Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Montgomery County, Maryland: Land of Inequity & Bias

I hope to go back to posting some more deeply thought-through posts getting into next week.  For now, with Roger at the Democratic Convention and a gap in childcare, I'm just treading water.

School started today, and we all went to the open house yesterday.  This year is Robert's 5th grade year, so his last at Bethesda Elementary.  For all parents in Montgomery County, even of typically developing kids, the middle school transition can be an ugly one.  The County sends kids, starting in 6th grade, to a school the size of one of their high schools.  I can't even begin to process the various horror stories that I've heard.  In the past, many parents used to pull their kids from the public schools to send them to private school at that juncture.

Robert's educational future is, at this point, a perfect storm: a struggle grades K-3 to get the County to provide an appropriate education for him at all combined with our legal battle to make that happen which led to a repeat of grade three combined with the fact that we were unaware over the last two years that whatever Robert's underlying medical condition is, it is a condition that is progressive--and the deterioration was so slow and his pharmaceutical routine so complicated and experimental that it was easy to confuse deteriorating motor skills with behavioral problems.  

What I can see from here is that due to the County's intransigence (which was part of a bigger political struggle about inclusion education that involved not just certain County administrators and departments, but teachers and anti-inclusion special needs parents as well), we all missed a window with Robert's expressive communication skills because the County was, at that time, essentially grossly prejudiced against the needs of non-verbal children.  Any kid who couldn't talk and didn't have the motor skills to use a Dynavox (which requires a degree of hand and finger dexterity that Robert does not have) was more or less labeled hopeless and undeserving of any investment in special augmentative technology equipment.  The County was regularly abdicating its responsibilities to develop the best communication skills possible for kids as young as five or six by arguing that if human beings are profoundly disabled at the age of five or six, they will remain at the level forever.  Thus, very young human beings were labeled "wastes of resources."  

It is unclear to anyone what Robert's learning disabilities really consist of because he exhibits high scatter, and through facial expressions and multi-question responses to which he can answer yes or no, clearly exhibits a high level of comprehension of the world around him, personal relationships, and has a very good memory.  It is remarkably hard to do math beyond simple computation if each problem has to be broken down into as many as 8 or 10 steps, each of which must be answered with a yes or a no, in order to prove to an educator that he knows what he's doing.  His fluctuating motor skills compound this difficulty by making it difficult for him to provide answers in this fashion, raising his hands repeatedly over the course of hours.  

The County's failure to treat him like a human being and work diligently through all available methods, no matter how expensive, to find an expressive communication device that he could access left him at a critical period in his education without the ability to provide complex answers to increasingly complex questions that he might well understand on a receptive level.

I was told, at various points along the way that because he was currently unable to answer complex questions, an education that appeared to match his receptive language skills was just not where he belonged, and, at another point in time that all he would ever need in his life was the ability to say yes or no to questions (he was about 7).  People would never dare make such far-reaching prognostications about typically developing children, but they feel no such inhibitions when it comes to children with disabilities.

At any rate, because he is still working on developing the physical and emotional skills to operate a very complex device that will eventually allow him complex answers (adjustments in his medication routine also play into this), he has not been able to work with a higher level math or reading curriculum.  And he probably does have learning disabilities that we cannot at the current time diagnose or treat because we simply don't understand his underlying medical condition.

So I have a kid who appears to be very bright in many ways, but is not positioned to enter middle school on the same academic track as his peers.  I do not have all the answers yet, and there may be other choices, but the County's other primary option is to dump him into a certificate program where he'll receive "some" educational instruction (i.e., none) and focus on "functional life skills."  Since these are generally connected to self-care and community skills, and Robert will always require an attendant, this seems like a general waste of time and a babysitting function in which he will neither learn nor grow nor acquire skills.  I also bet anything that if I agree to have him go to this program, they'll strip away the communication device that might open up the world to him and allow him to actually converse with people, even if it might take several years to train him on it, on the basis that they've now determined he's a waste case and not deserving of any further financial investment.  They tried to manipulate us once before along those lines.

I have come to really detest the school system that my children attend.  I don't trust them.  I don't respect them.  The County that is, not necessarily the personnel at Robert's elementary school.  It is really difficult for me to engender respect for education in my children, encourage them to follow the rules, study for the worthless tests that I know are bullsh*t, and work with them to get them educated when, deep down inside, I don't believe the County is truly interested in educating either one of them fairly.  And I volunteered for the PTA this year!  It's going to be interesting.

Well, maybe next week I'll be in a better mood about this and feel more hopeful.

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