Tag Archives: education

My daughter’s right to an education should not be dismissed or “confused”

18 Jan

Maura on the first day of school, blending into Seattle society with her 12th Man jersey.

Weekday mornings in our household are much like any other household with teenagers. Waking teens, outfit planning, rushing around to gather laptops and to find shoes.

At 7 am, the bus pulls up. We walk our daughter onto her special education bus, make sure she’s seat belted in, and wave goodbye.

Each day, we sent her off to her public school, where she joins other students like herself in a specific program for students with cognitive/intellectual disabilities. Her classroom is bigger than the average classroom because it needs to contain things like a swing for sensory input, a cushioned platform for when they need to lay down, room for wheelchairs, plus desks and tables and cabinets. Peer tutors – students from the traditional classrooms of this school – come in and help tutor my daughter and her classmates, which in return, teaches the traditional students what life is like for my daughter, and give them insights they otherwise wouldn’t have had.

My daughter spends the majority of her school time in that room. She leaves to do gym, have lunch, help deliver stuff to the office or go to a pep rally. Otherwise, her day is spent learning the things she needs to learn, with teachers and paraprofessionals who have the knowledge on how to teach her the way she needs to be taught. Yet her public school balances all this well, and she is part of the school community, is known and liked by other students.

We have tried inclusion in the past. It did not suit her needs. We found that smaller classes designed specifically for children with her types of needs gives her the best chance of being successful and independent.

Who doesn’t want that chance for their child?

This is why when I heard about Betsy DeVos’s nomination for Secretary of Education, I paid close attention. For I knew that Donald Trump had been quoted in the past that he’d like to possibly get ride of the Department of Education and with it, all the laws.

One of those laws is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – better known as the IDEA. A federal law, mind you. A federal law that gives my child the right to a public education.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation. IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities.

Infants and toddlers with disabilities (birth-2) and their families receive early intervention services under IDEA Part C. Children and youth (ages 3-21) receive special education and related services under IDEA Part B.

This is Special Education 101. When your child qualifies for special ed services, you learn about the IDEA and you learn about FAPE – Free Appropriate Public Education.

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is an educational right of children with disabilities in the United States that is guaranteed by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973[1] and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under Section 504, FAPE is defined as “the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet individual needs of handicapped persons as well as the needs of non-handicapped persons are met and based on adherence to procedural safeguards outlined in the law.” Under the IDEA, FAPE is defined as an educational program that is individualized to a specific child, designed to meet that child’s unique needs, provides access to the general curriculum, meets the grade-level standards established by the state, and from which the child receives educational benefit.[2] The United States Department of Education issues regulations that define[3] and govern[4] the provision of FAPE.

To provide FAPE to a child with a disability, schools must provide students with an education, including specialized instruction and related services, that prepares the child for further education, employment, and independent living.[5] (source: Wikipedia)

See, once upon a time, not so long ago, schools could deny children like mine an education for whatever reason they chose – too costly, too time consuming, not enough resources. This was also the time period where children like mine were often sent to institutions to live.

We no longer live in those times. And we shouldn’t have to go back to them.

So when I heard that during the confirmation hearing, that Betsy DeVos was “confused” by IDEA and unwilling to answer questions about if schools should meet the requirements of the IDEA. In fact, she said it should be left to the states.

What Betsy DeVos does not understand is that private and charter schools do not want students like my daughter. They are not equipped for students like my daughter. They have no place for students like my daughter.

I looked to see what schools there were in the Seattle area for children like my daughter. I found none. I also did this when we lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan – again, there were none.

Betsy DeVos supports voucher programs. But even if my daughter could attend the one private school in Seattle for children with mild learning disabilities like dyslexia, ADHD, etc, a $5000 voucher wouldn’t pay one-fourth of the tuition. And yet, that’s a moot point as they won’t take my daughter – she’s too disabled.

I think I have a good reason to be worried and frustrated by this nominee for Secretary of Education. She does not support public schools, she does not understand basic federal laws protecting students with disabilities, and she does not understand that when it comes to education, students with disabilities have few options.

Betsy DeVos is about school of choice – yet we don’t get choices. When my daughter started kindergarten, I asked what our options were. I was told “We’ll make this work.”

