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Strange Gift

We just got back from a week in paradise. Just the three of us in a little house a three minute walk from my favorite beach. We ate seafood, took long walks, read books, and generally did as little as possible. It was wonderful.

It took a day or two before I noticed something strange going on.

On our walks, out at restaurants, everywhere we went, people were genuinely happy to see Collin. 

He got waves, broad smiles, peace signs. People insisted that he move to the front of the line. Employees reserved choice tables for him. People brought their dogs up for him to pet. Kyle and I got free dessert from a server and free breakfast from a stranger and we were under no illusion that those gifts had anything to do with us.

It was like walking around with a famous person. One night, a man riding by on a bike pointed at Collin in his beach wheelchair, grinned like it was the best thing that had happened to him in a long time, and waved and waved and waved as he pedaled away. I actually looked around to see if I was missing something. 

I'm still not sure what was going on. Part of it is probably that people feel more generous and open on vacation. Part of it is also that I didn't realize I had gotten so used to stares, pity smiles, and awkward avoidance, making this treatment even more impacting. But even those two things together couldn't account for what we encountered last week.

Regardless, I'm taking it as a gift. As a tangible experience of grace. I'm treasuring this gorgeous picture of inclusion and acceptance, knowing that I will pull it out on the hard days to remember what can be.

What Am I Doing?

I'm discouraged.

After our wonderful, inclusive pre-K program last year, I slipped into thinking that a positive long-term educational experience might be possible for Collin. The teachers and administrators trusted that we knew Collin best. They listened to our input and acted on it. We all learned together as we went, asking questions and adapting as needed, thus creating a mutually beneficial learning environment. 

Some people hint that I'm being naive when I explain what I want from Collin's school experience, but I'm not; I've seen it.

However, every step since our first contact with the public education system has been a fight. Every answer is no. My calls aren't returned. Every 'authority' throws up his or her hands and claims there's nothing they can do. The advice I'm getting from other parents and experts involves filing official grievances and contacting professionals. I haven't been squeaky enough, they tell me. 

But as I read books on special education law, pen letters, and make lists of people to call, I find myself asking: What am I doing?

One part of me says: It's Collin's legal right to receive a free, appropriate public education and I dare somebody try to keep him from having it. I will not allow my son to be placed in a certain school or classroom or situation just because it's cheaper or more convenient. I will not give up on the idea that I can send him to his local school without fear for his safety. I will not let go of the image of Collin surrounded by typically developing peers with every support he needs to be integrated to his fullest potential. I will not accept reasons like "policy" or "protocol". I will not defer. I will not be put off. 

But another part of me asks: Why am I really fighting this? Just to win? Will Collin be getting anything better from the public schools than he would get from a combination of homeschool and community activities? Is this battle for Collin, or for the principle of the matter?

I don't know. And I don't know how to sort through the questions and motives that inevitably surround an issue like this one. For now, I am taking small steps in both directions. I'm flipping through curriculum books, thinking about fine motor activities, and scouting out groups of peers. I'm making calls and getting things in writing and educating myself. And - all of the time - I'm reminding myself that, either way, Collin is going to be just fine.

First Day of School

Yesterday, I got the call confirming that Collin won't be joining the ranks of other kids in our county heading to the first day of school today.

Collin dreaming of how fun it would be to go to school with the supports to make it a safe, empowering experience.

Collin dreaming of how fun it would be to go to school with the supports to make it a safe, empowering experience.

It wasn't a surprise, but it was still hard. 

According to our contact, the "powers that be" have declared that Collin must attend school (we are requesting a mainstream classroom) on his own and be observed in order to determine whether he really needs the aide we contend is necessary. Apparently, they understand that this would be dangerous and traumatic for Collin, but it does not impact their decision.

So we will keep pushing and waiting and working. We have people rooting for us, people helping us and that means so much. And it's not any one person making this process so tortuous - it's the system. But I choose to believe that there will be a day when it doesn't take favors and lawyers and research and fighting for a kid like my son to go to school on day one with everything he needs.

What Worries Me

What worries me is not that Donald Trump mocked a reporter's disability. Bullies make fun of people. It's not okay, but it's life. What worries me is how many people tried to explain the incident away.

What also worries me is how many people responded to Anastasia Somoza's speech at the Democratic National Convention with words like "sad", "embarrassing", and "pathetic". Commenters assumed Somoza was being "exploited" for "pity votes" and that she was "drug out to discredit" the opposition, when in fact she is a brilliant advocate for individuals with disabilities.

I'm not talking politics here. I'm talking about a pervasive way of thinking. An assumption that disabilities are a safe target. A norm that assumes those with disabilities have nothing to offer.  An common belief that "disability is a tragedy and disabled people are better off dead". Last week in Japan, a self-proclaimed supporter of "euthanasia" for individuals with multiple disabilities murdered 19 such people and critically wounded 26 others in one of the "deadliest targeted attacks on disabled people since the Nazis". But I didn't hear a thing about it until I came across this article about the lack of attention the incident received in the news and social media.

I visited a prospective school for Collin this spring and listened with interest as the administrator described how students from the self-contained "moderate and severe disabilities" (MSD) class were integrated with typically developing students for certain activities during the day. For example, students from a certain grade level came to the MSD class regularly to have music and sign language time. "Unless someone is having a bad day," the administrator said, dropping her voice. "If there is a meltdown happening or something, I really encourage the teachers not to let the [neurotypical] kids go in there because they don't need to see that."

This was a person who saw herself as an advocate for students with disabilities, in a school lauded for its special education program, talking to the parent of a student with multiple disabilities. I was surprised. More so, I was alarmed. The message seemed to be that those who are different should be hidden away because they are disturbing. It's bad enough for such an attitude to exist, but it's worse to teach it to the next generation. 

And the fact is that kids DO "need to see that." 

In Collin's pre-K classroom this year, there was Collin with his wheelchair and his feeding tube and his unfamiliar movements and lack of speech, and there was a boy with an autism diagnosis. Both Collin and his friend were fully integrated into classroom activities. It wasn't neat or easy all of the time and many of the other kids were unsure or uncomfortable at first. But together, the teacher and Collin's aide created a place of full acceptance. This allowed space not only for the differences of some students, but also for the discomfort of kids learning about those students. By the end of the year, those kids barely batted an eye when Collin or his friend had a "bad day" or needed something particular. They set a beautiful example for both kids and adults without even knowing they were doing anything special. What started as something foreign had become their normal. 

I can't help but think that a world with more environments like that pre-K classroom would yield a population who would react very differently to a speech like Anastasia Somoza's.