Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Just a start

Keeping your temper in check and your wits about you when you have a child with special needs is an almost impossible trick.  This week, I've felt keenly the accumulated slights and missteps of others, and made plenty of my own.  I wish I could change this County.  I wish I could make it better.  I don't want any other families in our County to have to go through what our family has gone through.

The last few days, I've found myself going over and over what has gone right with Robert's education and what has gone wrong.  As I've tried to work within the school to provide whatever help I can to the families who contact me for advice, I've realized that we so easily get side-tracked on the particulars of our own child's condition or educational needs that it prevents us from finding common ground altogether.  On the one hand, our psyches have been trained to advocate for our children non-stop (who else will do this?).  On the other, I worry that we'll never make social progress if we can't articulate any general principles for what needs to be done in this County.

I spent time tonight at a public meeting for a County Councilmember.  He holds meetings with the public on a regular basis to collect opinion and communicate his own.  I watched him do some difficult things: stand up for what he believed was right for the collective whole while acknowledging the feelings of others.  Explain his positions and refuse to hedge.  I watched other people stand up and communicate their issues.  I thought about what was effective in their self-presentations and what was not.  I hope I learned something.

Part of me wants to leave this County and this State:  I'm at the point where I'm so concerned about my son's future that I'm willing to flee.  I'd rather stand my ground, being from Vermont and all.  Because part of me wants to stay.  If I leave, I can't make life better for anyone.  If I stay, I risk making life worse for Robert rather than better.

So I'm looking for dialogue.  What's problematic about special education in Montgomery County?  Three things off the top of my head: one, a lack of transparency in terms of policy; two, a lack of mediation, which leads to excessive litigation and public money drawn away from services for the disabled community; and three, a failure to align services and expectations along school, county, and state lines.  

And, an important fourth consideration:  old-fashioned models for the education of students with disabilities are still in place here.  The HSM, SBC, and FLS designations harken back to an era in which children with disabilities were judged to be educable or uneducable, worthy or unworthy of investment.  My able-bodied, typically developing daughter isn't pigeon-holed; no, the metaphor for her education is packing a suitcase.  You can still go to your destination and forget your toothbrush.  We'll just help you figure out where to get one.  That is, her abilities are broken down carefully into skill sets.  As long as she's moving forward with most of her belongings, she isn't penalized for forgetting one or two things.  

This is inclusion education: to look at the whole child, determine strengths and figure out what to do about weaknesses.  But my son, who needs it desperately, can't have it.  He has to be categorized overall, with little latitude for the things he can do.  He, too, is a collection of abilities: communication, math skills, reading skills, spelling skills, personal care skills, physical skills, social skills.  

Education starts the process of social integration and the development of progressive communities.  If the education system refuses to accept you for who you are, it's unlikely that your community will accept you, either.  It is critically important that the educational system be aligned with other social services and community goals.  And that every child be given a chance right through the end of their educational experience, with a focus on his or her strengths.

This is not a good post.  It's just a start.

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