Showing posts with label my big opinions. Show all posts
Showing posts with label my big opinions. Show all posts

April 14, 2014

The Things We Know

Today at Support for Special Needs:
The challenging aspects of being the parent of a special needs kid aren’t always the things you don’t know, although believe me when I say those are bad ones, like "stay up late and start drinking early" bad ones. Sometimes a greater source of parental frustration comes from truly knowing your child, in a way that is simply impossible for a doctor or a teacher or even a family member, and having to work tirelessly to be taken seriously.

February 17, 2014

Diversity in Language

Today at Support for Special Needs:
As parents of children with disabilities, we are constantly looking for the word choices that reflect not just our kids’ reality, but also the dignity and the hope and the possibilities that we hold as a kind of sacred trust.

February 10, 2014

Monsters Who Smile

I'm sorry if you're getting tired of this story. I actually wrote this last week. One of the pitfalls of a weekly column, I guess. Anyway, today at Support for Special Needs:
But being Schuyler’s father has also shown me, again and again with stark clarity, that there really are monsters in this world, and some of them smile pretty smiles and take your daughter by the hand if you let them, and God, do I hope I’m alert enough to know those monsters when I see them.

December 31, 2013

I will try.

At Support for Special Needs:
I’m not sure I’d call any of these "resolutions". But as we march off into 2014, I will try to be the father that Schuyler needs, more now than ever. I wasn’t ready to take on the life’s work of being a special needs father; I’m not sure anyone ever really is. But it is in the trying that I become a better father, and a more whole person.

December 18, 2013

My All, at Fourteen

This week always presents a natural time to stop and reflect on where Schuyler is in her life, with her birthday only a few days away. It's also the end of the year, so everyone's in this whole "looking back" mood anyway. It's a good time for marking transitions.

This year, it feels even more so. When I look back on Schuyler's first teenaged year, it feels like a great deal of significance took place, not all of it easily measured or commemorated. She doesn't come across as a different person than she was a year ago, but she just seems... more. More complete. More complicated. More damaged. Stronger. A little sadder. A lot smarter. And in some ways happier, too.

Thirteen was the year that Schuyler became serious about using her iPad to communicate. It was the year when the software and the hardware caught up with each other, and despite a few snags and professional lapses, it was the year when she began to assemble a team that is developing a real plan for how she moves forward. She still resists using AAC to communicate; once again, we recently had the semi-regular "But I want to talk like everyone else!" tantrum. I don't think she's demanding that the impossible change somehow. I think she just needs to howl at the sky every now and then, to protest the injustice and to fight the future a little. She's learning to put aside her protest when she needs to, and that might represent the best step forward that she's taken in a long time. This next year will tell.

Thirteen will almost certainly be remembered as her cheerleader year. She's still got some responsibilities for the spring semester, but not that much. This was the year that we crossed our fingers and stepped into uncertainty, handing our daughter over to a situation that could very much work, or very much not.

The verdict? I don't actually know. Schuyler loves cheerleading. She's incredibly proud of herself, and she participates with real joy and enthusiasm. When she's actually cheering, she's on top of the world.

But there are... complications. The inclusive environment that we'd hoped for feels more like the "you can stand here and be happy" school of inclusion. Schuyler hasn't received the extra help that we'd hoped she might get, and wasn't even allowed to move to the back row of girls so she'd have some visual cues to help her, despite both Schuyler and us making that request. The mix of girls broke into cliques almost immediately, and stayed that way. That's never good news for the kid who's different.

It's the little things that start to feel not so small. As we discovered last week, Schuyler's name wasn't even spelled correctly on her locker poster OR the official board at the school, and I guess it's been that way all semester. That might sound minor, but it sends a message.

I asked Schuyler if she'd pointed out the spelling error to her cheer coach, and she said no. She's being frustratingly oblique about the whole thing. She has a good time cheering, but she also says she doesn't want to do it again next year. Schuyler has taken the parts that she's enjoyed, and she's given up on the rest, and I'm saddened for her but also proud of her, for her pragmatism and her unflagging positivity.

A couple of months ago, after her request to move to the second row of girls was turned down, Schuyler and I walked to the car after the game. She down and sighed.

"I wish she would treat me like a real cheerleader," she said. And then she didn't want to talk about it any more.

