“Every kid with a disability has the right to go to school,” Hillary Clinton said during her speech at the Democratic National Convention. “But how do you make an idea like that real? You do it step-by-step, year-by-year… sometimes even door-by-door.”
As a mom with five children who have spent time in the special education system of our county, I could not agree more with that statement. My children have varying needs from reading disorders, severe dyslexia, central auditory processing disorder, brain damage, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) dysgraphia, visual impairments, and cerebral palsy. I have spent hundreds of hours in IEP meetings and doing research.
Clinton’s message is inspiring and encouraging to those looking in from the outside. The reality is, equal opportunities for disabled children in the public school system has yet to actually happen in most places. Yes, they can go to school, but the struggle for parents now is what happens once they are there.
It’s wonderful that Clinton devoted time to demanding equal access to education for disabled children, but I wonder if she knows equal opportunity has yet to become a reality?
I’ve sat in rooms with people who were all too eager to write my child off. I had a school psychologist, whose job on the IEP team is to be an advocate for the child, tell everyone, “We want to be careful not to expect much progress due to his lack of cognitive ability” while she refused to acknowledge he had a learning disability. She basically sat there and told everyone he was not intelligent enough to make any progress. My child was denied special education services and offered “a breakfast buddy so he doesn’t slip through the cracks.” So yes, he was allowed to go to school, but it did him precious little good when he wasn’t given the tools he needed to actually learn something from his time spent there.
I have had to fight for another one of my children to even be evaluated to receive speech services. The speech therapist just flat out refused to evaluate him when I requested it. I had to call the Board of Education and inform them of her denial to perform her job. Once he was evaluated he was found to have a severe issue. That same speech therapist told me his IEP would only reflect speech goals. She had two. Two goals for my son who could only be 50 percent understood. His teacher said he frequently was unable to make himself understood or understand what was being said to him. Two goals. That was it. The team would not put one additional thing in his IEP to help him in the classroom. He was denied further evaluations, denied accommodations, and denied further services.
I could tell 10 more stories like this. I had to take the fight to the school system just to get my children evaluated for what the Democratic presidential nominee says is a right. Every child has a right to a free and appropriate education.
I wonder how many people realize there is still so much work left to do here? We need to have a conversation about how many civil rights complaints are filed against school districts on the behalf of children with disabilities. I filed a complaint against our school district, which resulted in them having to work with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights to reach a resolution because they were found not to be in compliance with the Federal Law that already exists. My children were provided compensatory services, due to their unlawful denials of evaluations and unlawful denials of eligibility for services. If I had not taken on the system and challenged what I saw going on, nothing would have changed.
I homeschool my children now because being the “whistleblower” in a small county is not a popular position to find yourself in. I also realize we have a long, long way to go to properly train educators and therapists about children with disabilities. Yes, they are allowed to go to school, but often they are not treated the same as their typical peers.
I want to see more discussion of this at the national level. I want politicians to realize that getting the children in the door was just the first step. I want parents of children with disabilities to stop being bullied by the system that is supposed to be helping their kids. I want federal and state dollars that come into a county meant for special education to actually be spent on special education. I want kids to qualify for special education based on their needs and not on caseload limits. I want to see kids receiving services based on their needs and not being told they don’t qualify because “an orthopedic impairment doesn’t quality a child for math intervention.”
This job of advocating is not done. These issues are not yet solved.