What I Feel Is Missing From the IEP Process for Children With Special Needs Today


In my work as an occupational therapist, I can’t help but think of my childhood growing up with cerebral palsy — my education and all of the professionals who helped me get to where I am today. I also can’t help but realize how different my experience was than it is for the students I service today. I had to really think about this because in some ways, I think things are better for kids today. My colleagues and I take pride in our professionalism in the school setting, and that is a good thing.

In today’s school setting, therapists are focused on data, respecting privacy, wording legal documents appropriately, and always finding the least restrictive environment. By nature these professionals are smart, compassionate, nurturing and strong communicators. Did I mention dedication to the jobs they do? It’s through the roof! Schools and educating the next generation is a business. This is a good thing, because more kids with disabilities are mainstreamed and receiving an education with their peers than ever before in history. There are no more state facilities, and parents more often than not attempt a public education rather than leaving their children with medical conditions or disabilities at home. The phrase “It takes a village” describes what occurs among my colleagues every day.

Growing up, it was very different. Individualized education programs (IEPs) and the laws that formed IEPs were just born. For me, having this new idea of an IEP and a mainstreamed education was a blessing. I had an experience that I wish all of my students and their parents could have. An IEP was never a threat or something a lawyer or advocate should attend. HIPPA and other privacy laws did not exist. I really feel like this allowed the therapists and teachers to practice what they preached. Every day they focused on strengths and attributes they realized they had in their own adolescences. By nature they were smart, compassionate, nurturing, strong communicators who were incredibly dedicated.

Those qualities shone through to assist my parents and helped me grow and flourish. Their training was in anatomy of the body, human and child development, and how to rehabilitate. They had individuals who were trained colleagues to write reports and schedule one IEP meeting a year for each student. My team meetings were held in restaurants, my backyard, the auditorium of my ballet recitals, at church and even in a horse barn. The team meetings are still occurring after 33 years. I know, it’s strange. Who would want to document one kid for 33 years? Maybe, just maybe the data that’s been collected is that with a supportive educational environment, I graduated college and have maintained employment.

Kimberly Sharpe painting
Kimberly.

Since I was a child, there have been positive advances in medicine, rehabilitation and technology, and mainstreaming. I would be saddened if those were lost, but I must also ask, where’s the balance? Although I realize that not every therapist can keep track of their kids for 33 years, our therapists, teachers and aides need the opportunity to use their intelligence, dedication, compassion, and ability to nurture and communicate at all times. They can’t be at their best when they’re required to attempt to create a business-like atmosphere instead of focusing on their strengths.

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