So. That's cheerleading.

Most critically, thirteen was the year that Schuyler began taking seizure medications. Her neurologist had determined that she was likely having partial complex seizures for some time before, but it was only when the aftereffects of a recent seizure were bad enough to send her home from school that he decided it was time. Her MRI showed changes as well. We didn't disagree with his earlier determination that it wasn't time for meds, and we don't disagree with him now.

She's ramping up to her full dosage; she'll be there in a couple of weeks. So far, she's just beginning to show some side effects. None of them are unmanageable, and she's aware of the changes and tries to compensate for them. She understands that this is all in the service of helping her brain heal and manage itself, and she's game, to the point of clarifying how she feels so that I can get it right for this post. ("Now my brain feels weird and strong, like smart.")

I'm proud of her; she knows that the "brain pills" are fucking with her, but she grasps the big picture and never ever tries to beg off of taking them. We should have a better idea in the next few weeks if this is going to help and if she's going to be able to manage the effects.

So her birthday, and the holidays, arrives at a moment of transition, of a kind of change none of us have ever experienced together. Schuyler's having a bit of a rough time right now, but she's holding things together. She leaves thirteen behind at a crucial time, and she's going to need the love and support and, yes, the patience of every person in the world who loves her.

Fortunately for her, that's a lot of people.

What will fourteen bring? It'll bring high school, two words that encompass all the fear and all the potential and all the excitement in the whole world for her, and for us. Fourteen will include meeting new friends and even new family. It'll be about finding a balance that has eluded her. Balance in how her school implements an inclusive curriculum. Balance in her mysterious brain chemistry. Balance between her dependence on her parents and her desire to take flight on her own. Balance between her natural exuberance and the reality of her world. Schuyler's both younger than her chronological age, and wise beyond her years. That may be the trickiest balance of all for her.

Thirteen was big for Schuyler. Thirteen was unyielding and rough, but it was transfiguring and significant. Thirteen showed Schuyler, in ways it hadn't before, that the world might eat her up if she's not careful, but I think it also might have just introduced her to the empowered young woman she's going to be.

When asked if she had a message for the world, Schuyler said,
"Go see The Hobbit and have a happy New Year!"

December 16, 2013

The Buccaneer Life

Today at Support for Special Needs:
The thought of striking out against that, of hoisting a flag of defiance and breaking down some of that restricting world’s walls? That’s some powerful fantasy material for those of us trying to navigate the sweet spot between this rock and that hard place. You don’t have to ask us twice if we would like a turn at the cannonade. Our flintlocks are already loaded.

December 9, 2013

The Hardest Forgiveness

Today at Support for Special Needs:
As parents, we’re probably almost certainly unprepared for the disabilities of our children, at least at first. We go into battle against monsters without so much as a BB gun in our hands. What we discover as we go is that sometimes, we don’t need weapons. We simply need different tools, such as patience, and tougher skins, and ingenuity. And most of all, we need to learn forgiveness, primarily for ourselves.

December 5, 2013

Injustice League

This week (sorry, I forgot to publish this on Monday) at Support for Special Needs:
What I truly want is for my friends to run out of hurts, to have no stories of our community being treated poorly. I want someone to say "I looked up #retard on Twitter, and nothing came up." I want to hear about the organ transplants being granted to patients with intellectual disabilities. I want to hear about how the kids on the bus were kind and the popular middle school girls gave the shy little nonverbal girl at the back of the room a makeover after school and taught her to dance to One Direction. I want to read about kids who are different writing poetry, not suicide notes. I want to read about the community that decided to invest in special education programs, and about the politicians who reach across that aisle to extend basic human rights to the disabled, rather than taking away their "entitlements".

November 4, 2013

What Inclusion Isn't

Today at Support for Special Needs:
Denying our kids the ability to work hard and perhaps even fail from time to time, instead just displaying them in front of an approving crowd and announcing "Look at this inclusive philosophy we've embraced!", that isn't inclusion. That's simply building a Potemkin village for the world to see and admire. It's a facade. It doesn't fool Schuyler, or any other kid whose potential is wasted because of fear of failure and a desire to do the nice thing, which is so easily confused with the right thing.


October 19, 2013

With Shea

(Updated below, 11/4/13...)

