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Why We Need Teachers to Become Advocates for Our Kids With Disabilities

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My daughter, who has Down syndrome, and I had a wonderful experience seven years ago with her fifth grade co-teachers. They were the dream team. They helped us heal from a damaging, regressive fourth grade experience. I believe parents of children with disabilities receive much more “bad news” from teachers than good news. So much so, that we have that sad instinct, even after our children grow up, of anticipating bad news from outside sources.

Many parents have the same reaction to outside emails and calls about their child: dread. It’s as if we are waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. Even parents of adult children can relate.

I have been thinking about how different each school and school system would be if every educator had a positive attitude — if every educator truly felt they were each child’s advocate. So many experts have stated that every child needs at least one person who is truly in their corner. There are many children who come from families where that does not happen, for multiple reasons. There are many children who do have loving families but need extra support, for multiple reasons. And then there are children who have significant disabilities, possibly with no speech or limited speech, and truly need as much support as possible. My daughter fits in that latter category. It has taken a whole village to get her where she is today, fully included on honor roll, working a great summer job, and with many choices for the future.

Along the way, since middle school, we have had to ask rock star teachers for letters of recommendation, just to prove her worth in future classes with unknown administrators and teachers. Our situation is now good, but I have learned the hard way to never take anything for granted. Should that be necessary in 2019 in the United States? Should any child have to prove their worth in a general education classroom? The law, since 1975, says no. The fact is, in the United States, most children with significant disabilities are still not fully included in general education classrooms.

Our education system has a lot of problems. We do not pay teachers enough. Teachers need better training, and maybe even dual certifications. Too many schools are underfunded, overcrowded and understaffed. Special education has been grossly underfunded ever since IDEA was implemented decades ago — because the federal government has never paid what they said they would from the beginning. I could go on listing the system’s woes.

But instead, let’s look at what we can do right now. Every single school system can make sure they hire the best and most inclusive superintendent possible. (I am fortunate — my school system has the top-rated superintendent in all of Virginia). Then every superintendent can make sure they hire the best and most inclusive administrators, period. Notice I did not say special education director. That position is included under administrators, along with curriculum leaders, principals, assistant principals, trainers, specialists and everyone who is not a teacher or paraprofessional. And what would the benchmark be for this? Every single administrator/educator needs to feel as my daughter’s rock star teacher dis — that they are every child’s advocate. Every child. Regardless of disability, race, gender, sexual orientation or economic status. Notice I listed disability first. It normally is listed last, or totally forgotten. So let’s start listing it first.

If we could do this, great principals would make sure they had great teachers and paraprofessionals in place. Not every teacher and paraprofessional is a natural rock star. But great principals, and great mentors (who deserve extra compensation), can bring an average teacher or paraprofessional up — and make the right calls about letting sub-par teachers and paraprofessionals go.

These last two points, about administrators, teachers and paraprofessionals are where many systems run into problems that can not only scar children, but change their trajectories for life — in a downward direction. This is where I see improvements that can be done right now.

Some of you may be saying, “But I cannot change who my superintendent is!” Oh yes you can. I have seen two great ones and one horrible one. When you have a horrible one, you speak up, and get more people to speak up. You put pressure on your school board. And then when you finally are searching for a new one, you make sure the search committee knows inclusivity is an integral requirement.

You may also say, “How could I and others have had horrible principal and teacher experiences with great superintendents?” Because they did not get rid of damaging administrators soon enough. An inept special education director can ruin a system for many years past their reign, and cause damaging turnover. A principal can make or break a school. They, meaning all administrators, have to be vetted thoroughly to make sure they truly believe in all students. A large school district has many more puzzle pieces and requires more great leaders implementing the superintendent’s vision. Sometimes bad people are promoted instead of fired, and too often great ones are not appreciated. Great superintendents, and their top administrators, need to act more quickly when they see clear incompetence and discrimination taking place. And the sad truth is, disability still is thought of last by most of the world. No one is perfect.

Even though our life is good, I care about everyone. I still dream of the day when everyone can be treated with respect, welcomed into all classrooms, and have great teachers like Mrs. Ellis and Mrs. Dranoff, the fifth grade co-teachers I mentioned. The day when each child has a true village around them, including administrators and teachers who are truly their advocates. That will facilitate positive results in every part of a student’s life. That’s what advocates do. One by one, we can change our communities’ schools, which in the long run will change the world — for the better.

Our children are worth it.

A version of this story originally appeared on Born Fabolous Podcast.

Originally published: August 16, 2019
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