“But what if it doesn’t work, what are our other options?”

“We’ll make this work.”

There were no other options.

The fate of my daughter’s education is now up for debate it seems. Not so much what kind of education she should have, but if she’s deserving of one. That the possible Secretary of Education wants to leave it up for discussion at some other time is not good enough.

My daughter has a right to a public education. My daughter is just as deserving of a public education as any of her siblings. If you can’t understand that, or feel that should be discussed later on, then you don’t deserve to be Secretary of Education.






Shouldn’t we be outraged?

6 May

From the time our children are little, we teach them how to look after others who are smaller, weaker, less capable.

“Be nice to your little sister.”

“Help Grandma carry that.”

“Don’t make fun of that child, he can’t help how he is.”

We try to teach our children to be kinder, more caring people.  “Stand up for the girl being picked on at school.  Don’t be the bully, be the friend.”  Our schools even teach this.

We try to teach our children to be accepting of others, no matter what they look like or what their family is like.

We do all this because presumably, our parents did the same.  I was taught to look out for others, to be polite, to not be a mean girl, to give elderly people my seat on the train.  I was taught, through stories from my grandparents, to not let people walk over me just because there’s something about me they don’t like, to not accept being treated like a lesser person, to stand up and do what’s right.

I guess that’s part of why I blog about special needs.  Because someone has to say these things.  Someone has to be honest.

So this is me being honest.

Why aren’t more people outraged with how our special ed students are treated?

Here are kids, who aren’t always able to speak up for themselves, who have already been given a tough start in life, and they enter our public school system only to be handed yet another short stick.  They are consistently pigeon-holed, put in a corner, short-changed.  The staff in charge of them are given too much to do with not enough resources.  They’re expected to manage medically needy children with no training.  They put their hearts and souls into these kids only to be told they can’t really help them the way they need.  And the parents are told “tough luck, that’s how it works here” when they ask why.   If they push, they’re labeled “difficult” and are suddenly pariahs.  Why?  For trying to do what’s right for their child, like any other good parent.

Did you know that to be an aide to a special education child, by law, you only need a high school diploma?  To be a para-professional, you only need two years of college – in ANY subject.  So the person who is in charge of the special ed student all day is the person with the least amount of training sometimes.  Sometimes you luck out and get the person who has her degree in special education, and you thank God daily for her.

You aren’t allowed really to discuss things with the staff, not in many places.  They don’t want “parental interference”.  They take these children, who are such square pegs, and try to stuff them into a round hole.  Why?  Because it’s just easier for the school to make them conform to the school’s way instead of doing what’s right for the child.

All over the U.S., moderately disabled children – children with IQ’s between 50 and 30 – are expected to be mainstreamed.  They’re expected to sit in regular classrooms with regular students and somehow glean everything they need to know to become as independent as possible.  Which is impossible.  They’re supposed to learn how to count and read and all those other lovely academic things, while life skills are somewhat ignored.  These special ed students, many of who have a hard time with transitions, are expected to transition more than the average student, as on top of everything else the regular students do, they also have to do special ed time and therapy time.

Special ed students have more expected of them, yet are given less.  The parents are expected to trust the schools, to do their best, and not complain if their child gets shortchanged, or jump through hoops to make school life easier, even if it means homelife suffers for it.

And at the end of the day – it doesn’t work.  Our children fall through the cracks.  And no one seems to care.

So I ask – where is the outrage?  Where are the parents, at school board meetings, demanding that special ed students get what they need too?  Why is it so hard for everyone to stand behind these parents who just want an appropriate education for their child too?  We all get outrage when a school district tries to cut art, music, athletics….but special education funding is cut every single year and no one says boo about it.

Maybe I’m ranting because I’ve had two different friends deal with stuff that shouldn’t have happened to their child this week and I’m outraged for them.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been part of such a terrific school system here that I’m terrified of leaving it.  Maybe it’s because I’m still pissed off at the special education director at Maura’s old school, who for two years pointed all the loopholes out to me as Maura got shortchanged.  Maybe I still feel that to her, Maura wasn’t worth the effort, the expenditure.

Maybe it’s all of the above.