Lately, we've been watching the story of Shea Shawhan very closely.

There are a few reasons I've been so interested. One is that the story is just so awful. Shea is a high school junior who suffered a brain injury at birth and has been developmentally disabled ever since. She also experiences pretty serious seizures. The news stories I've read have all stated that she has the intellectual capacity of an eight year-old, and while I usually shy away from those kinds of statements (I don't know that most kids with developmental disabilities develop at equal rates in all areas of their minds; that's certainly not true of Schuyler), it nevertheless allows the reader to at least try to understand what her high school life might be like. In a lot of ways, she seems very much like Schuyler.

Her disability isn't the awful part, not one bit. By all appearances, Shea's life is a rewarding one. She plays softball at her school and is even on the cheerleading squad. She seems well-loved and well-adjusted, living her life on her own terms.

No, the awful part is the texts. For months, Shea has been receiving anonymous (of course) text messages, harassing her, threatening her, and heaping the most vile insults concerning her disability on her. I'm not going to repeat them here. The texts were generated at a website that masks the user's actual number, so for the time being, the identity of the sender is hidden. I can't imagine that will be the case for long.

As I said, I've been following this story for several reasons, beyond just how awful it is. Shea reminds me of Schuyler in a lot of ways. Seeing her speak on television, it is very easy for me to imagine an older and verbal version of my daughter. Shea is eighteen; that's an age that isn't all that far down the road for Schuyler. I've followed the story because like Schuyler, Shea is a cheerleader, and is working hard to walk in the world of her neurotypical classmates. I understand how tricky that can be, and I get exactly how much she probably wants to be able to do so. It's a desire that Schuyler shares, and one than we try hard to accommodate, even though we know how treacherous and heartbreaking that choice can be, the decision to pass and to try to carve out a space in an often unsympathetic neurotypical world.

Our interest in Shea's story goes deeper still, however. Because Shea attends Plano West High School.

The school Schuyler is on track to attend in three years.

Before I go further, I should hasten to add that so far, Shea's story has taken a pretty positive turn. Her mother was extremely proactive and took the story public, even working towards creating a nonprofit, ImWithShea, Inc., to campaign against bullying. Cyberbullying is a justifiably hot topic in the news media these days, and the story got picked up in a hurry. As a result, the student population and the community at large have been very supportive of Shea, and she's become something of a local celebrity. (Schuyler has been particularly taken with Shea; she keeps asking about her "little monster", and about her cheerleading. I think Schuyler is intrigued by the possibilities that someone like Shea Shawhan represents.) Shea is feeling a lot of love at the moment, and the students at Plano West have gone out of their way to illustrate that the person or persons sending those texts don't represent their school.

It's all been very positive lately, but I worry. I worry that, like many of the special needs kids who are celebrated in the media, the world might return to its harder ways for Shea once the camera crews leave to follow the next shiny thing that catches their collective eye. I worry that the hate that was sent her way before is simply waiting patiently for the lights to go out so it can re-emerge. I'm concerned because despite all the positive lip service coming out of the Plano West student population, not one kid has come forth with any knowledge of who is committing these atrocious acts. I understand that there's a kind of code in teen culture, one that exists outside the access points for adults. But I also get that it's perhaps easier to adhere to that code if you can justify your silence by seeing classmates with developmental disabilities as being somehow less. Less deserving of your empathy. Less valuable to your school community.

Less human.

Most of all, even though I know that this is the kind of thing that can happen anywhere (as if that's comforting), I still find myself thinking "And this is the school that we're going to send Schuyler to?"

Schuyler has never been exposed to online hate speech. Not directly, anyway. Her access is still carefully moderated. She's protected from direct contact on social media, and only a few of her friends communicate with her via text message. That won't be the case forever, but for now she's mostly uninterested in having more online autonomy, and we're certainly okay with that.

One day, and soon, that'll change. Her special way of communicating is perfectly suited to social media, and it's only a matter of time before she steps into a world than a good many of her classmates already occupy. What will happen then? Is that online world populated by jackals? Will Schuyler emerge into an online world, without her parental buffer, as fresh meat?

