Sunday, November 30, 2014

Can it really be five years later?

It has been a long time since I last looked at this blog, and a lot has happened in five years. My parents passed away four months apart. We took the children to England to see the town and country where they were born. Our children finished high school. After more than 20 years we moved from Maryland back to New York, home state for my husband and me, and back to the city where we met in the early 1980s. My mother-in-law, the last of our parents, died last year. This year I retired from the practice of law, and now I am volunteering as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children in the foster care system. I am also a 2014 graduate of the New York State Partners in Policymaking, renewing my commitment to advocating with and for people with disabilities.

I was re-reading some old IEPs (Individualized Education Program) and looking at the summaries of strengths and weaknesses, the goals and the objectives. We are much better at seeing the weaknesses than finding the strengths of our students with disabilities. "Problem behaviors" are more apparent - aggression against people, work avoidance, eloping, self-stimulating behaviors (such as spinning around), self-injurious behaviors, and destruction of property. Somehow, it seems as if we need the highest power microscope to see the strengths and the positive behaviors and the progress the child is making. And so we work much harder to control their behavior and overcome their weaknesses than we do at building on their strengths and aptitudes and preferences. If a student has a sense of rhythm, build on it; incorporate more music in the program, perhaps during breaks. If a student is a visual learner, use pictures and models and sight words. If the child shows a gift for color, encourage the artistic side. This has multiple benefits. It keeps the student more engaged and increases focus and time on task. It builds upon the child's strengths so that the child knows success and accomplishment and what it feels like to be proud. Then the example of the student's successes can be used to encourage the student in new areas of endeavor, including areas that are known to be challenges. 

It concerns me, especially as I meet and learn from self-advocates, that we are trying not only to educate the student with a disability, but to change fundamentally the person. Every level of ability is natural, but we do not accept this. We push the child with autism to look us in the eyes and learn empathy and social skills, and the child with ADHD to focus. Are we not rejecting these students and telling them that they are inherently wrong? As they have told us, people with disabilities are not broken and do not need to be fixed.