‘disability.’ Some people have disabilities that are really easy to see, like if a person uses a wheelchair or a cane like grandma used to. Others have a disability that makes it really hard for them to learn to read. And other people might have disabilities that make it hard to act or behave the way we expect them to, or to pay attention and concentrate, or to hear or see things like other people.”
She silently listened. Now came my big finish.
“But honey, please always remember that people with disabilities are just like you and me. It is important that we treat all people with respect and kindness and to find out what we can learn from them.” She was quiet for a minute, and then she asked me: “mommy, do YOU have any disabilities?” And I said “probably.” To which my loving daughter responded: “you definitely do in cooking.”
And it hit me. My father’s true legacy lies not in my generation, but in hers.
My father never got to meet my kids. I constantly wrestle with whose loss is more profound in that scenario, his or theirs. What I do know is that I feel a greater burden to impart the passion for justice that he had to my children, in his absence. I remember being a little girl, and the miniseries Roots was originally aired. For our younger readers, this was back when things were actually shown on TV at certain times and if you didn’t see them when it aired, you actually…missed it. My parents insisted that my sisters and I stay up to watch it. There is no way to explain how stunning it was to see my big, strong, 400 lb. Italian father cry for the first time in my presence while watching that series. Or how it feels to see your dad well up with tears when reading the First Amendment aloud. Or to realize that many of the teachers and administrators in your high school have just been cross-examined by your father in a lawsuit in which he was representing the Plaintiffs. There is no way to describe how that impacts a child. These are just a few examples among hundreds and hundreds in my childhood and adolescence, in which I was taught that the rights of individuals must always be protected, especially if those rights are being threatened by more powerful forces. It was the fabric of my childhood.
As parents, we always worry if we are giving our children what they need. I am sure my dad wondered that too.
Are we doing the right thing? Are we imparting the values we care about? Are we over parenting? Are we under parenting? I so wish my dad was around to answer my questions. I’m sure we would have ended up in a ton of fights about them, but it would have been thought-provoking. And loud.
We talk about my dad a lot to our children. We show the girls pictures of him (he is known as “grandpa with the beard”), and to keep him as “real” for them as we can. We honor his birthday and the anniversary of his death with yahrzeit candles, which is the closest to spiritual ceremony this daughter of lawyers who decided to raise their children without organized religion gets. We strive to keep his memory and legacy alive. On cue, my daughters seem to have inherited Bill Laviano’s unconventional approach to almost everything. When I informed one of them that, like mommy, grandpa was a lawyer, she said, quite seriously, “boys can’t be lawyers!” He would have loved that one. And her sister is already able to frame arguments like her grandpa. When asked how she could possibly want dessert if she was “so, so, so full” that she couldn’t finish her dinner, she responded “but mommy, that was lots and lots of minutes ago.”
I spend all day negotiating with adults, and all evening negotiating with children. The children are far more effective.
The IDEA is not even 40 years old. I’ve written before about how far we are from the promise of the Act. Just yesterday I heard something from a parent that horrified me, and reminded me that even though this is 2012, kids with disabilities are still being discriminated against in so many ways that it’s hard to even calculate. And I have long since felt that it happens more frequently and pervasively than we discuss or even notice because most people don’t care much about special education unless it impacts them personally.
The trick is to make it matter to everyone.
My girls are being raised to celebrate and embrace differences in “ability,” in learning styles, in personalities and behavior. I believe they will make their schools and community better places because of that, and that they just might be the ones to speak up when they witness discrimination or bullying. And you know who will join them? The growing population of siblings of children with disabilities, who see how their parents have had to battle for their brother or sister’s education, and who will not accept the injustices or the pity of a society who should know better.
THEY will make sure we get it right.
Because as proud as I am of my little girls (and I am), I really don’t want them to have to be the third generation of my family to have to fight this fight. I hope that by the time they are choosing careers, parents won’t need a special education lawyer to obtain what their child is supposed to be receiving by law.
But if they do, heaven help the other side, because I’m pretty sure Bill Laviano has been whispering in their ears since birth.