Schuyler doesn't always understand her classmates and how they relate to her. Cheerleading hasn't helped like we'd hoped it would. In some ways, it has served as a microcosm of the middle school teenaged girl experience, a place that has less in common with the Disney Channel and more with Lord of the Flies. We've been asking ourselves over and over if letting her be a cheerleader was the right choice, but of course it's far too late for that to be a productive conversation. She's working hard to fit in, and she's also committed to it. That's her choice, not ours.

Shea Shawhan is a cheerleader at the very school Schuyler is scheduled to attend for 11th and 12th grade. That fact alone suggests possibilities for Schuyler that we never entertained. That's a positive thing, there's no doubt about that. But clearly, at least one person at Plano West doesn't appreciate those opportunities being extended to kids like Schuyler and Shea.

The fact is, there are many, many people in the community who don't believe in inclusion. Sometimes they express themselves poisonously, like the anonymous texters harassing Shea. But sometimes these people stand up, at school board meetings or in letters to the editor, and use language that sounds measured, even reasonable. They don't always sound monstrous, which scares me even more than the cyberbullying.

Some parents don't want our flawed, beautiful, imperfectly perfect kids in the same classes as theirs. Some students don't want to sit next to them at school. Some members of the community don't want to see cheerleaders or homecoming queens with disabilities walk onto that football field on an autumn Friday night. Some don't want authentic relationships with the disabled. They are put off by imperfection. They fear difference. They may be horrified that someone said those things to Shea, but in their secret hearts, they may have even thought similar things themselves.

I don't think there are very many people like that, not now, in 2013. I've seen communities stand up for kids like Shea when their situations become public. I've witnessed kids treating Schuyler with genuine friendship. The world that kids like Shea and Schuyler occupy is mostly good. I truly believe that. I don't believe it all the time, perhaps, but my faith in humanity can take a little shaking without falling to pieces.

But we've all seen so many tragic cases of what school bullying can lead to. We've read the heart-crushing stories of the kids who have had more than they can bear, and we've seen them end their lives. It has become one of those media narratives that is depressing in its familiarity. It happens to kids who are different, and some of those differences can seem insignificant to us as adults.

Kids like Schuyler and Shea are different in ways that aren't always subtle, and which are almost never overlooked by their peers. So far, Shea Shawhan seems to be handling the situation with courage and grace, thanks in no small part to a great deal of family and community support. I don't know how Schuyler would deal with that same kind of situation. My heart tells me that she wouldn't take it well at all. I hope I never get to find out.

Photo zazzed up by Schuyler



UPDATE, 11/4/13

Before I wrote the above post, I contacted Kerri Riddell, Shea's mother, to make sure she would be okay with me writing about her daughter. She very kindly and enthusiastically agreed, and what followed was a correspondence that quickly shifted to direct contact between Shea and Schuyler. Shea invited Schuyler to come meet her at a Plano West football game last Friday, and we were happy to accept the invitation.

(A local news station ran a short piece on the game. Watch all the way through for a surprise in the last five or ten seconds.)

I'm not sure what to say here about the whole experience, mostly because Shea's story is hers to tell, and her mother's, but certainly not mine. I will simply say that it was extremely emotional for everyone involved, with two very unique girls who were happy to meet each other, even as their own individual disabilities and communication issues presented challenges. At the end of the night, Schuyler was overwhelmed enough to cry, something she hasn't done in a very, very long time.

I don't know if they'll meet again. But I sincerely hope they do.

Please visit I'm With Shea.

October 7, 2013

The Invisible Man

This morning, there's a new post at Support for Special Needs:
If you are writing about an issue that affects you as a disability parent, and if that issue doesn't relate to something that is specific to the experience of being a mother, I'm not going to ask you not to address your concerns to "special needs moms" only. But I am going to ask you why you're making that choice.
Is it because in your experience, mothers are the ones doing the heavy lifting? That makes sense; the statistics certainly back you up to some extent. But if that is in fact your perspective, I have to ask you, do you like it that way? And if you don't, how do you feel about a societal narrative that feeds this perception? More to the point, how do you feel about participating in the reenforcement and perpetration of this narrative?

September 16, 2013

The Things We Do Not Say

Today at Support for Special Needs:
For parent advocates, there are rules now, I am told, for the things that we can and cannot say. Break those rules, and we are dehumanizing the very people we profess to love. Say the things we are not supposed to say now, and we are causing harm. Express the things we are told not to say, and we demonstrate that our love for our kids isn't real.

