The Double-Edged Sword of Special Education

Parents of a children on the spectrum or with learning differences have a sword pointing directly at their hearts. The double-edged sword of special education.

I can’t believe how many parents I know who have agreed to sign IEP’s, not even knowing that this, friends, is indeed special education. They somehow didn’t know that an IEP, an Individualized Education Program, is a legal and binding document. That every day their children skedaddled off to a special classroom, usually called a Resource Room or Special Day class, often missing out on key social and academic activities.

Kids with learning issues can do so much! Let’s focus on what they can do, not what they can’t.

To start with, every child should have an individualized education program, whether struggling in school or not. Every child is different; every need is different.

But let’s let that little fantasy go for now.

When given an IEP, all too often, students are warehoused, receiving a watered-down curriculum. They rarely break out of the “behind grade level” status that got them there in the first place. This doesn’t make it easy to pass high school exit exams or earn even a high school diploma.

I know there are some excellent special education programs out there, but I haven’t seen one first hand in years. Even worse, well-meaning staff often make it worse.

Years ago, I had a seventh-grade student who was diagnosed as mentally retarded. I worked with her and found her to be verbal, bright, and able to do multiple step problems. She was a whiz at the computer and could upload images and a host of other things I knew nothing about. When I tested her, she showed a lot of indications of dyslexia.

I spoke with her parents, and we agreed that Stephanie was intelligent and our goal was to get the label of mental retardation off her records so she had a shot at a normal life. By then, they were home schooling her through a home-school charter school, so she was making progress, even if it wasn’t as swift as we would have liked.

Working with her once a week, her reading levels began to soar. She became more confident, trying new tasks she wouldn’t have before. Stephanie was able to memorize math facts and eventually performed grade level math. Her writing remained a challenge, but it was certainly good enough to get her through high school and possibly college. The sky was the limit.

Enter the IEP meeting.

The school psychologist gave her report. Stephanie’s IQ score had risen enough that she no would no longer be labeled as mentally retarded.

“Yesssssssss,” I thought, a smile playing on my lips. All that hard work paid off.

Enter the well-meaning administrator who launched into a tirade about how Stephanie wouldn’t qualify for Social Security if we removed the label of mental retardation. She went on to explain that the parents wouldn’t always be around and that this money would help Stephanie as an adult. The parents were given a few days to think of their decision.

I’ll never forget Stephanie’s dad after the IEP meeting. “We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

I tried to convince these parents to remove the label, but in the end, they chose to keep it, the lure of a few hundred bucks a month too lucrative, I suppose.

Years passed and everyone went their own way. Recently, I ran into Stephanie and her mother at the vet’s office. We chatted it up like old friends, but as I turned to go, I had a sinking feeling in my chest.

Stephanie was now in her early twenties. She graduated high school with a certificate of completion. And, sadly, she still lived at home. No job. No independence. No hope of supporting herself. Oh, she does get that Social Security check every month.

I wonder if it will be enough once her parents die. Or God, forbid, what if that money runs out? Where will Stephanie be?

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