I’m angry for my friends, scared for my daughter, and determined to do what’s right.  Maybe others will become outraged too, and instead of criticizing the seemingly over-zealous special ed parent, they’ll ask what is going on, how they can help.  Maybe next time the school district or federal government decides to try to cut funding for special education, they will stand up for it as much as they would for arts or athletic programs.

Because it’s not like we’re going to go anywhere – we can’t.  In the U.S., the options for a special education child with moderate disabilities are few to none.

I’m not really a bitch on wheels, looking to make heads roll.  I’m just the mouthy one who’ll say what other parents are thinking.  I’ve seen the coin on both sides – what works and what doesn’t.  I’ve dealt with some absolutely amazing special educators in both schools, and have worked alongside one amazing principal at Maura’s current school.  You can say I’ve been around enough to know that our kids, and those who actually day in, day out, work with them, deserve more and deserve better.

It’s time we all do what we teach our kids to do every day.  Stand up for the little guys.  In this case, the little guy is special education.  We share feel-good stories all the time on Facebook – it’s time we’re the feel good story makers. And for the love of St. Patrick, if you’re a special ed parent, don’t just share with your own kind, band together regardless of label.

Only then can we make a difference.

Every child deserves to reach their full potential.  Even mine.

Thoughts on schooling for special needs

21 Aug

Maura ready for school, Fall 2011

Ah, back to school time.  It should be about getting a new pair of shoes and a cool new backpack.  But for what seems like a long time, I’ve not cared for the school process when it comes to Maura.  All the meetings, paperwork, double-checking things, did this get done?  And don’t get me started on the Emergency Contact stuff.

Maura’s done special ed preschool, mainstreaming in a regular classroom with special ed support at our local school, and now she’s at a special school for kids with moderate disabilities here in Dublin.  I feel like we’ve had a well-rounded experience when it comes to schooling types, and yes, I have definite opinions about it all now.

Opinion #1 – Parents need to have choices.

When Maura started kindergarten, we had one choice – mainstreaming.  Between accordance to the Least Restrictive Environment and due to the lack of special schools in our county, this was it for us.  Which was a bit daunting, especially when, upon hearing that Maura would be mainstreamed, one school professional (who is now retired) said “But we don’t have the resources for her!”

It was true.  They didn’t.  They had to bring in a lot of resources for her and a classmate of hers.  Like a place to change diapers, a special ed teacher, one on one aides, medical training for staff…I had to push at the special ed director for a medical emergency plan for Maura even after she had a seizure at school (and even though they had these plans for two other students with medical needs.)

Instead of having a place where everyone knew what to do, we all became the guinea pigs.  Maura started special ed preschool in a brand new class that was being formed for our district (before that, they shipped the special ed preschoolers to the neighboring district’s program.)  So we were kind of used to being the guinea pigs.  But at the kindergarten level, it got to be a whole new ball game.  And by ball game, it was more like rugby, with a lot of emotional hits.  I’ll be honest, the transition was so frustrating in so many ways that one day I broke and found myself sobbing on the phone with the speech therapist (who was amazing and talked me off the ledge.)

When we moved to Ireland, I was surprised that I had a choice of schools.  You’re still allowed least restrictive environment, but it’s a choice, not a “sorry, this is it”.  Schools were more upfront about their abilities to handle my child.  Back in Michigan, I had a special ed director assuring me that ALL of Maura’s needs would be met.  I’ve since learned that if someone tells you that, get a shovel because you’re getting handed a pile of something.  In Ireland, it was “Listen, we don’t have the resources, but we’ll do our best to hook you up with those who can help you.”    And they did.

I didn’t have a ton of choices here, but I had choices.  I could choose the environment best suited for my child’s needs.  Instead of sending her to a school where they had to scramble to meet her needs and figure out what to do, I sent her to a school that was already set up to meet the challenges my child would present.

Opinion #2 – Life Skills are Important!

In Michigan, because of being in a regular school, Maura learned a lot of regular things.  She still had to meet certain academic standards.  She still had to do math and reading and social studies, even though they were modified to fit her learning curve. She also had special ed time every day. She had to fit in OT and speech.  I may have insisted that they not cut her out of music (she loves music).  There was lunch and recess and bathroom breaks.  She was a very busy girl at school.

