Taking Umbrage

I’ve had some brutal conversations recently, and one in particular yesterday left me speechless with indignation. Hard to believe, I know.

But I’m not speechless anymore.

I have been speaking with parents for many years, and in recent months the talk has turned, not surprisingly, to adult transitions for people with disabilities. It’s complicated. The kids are complicated and the system beyond the School District is complicated. There are multiple agencies that providing multiple, sometimes overlapping services. The eligibility criteria – now under revision by the Commonwealth – is maddening, placing undue weight on IQ scores. Kids with scores over 70 get far fewer supports (if any) after age 22 than kids with scores 70 and under. Just like getting typically developing kids into college, parents compare scores and experiences. That score, and how you access the social service system – through the Department of Developmental Services, the Department of Mental Health, Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission and probably some agencies I don’t even know about yet – affects how we move through the system. We have learned that we can get conflicting answers on what to do and what is available from people working at the same agency. We knew it wouldn’t be easy.

What I did not expect is the juxtaposition of complacence and entitlement that emerged during these conversations. People tell me matter-of-factly that it is futile to negotiate and collaborate with the School District to better target support for a child but they follow it up with the expectation that, come age 22, the Commonwealth should be poised to provide full-time employment opportunities for the student emerging from the system. They are shocked to discover that this is not the case. While, in my experience, the Commonwealth makes no promises, they give the realistic expectation that students may have a chance for part-time work.  People with an IQ under 70 may be eligible for additional support though day programs and group homes, but those with an IQ over 70 will likely get nothing at all, regardless of their ability to access the potential indicated by the score. The difference in what the state provides is determined to some degree by how families access the system and advocate for their disabled young adult. I am only just starting to sift through this information, so don’t quote me on my facts just yet.

The barriers to employment for adults with autism is all over the news, partly because there are so many high functioning autistic people out there that people can see the untapped potential they could bring to the marketplace.  And yet I find myself yet again pushing back against the perception that an autism diagnosis presents some kind of unfair advantage in the school and social service system just because there happen to be so many people with autism coming of age at this point in history. And let’s be clear: they aren’t talking about people with IQs near 70. I find myself apologizing for the fact that my disabled child is the one slated to fall through the safety net because he is autistic – this is the conversation that sent me into orbit. The conversation in which the person whose child will get more support than mine feels cheated because my child is viewed as higher functioning when he is only differently disabled than hers. Is there such a thing as disability envy? Sometimes I think so. Contrary to popular belief, the autism label isn’t opening any doors for us; I’m pretty sure I can hear them closing.

There is no glory in needing or asking for help. There is no greater helplessness than knowing there are limits to what you can do for your disabled child, and knowing that you are going to have to go outside of your family to assure that they get what they need so that they will need you as little as possible as they – and you – get older. We do not want to let them go; sometimes just letting them go to school is tough enough. But one way of making this excruciating process bearable is trying to do things that help more children than just your own. I have said this part many times before: We have tried to advocate for our child with an eye toward building programs that help others like him but also toward building a school system that serves all children well.

But to hear from parents that the teachers are great but that nothing has ever really changed, that a child is not getting this or that even though it’s in the IEP but that’s just the way it is, that the high school is bad at this or the middle school isn’t addressing that, that the Commonwealth is a self-sustaining bureaucracy and nothing more and there’s nothing we can do about it – that just doesn’t match up with my reality.

Our School District has changed and is changing every day. My indignance comes from the sense that people are complaining about things that have been fixed, that our high school is better suited to serve our kids than it was 2 years ago and infinitely better than it was 5 years ago, that education is a partnership that requires communications and work inside and outside of school by all parties involved and that, most importantly, complaining is not the same as advocacy. Things are changing because parents are speaking up in ways that foster change – which doesn’t mean bitching over the phone or in the parking lot. It means calling a meeting when the District is not meeting the terms of the IEP, making sure the IEP addresses the needs of the child, and that the teachers and staff have the time and means to serve the child.

Here's something else we accomplished: we created and funded an Education Resource library for parents and teachers to research specific disabilities.

Here’s something else we accomplished: we created and funded an Education Resource library for parents and teachers to research specific disabilities.

I am driven to distraction by the perception that we can neither penetrate nor change the system and that the progress we have made in recent years in our own schools is invisible. People say to me with a straight face that it is a waste of time for them to try to change things in a school “because it won’t ever happen.” I know that  the improvements to the program that their child is in were not an accident that happened while I was advocating for my own child – I asked for change, lobbied for it, called meetings about it, talked to the School Committee about it, got funding for it. And when other issues were brought to my attention, I did the same thing for programs that my child was not in. There are a lot of us doing a lot of work out here and we can’t take sole credit for that progress but it galls me to discover that some people think that parents and citizens have not fueled and contributed to substantive change at our high and middle schools in the last five years. There is always more work to be done but this is a moment where I feel the need to stand back and appreciate what we have accomplished so far. Within the last few years we have increased all of these supports:

  • therapeutic classrooms
  • school adjustment counselors
  • assistive technology
  • transportation for community inclusion
  • after school opportunities
  • community-school employment partnerships
  • small-group instruction
  • language-based instruction
  • behavioral training and support

And we accomplished it not because my child is has a certain diagnosis but because I – and many parents like me – put in the time and energy to advocate for changes that would make our schools better not just for our kids but the kids who come after ours.

So many parents face bigger hurdles than I do – and some of their hurdles are in my future. They work harder and better to accomplish things I haven’t even dreamed of yet. Whatever work I have done pales in comparison to theirs. I know that we will benefit from their dedication, wisdom, persistence and tenacity and I don’t ever want to them to think I take their work for granted; I am finding out just how many people do.

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