Special Needs, Special Vision

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

I was recently invited to attend a special education review meeting at the school of a friend's son. The son attends a school for special needs adults over the age of 21. I teach Special Education in the elementary setting, so while I had a solid handle on the basics and on the jargon, research needed to be done on the rules and regulations for the over 21 Special Needs population.

In doing some research on what the rules say for students over this age; to my dismay, nothing of substance was to be found online during my search, so I called my state's Department of Education Special Education Division. After a lengthy conversation, what I learned brought dismay to the heart of this Special Education Teacher.

While pleased to know that people with Special Needs, such as Down's Syndrome and other developmental delays fall under the purview of Civil Rights laws, once someone with Special Needs with these classifications turns 21, generally a guardian is assigned to ensure the person is making their own choices, but that these choices are the right choices.

After my phone call, I called my friend and a discussion centered around the differences between the attentiveness to all things IEP between the ages of birth and 21 years of age and how when folks age out of programming falling under the auspices of IDEA, education changes from academic and life skills to something which doesn't, in the opinion of this parent, seem to be as specifically attentive to his child's needs.

Settling into the meeting room and listening to the discussion, it became clear to me that while everyone's intentions are great and appeared to be needs focused, my heart sank when I began to do a mental comparison of an IEP meeting in which I'd recently participated where clear goals and guidelines were, together with the family, identified, discussed, and noted for the next school year. Copies of documents were shared with the family, questions answered, information shared, resources provided, a relationship deepened. This friend's child's meeting left me feeling like something significant was missing.

My concern is that people with significant cognitive disabilities are perceived as being incapable of doing productive, meaningful activities. Another concerns is that too many folks think this way and instead of trying to give someone the ability to find meaning and purpose in their day, instead, they should be plopped into a center where they're basically parked for the day to at best, socialize and maybe learn to color.

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This, in my opinion, is a travesty.

In discussing my feelings with a mutual friend, also the parent of a child with significant special needs, it was clear that my feelings were not exclusive. As we talked, we sussed out a few key points:

  • Where you live matters. If you're a resident of a large city, there will probably be more resources for over 21 education and daily opportunity.
  • In many locales, employers are slow or unwilling to hire special needs folks to do things like wipe tables, gather trash, greet/host in the lobby, bag groceries, etc., even knowing tax incentives exist for doing so.
  • In many locales, folks no longer attending school in the K-12 setting are hidden because of age-old prejudices. Out of sight, out of mind. This makes me crazy!

As we continued our animated and "Solve the World's Problems"-type of conversation, she unwittingly planted a seed in my very cluttered brain…you know, the kind of seed which when someone makes a comment in passing that is so apropos and relevant yet they don't even realize that what they've said my alter the course of your life…? Yeah, that kind of comment.

"Wouldn't it be neat if there were a café totally run by people with special needs here in our area?"

Suddenly the lights shone down, the angels sang, and the gears got to grinding on HOW to make this happen in our community.

My vision would be that every person with special needs, no matter what kind, would find a place in the café. Bookkeeping, managing operations, ordering foods/drinks, tending to customers, marketing, hosting, cleaning…PARTICIPATING IN MEANINGFUL WORK!

Grandiose thinking tells me that by having places of "business" like this, where the general public can get a great sandwich, cup of coffee, donut, bagel-whatever!-and people can learn, develop, grow, and find value, purpose, and meaning in their lives would be the kind of business from which I'd want to purchase. In chatting up this idea with other folks, it became evident that others believe the same way and more often than not, exhibited a true joy at the very thought of pulling off the highway in a sleepy southern town, getting a great treat, putting money back into the local economy while supporting a great place and great people.

While my friend's child works to meet their goals-specific life skills like working with money, dressing, grooming, personal care, and more, it is with gratitude that I walked away from that meeting…I want so much more for this person, and as many of us were taught growing up, those who CAN must DO to provide a way for those who NEED.

If you're aware of an organization in your community doing something like this, I'd love to learn more about their efforts. Please share with me on Twitter @MaryRibeiro625.

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