But for all the academics, she wasn’t learning life skills.  Like how to zip up her coat, cross a road, or brush her hair.  Sure, we did all of that at home.  But when you have a child who takes forever to learn things, it would be nice to have help in this.  Not to mention that by the time she got home from school, she was slightly done for the day.  I couldn’t take her out at one point because she was so exhausted after a full day of school that she just turned into a shrieky puddle of tired girl.

On the flipside, her special school here has a primary focus of life skills.  Their mission is to prep this kids for adult life as much as possible.  Which means learning how to dress, how to clean themselves, how to cook, how to interact with the real world.  They go on outings to buy ice cream and learn how to ride the bus or train.  They have cooking class once a week – which not only helps them learn how to make stuff, but opens them up to trying different foods.  They go swimming every week.  Swimming!  Maura adores it and has actually learned how to swim a bit.  For the kids who aren’t toilet trained, they work with this aspect as well.

It’s funny – we started toilet training during the last month of school.  They thought it wasn’t going well because Maura wouldn’t pee at school.  But we had amazing success at home for her.  I’m pretty certain she’ll be trained within the year.  We said last year that if all she learns at school is how to swim and use the toilet, it would be a success.  Instead, she’s grown SO much.  Unfortunately, she also thinks she can cook and has done bad things to my kitchen.  But it’s a small price to pay for her learning how to read “push” and “pull” and how to cross the street safely.

I’m always as honest as I can be about Maura – she’s gorgeous, full of personality, but let’s be real.  Math skills aren’t high on our priority list.  It’s great that she can count stuff, but what I really need is for her to pee in a toilet.

Opinion #3 – IEP’s and FAPE Suck

Let’s just be honest.  The whole IEP process is soul-sucking.  I know, I’ve done a lot of them, for each of my kids (they all had speech issues, comes from my side of the family.)  I’ve also NOT done an IEP for 18 months.  And it’s been bliss.

Why do IEP’s suck?  Because at the end of the day…they’re just false security at best.  I learned this the hard way when I thought Maura was shorted on OT and was told “Oh no, see here?  How we wrote this out?  This, dearie, is our loophole.”  (I paraphrased that.  No one actually called me “dearie”.  I would have responded with “Listen you hag..”) And then there was the time the special ed director told me that my signature was not necessary.  I said “Pardon?”  It’s true.  Parental signatures technically are not necessary.  Encouraged…strongly encouraged so I’ve been told after taking that tidbit to the superintendent.  But not necessary.

IEP’s are a crazy-making process when you have a child who needs a lot of help.  I have sat in a conference room with fourteen others trying to figure out what Maura would need  for the next year, usually with whatever new IEP form the people in charge came up with for that year.   Some people expected it to be all done within an hour.  I laugh at that time frame.  I spent four hours one year ironing out details only to not have all the details ironed out.  Only to find out after the fact that oh, I was supposed to have them all ironed out before I left the meeting because ending the meeting meant I agreed to everything.  Which would have been nice to have known BEFORE the meeting.

IEP’s are the time to make your case, why your child needs help.  The more help your child needs, the more details, the more crazy making.  I’ve decided they should be held at the local bar.  Some might have agreed with me, but sadly, we were certain the superintendent wouldn’t go for it.

But imagine, sitting through hours of a meeting, thinking you’ve covered every base only to hear “Oh, sorry dear, see this loophole? HA!”…and they wonder why we parents get so insane at times.

(Okay, so no one ever said “HA!” to my face either, which was very smart of them…)

And the thing is, sure, it’s a legal document and you can use it against the school district if they don’t honor it…but how many people are willing and have the money to take it that far?  And win or lose, if you pursue legal recourse, you’ve burnt bridges in your district.  And that can affect how your child is treated.  I know more parents who want to fight, but don’t want to piss off the people working with their child all day, so they stay silent.

As for the FAPE – Free Appropriate Public Education – again, that’s a false security they throw at you.  You hear “Oh, this means they have to do everything I want for my child!”  What it really means is that some else chooses what they think your child needs.  Their definition of what your child needs will vary from yours.  I’ve heard parents go “But…but…there’s the FAPE, they HAVE to provide this!”  No…not if they think it’s unnecessary.  On one side, you’re being told by society that you’re the expert on your child.  Then you walk into the school and are told “Oh, no you aren’t, sorry, we know what’s most appropriate, you know jack squat, we win.”

