Sunday, January 29, 2012

Disability labels (and any other kinds of labels) do not dictate a child's future

I read a truly inspiring article, "Annette Jenner: Brainiac" by Juliette Weiland on the Smart KIDS with Learning Disabilities website. It's about a woman named Annette Jenner who triumphed over her dyslexia "label" by pursuing higher education and earning a Ph.D. She is now a teacher and brain researcher. Because of having dyslexia she was predestined not to go to the college.
"As a high school freshman with dyslexia, she was told she wouldn't be able to go to college. Instead of college preparatory course work, she was taught how to fill out job applications for McDonald's. Today, she's a brain researcher and professor at Syracuse University. Take a look at her story."

Never let someone tell you that your child's disability or anything else dictates what they are capable of accomplishing in life!

This article reminds me of the importance of setting high standards for our children. It also brings to mind that schools and parents need to explore alternatives for children to help them learn and progress. Within all school systems are obstacles, but obstacles can be broken and alternate paths can be found. The parents have a huge responsibility to seek out what is appropriate for their child.

I immediately think of my daughter, who has developmental disabilities, and my son also comes to mind. He never received special education services, but he did struggle with focus and organization beginning in about third grade. It was a constant battle to get him to finish his school work and to organize his thoughts in order to write them down throughout high school. This created some learning challenges, although he shined very often. Looking back, I wish I had pursued some testing/accommodations to help him. These struggles were not his fault.

I remember back to when he was a student at a college preparatory high school. He earned a 'D' in Spanish in tenth grade. His counselor told him that he could not attend college because he had a 'D'. She advised him to train for a vocational career instead of getting a four-year degree. I think vocational colleges are often an excellent option when a student has an interest, but how about providing a young person with some options! For instance, plenty of people do attend junior college and then transfer on to a university later. There are a host of options too I might add.

A poor grade in high school does not forfeit any kind of academic future. Nor does a having a "label" of a disability for that matter.

If someone were to tell me that because my daughter has language, social, and motor delays that she was destined to live at home with us for the rest of her life or that she could not be what she wanted to be, I would have a real problem with that. Our daughter is learning. She has aspirations. She has talents. Yet, many children with disability labels or those who have slipped in their grades are not encouraged to attend college. We have to change this.

I knew that my son was dead in the water, so I sought enrollment at a charter high school. I knew a little about the school, and I liked what I was hearing. The charter school's motto is "transforming education, one student at a time." This was news to my ears. They never discouraged him. He had an advisor that he communicated with daily. The advisor stays with the group of students from year to year and gets to know the student. My son developed a custom learning plan based on his interests, which included an internship and college level courses. He was encouraged to explore passions. At the end of each quarter, he was judged by his peers, parents, and advisor at his "exhibition" where he presented what he had accomplished, what he did well, and what he did not so well. Not only was he learning accountability but public speaking and presentation skills. After the exhibition there was a detailed parent-child-teacher meeting to discuss progress and plan for future needs.

 In the U.S., one student drops out of school every 12 seconds.
That's 1,083,888 students so far this school year.

The exhibition definitely was more valuable to us than the standardized, parent-teacher conference we had been accustomed to where the parent and teacher talk for 15 minutes at the end of each quarter. In these meetings, the my son rarely took part in the meeting except to explain bad behavior or performance. There was no comprehensive plan for his education.

I'm not saying there weren't any struggles for him at the charter school. He still had challenges with focus, motivation, and organization. He had real issues with staying on track. Despite this, there was a constant level of support and a deep caring about him as an individual. If he needed to do better, by golly his advisor was right there in his face -- daily. And, that D"  from Spanish... The advisor said he could take a foreign language class at city college in his senior year. He took the class and earned an 'A'. This satisfied two years of the foreign language requirement + honors credits. The 'D' was still there and it did affect his overall GPA, but the foreign language requirement was met and the GPA for college preparatory classes was in tact.

At the charter high school, things were definitely different. The staff including their principal were so very caring and approachable. I wish that my son would have attended this school from the start in ninth grade. But, one drawback was that there were no team sports. My son had always played soccer. But still, with more time at this school he might have developed more of a love for learning due to the individualized attention, creativity, and support. He was valued as a unique person.

I have often wondered why the other high school was unable to effectively guide him and provide alternatives in order to stay on track to college. Are public schools are so standardized that they have trouble helping students who have fallen behind? Either you make the cut or you don't? If you don't, you're done? One of the sad realities is that the only time he ever met with his counselor was when he was close to failing. There was no other encouragement along the way. I think that when students go from class to class with no connection in between, students may easily fall through the cracks. Even when the parent wants to create that connection, there is no easy way to do this with six different teachers, who, in many cases to do not collaborate when it comes to individual student needs. At the public high school, I wanted to make that connection, but the infrastructure was not collaborative. The communication was not there. I think about what will happen when my daughter gets into middle school. Will this infrastructure exist? Will the support be there? I must ensure that she does not fall through the cracks. This is where school choice and good planning will come into play.

I am not saying that there is no creativity or encouragement in public schools. I have seen glimpses of it. I want more. I know not all schools are 'cookie cutter' and schools are always changing and evoloving. 

One thing is certain that Annette Jenner reminds us. "Labels are just something that describe one aspect of who you are." We need to nurture all "labels" not just those that describe a disability or an area that is challenging. My son is almost 19 and attends junior college, works part-time, and lives on his own. He's feeling out the kind of career he wants. He realizes he needs college to succeed. He has lots of talents that he will tap into. My daughter is soon to be six. She attends public school in a general education classroom and receives speech and occupational therapy services before or after school. She has been given some disability "labels" but we will not allow them to define her or stop her from pursuing her dreams. Her other "labels" are "writer/illustrator, artist, architect, fashionista, cat whisperer, gymnast, princess, chef, reading machine, vegetarian, sister, daughter, student, sweetheart, and friend." I know I speak for other parents too when I say our kids rock!

One thing I learned from Wrightslaw (a great resource by the way), is to get to know my child's teachers, school, and district and find out how they perceive students with disabilities or learning problems. What are their standards? What are my standards? If I feel that the standards don't mesh, I will keep pushing! Speak my voice. Seek alternatives. Do not give up. Don't settle.


  1. I interviewed Annette Jenner and wrote her story for Smart Kids with LD. I'm glad that you found her story and found it inspirational.
    Juliette Weiland

  2. Wonderful Juliette! I loved reading about Annette's success!! She is an inspiration to many.