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Why Parents of Kids With Disabilities Are Concerned About Betsy DeVos

I, like many other parents across the country, was truly disappointed to see Betsy DeVos was confirmed yesterday as Education Secretary. As a special needs parent, it’s disheartening to think someone with a complete lack of knowledge on what rights my child has to a fair and equitable education will be in charge of enforcing those rights.

One of the reasons this is so fresh in my mind and I was interested in the outcome of this confirmation is because we just had an interesting and telling interaction with a community preschool we were considering for my son, Josiah. Although he will automatically qualify to receive preschool services at the local Early Intervention (EI) preschool, which will be a great resource for occupational therapy and some articulation courses, I feel like he would benefit from being in a school environment with his neurotypical peers. And I think his neurotypical peers would benefit too.

We have been on one preschool’s waitlist for a year. This preschool was recommended to us by our EI specialist and has a good proven track record of working with EI to have kids with disabilities in a mainstream preschool setting. We are still number 7 on that list, so we started looking at other options.

One that had been on our minds was a local Christian school that has a preschool starting at age 3 and goes all the way through to the 12th grade. It’s a popular choice among folks that attend our same church, and one of my husband’s colleagues sent their kids there and raved about the academics and the environment.

A few weeks ago, my husband Josh and I went to go take a look at this school and do a little tour. I had already spoken with the admissions representative over the phone and explained we were looking for a community preschool for our son with cerebral palsy. I told her Josiah has some mobility impairments and issues with fine motor skills but that cognitively, he appears to be “age-appropriate.” She said over the phone that as a private school, they are not required to provide any special treatment or services to him, but she said it in such a kind way that the subtext was, “I’m only saying this because I have to.” I stated that I completely understood, and so we set up a meeting and a tour of their campus.

Since we’d already discussed it on the phone, I was a little bit thrown off when she brought it up again in our face-to-face meeting.

“Now, you know that as a private school, we’re not required to provide any services for Josiah,” she said with just the slightest hint of defensive posturing.

“We understand,” Josh and I chimed together. “We realize this is a private school, and we know that’s the deal.”

After our brief meeting with the admissions representative, she took us on a tour of the property. We saw some of the general areas, and Josh was able to access most of them easily. When we reached the preschool building, there was a stair to get in, so I bumped Josh, and we went in to look at the classrooms.

On our way to the classroom, we stopped by the little boys bathrooms, and we observed that the toilets were still pretty high off the ground for preschoolers. One boy went into a stall, and we could see his little feet dangling in the air over the sides of the potty. We pointed this out to the admissions rep and had a brief discussion about toileting. I made a comment that generally it’s better for kids’ feet to be on the floor. I mean, just imagine trying to poop with your legs dangling in the air. No good!

“We could maybe have a step stool in there for him,” she suggested. “You know, we’re still several months out from September. There’s a lot that can change in kids this age between now and then.”

I agreed she was right, a lot can change in a few months.

We continued on to the classroom. One wall was covered in the students’ renditions of Olaf in cotton balls. Another wall had several laminated posters of the seasons, the months of the year and the days of the week. We even saw the same R2D2 backpack Josiah uses hanging on a hook with all the other little backpacks and jackets. It was a typical classroom setting.

I noticed there were a couple small circular desks and surrounding each of these desks were several of your basic plastic stackable chairs for little kids. Some chairs were still fairly high off the ground, and it would probably be tough for Josiah’s feet to touch the floor while sitting in one of them. For fine motor activities, he really does need both feet on the floor. They help to ground his body, which gives his torso the necessary support to do things with his hands that require some concentration. If you ask him to do a craft activity or draw a picture without having a good seating setup, he eventually shifts over to the left side and can lose his balance.

“You know, I’m just looking at the seating set up, and he would definitely need a chair where his feet touch the floor… possibly something with arms on it too,” I noted.

The admissions rep looked at me and said, “Well, you know, we don’t have to provide anything.”

I’m sure the look of shock on my face was obvious. “We would provide a chair for him,” I said with a hint of incredulity. “That would be something we would purchase and give to the classroom for his use!”

She pursed her lips and thought for a second. “I suppose that’s something you could discuss directly with the teacher.”

We finished out the tour and exchanged pleasantries when we left, but the defining moment had come and gone. This was not the right place for our child. If they were going to give pushback on a chair — a chair –– what else would they pushback against?

On the ride home, I couldn’t keep my voice from dripping with disdain for the school. It has a conservative Christian ideology, but when a prospective parent of a child with a disability asks for a chair, they can’t find it in their hearts to make an accommodation?

I fumed. Josh stayed pretty even-keeled.

“If they’re going to act like that about a chair, then we’re going to have bigger problems down the road,” Josh stated matter-of-factly as we drove home.

Josiah isn’t even 3 years old yet, and already, we are having to fight for his education. Yes, this was our interaction with a private school, and no, they don’t legally have to provide anything — equipment, services, etc. — to him so he can receive an education at their school. But this was our very recent experience dealing with a private school, and I fear under DeVos, a disabled child’s right to a fair and equitable education will be compromised.

Josiah’s mobility issues are minor, and his cognitive abilities are on par with his peers. I can’t even imagine what other parents of kids with disabilities deal with when their child’s challenges are more involved.

This Upworthy list is a good place to start when it comes to ways we can support the education system, but I would add one more item:

Find a family with a child who has a disability and ask how you can support them. Attend school board meetings with them, write letters on their behalf, help fundraise for adaptive equipment or just encourage your child to be friends with their child. Let them know you are on their side and will do what you can to ensure their child gets the same opportunities in school as your child.

Thanks in advance for your support.

Editor’s note: This story reflects an individual’s experience and is not an endorsement from The Mighty. We believe in sharing a variety of perspectives from our community.

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