It’s all crazy-making.  Even to me – and I tend to have a good attitude and open mind when meeting with everyone. Imagine if you have less of a sense of humor or insight into the system.

Opinion #4 – Our system needs rethinking

When we came here to Ireland, I didn’t know what to expect from the special education system, but from what I’d gathered, it was similar to ours.  After years of learning the system in Michigan, of figuring out the laws and loopholes and lingo, I came armed with all sorts of information, ready to fight for my child. Instead, it was “Oh here, we have a place for her, drop in any time” and a stream of people coming to meet with me at my convenience at my house. I even had the social worker asking me if I had enough personal support.

It was all ridiculously easy and eye-opening. Everyone here was surprised that I didn’t really have choices and options in the States.  They were dead certain that in the U.S. of A., special ed students would have it so much better.  Which found me explaining how it depended on your individual school district, Least Restrictive Environment, the lack of special schools for kids who aren’t severely disabled.  The Irish system is not perfect, but I haven’t had a panic attack or burst into tears because I don’t know what’s going on with Maura’s schooling either.  And this is without doing an IEP or depending on FAPE or LRE or any other jumble of letters.  It just happens.

Now that’s not the case everywhere here.  I landed in a very good system that works with special needs people of all ages.  It makes me wonder why there aren’t more systems like this in the U.S., a system where the needs of special children are met, without loopholes, without the need of a correct diagnosis.

It’s great that the schools in the U.S. offer therapy in the school building.  The Irish are impressed with that.  But for kids with more moderate disabilities, it may still not be enough.  Maura got a lot of speech therapy in Michigan.  Both in and out of school.  She had some awesome speech therapists who helped get her as much speech therapy we could fit into the school day.  Here, she has no speech therapy in school, yet she seems to be talking more.  When she started here, she really had just 2-3 word sentences, two of those words being “I want”.  Here she’s moved up to sentences of 3, 4, 5 words.  She even surprised her teacher one day when, as they were sitting in the darkened sensory room, she said “I want the light on please!”  (and yes, like good teachers, when they figured out it was Maura who said it, they turned off the lights to see if she’d say it again – and she did!)

There is something about a special needs classroom that – if done correctly – can be better than inclusion with therapy.  One of the problems with inclusion is that your child (or at least mine) spent a lot of time going from one room to another.  In a special school, she’s like a regular student in the fact that she spends most of her time in one classroom.

Case in point – in Michigan, a day for Maura could be – arrive at school, go to homeroom, spend 30 minutes there, then go down to resource room, spend 1 hr there, go to recess, come in, go to resource room for a diaper change, go to homeroom, go to lunch room, go back to resource room, go to music room, go to homeroom, go to speech room.

Here it’s – go to classroom, spend majority of time there in the morning, go to recess, go to lunch, back to classroom, one “special” a day like cooking in the kitchen, dancing in the activity room, or a trip to the sensory room.

With inclusion, our kids are expected to deal with a lot more transitions than a regular student.  Which is ironic as a lot of special kids aren’t great with transitioning.  In a special school, they don’t have to go here or there and be on a different schedule than their peers, which is probably less confusing as well.  And the classroom is designed to fit their needs, including a sensory break area, where they can go and chill out if need be.

I understand that 30 years ago, it was imperative to push for least restrictive environment.  The problem is that now, we’ve swung from one extreme to the other.  Before LRE, kids who didn’t need to be in a special school were shoved in there, and weren’t allowed to reach their full potential.  But now we’re shoving kids who need lots of help into regular classrooms that aren’t equipped to deal with them – and they’re not allowed to reach their full potential.

We need to find balance.  We need to have more choices.  We need to stop trying to shove square pegs into round holes.  We need to realize that a “free appropriate public education” doesn’t always equate to reading, writing and arithmetic, but should be about teaching the child what they need to learn to be as successful at life as possible.  We need to rethink our idea of special schools and realize the potential they have for filling in the gaps that some of our kids are falling into in inclusion programs.

And that’s just a few thoughts about that.  Heaven forbid if you get me really going on this subject!


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