August 26, 2013

The Outrage Machine

Today, at Support for Special Needs:
If there's anything that social media seems to do the most easily, it is to serve as a great machine, churning and huffing, with gears grinding day and night. And the product the machine produces and replicates and reproduces relentlessly is outrage. Facebook and Twitter serve as its two greatest cogs, but the Outrage Machine is complex. And god, is it efficient.

August 5, 2013

The Peril of What If

Today at Support for Special Needs:
Sometimes the What If Game cuts both ways. What if our children really could be cured, or helped to the point that their disability is all but defeated? What does that do to their sense of identity? What if it changes the essence of who they really are, in a fundamental way? What would our relationship as parents represent then? What is my responsibility? Is it to protect that basic sense of self, or to fight to open doors that may lead them to places we never dreamed of? Are those places necessarily GOOD places?

July 29, 2013

Feeling Good, and Doing Good

This week, at Support for Special Needs:
If you find those stories to be inspirational in a way that feels meaningful to you, I hope that’s the beginning of something, not the end. If you watch that story and see how much a disabled person’s life can be changed by moments of kindness and a short ride in a world that otherwise elutes them, I hope you’ll ask yourself what you might do, either in your place of business or the school your child attends or as a voter in your community, to change that rough world.

July 22, 2013

Leave the Ladders in Place

This week at Support for Special Needs:
For those of us charged with caring for and helping to build independent lives with loved ones with disabilities, trust can become hard to extend. We’ve all been burned. When we see someone like Greg Abbott build a career with the benefit of a lot of good people’s hard work, only to pull the ladder up behind him, we’re not shocked.

July 15, 2013

Of Tribes and Truths

Today at Support for Special Needs:
I watch the disability community again and again choose to address its issues by forming up into circular firing squads and shooting each other in the face with breathtaking zeal. I imagine the policy makers and the school administrators and the everyday citizens with no exposure to our lives and our worlds. I imagine them watching our infighting and our persistent dedication to choosing the low road, and instead of pondering the issues that are of importance to this community, they might simply conclude "Wow, what a bunch of assholes."

June 18, 2013

Radioactive

This morning at Support for Special Needs
When I write about the importance of true and authentic relationships with people with disabilities, this is part of that. Humor like this isn't funny unless you can dehumanize your target. There's no question about whether you'll get away with it if you understand that the vast majority of people who might hear you will believe down to their core that a human being with as much worth and value as themselves has been treated unfairly. In a world where that humanity is not just acknowledged but truly and deeply felt, this kind of behavior will be relegated to the fringe of society. It's the kind of thing that should feel toxic, radioactive. It shouldn't take thought in order to recoil from it.

June 14, 2013

Father's Day at the Huffington Post

The very cool folks at the Huffington Post asked me to contribute an essay for Father's Day, so here it is, "What I Know About Fatherhood Now That I Have a Teen With a Disability":
In the midst of all my fretting and errors, Schuyler has quietly persevered, and found her own successes. With time, I've finally started to see how she might make her way through a rough and beautiful world.
And I like to think I've learned a few things, albeit through trial and error and error and error.
Happy Father's Day to all you dads out there, and to all of you who are doing the work of fathers. Our moment in the sun may be fleeting, but maybe you'll get a nice tie out of the deal.

June 12, 2013

Sea Change and Mr. Baseball

When I write about how truly effective disability advocacy requires entering into authentic relationships with the disabled, it helps to have some solid examples of what that might look like.

Meet Cory Hahn.
(Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times)
Just a few years ago, Hahn had a future in baseball. As a high school player in California in 2010, he was selected as the state's Mr. Baseball, batting .411 and leading Mater Dei High School to a state title. He was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 26th round, but turned down the selection in order to attend college at Arizona State.

It was in his third game with the Sun Devils, in February 2011, that Cory Hahn slid headfirst into second base and suffered a spinal injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

Cory Hahn had a future in baseball. As it turns out, he still does.

This week, in the 34th round of the Major League Baseball draft, Cory Hahn was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

We've all seen stories about kids with disabilities being allowed to come out on the field of play and participate in some way for a few minutes. They are typically feel-good stories, and there's a little something in it for everyone. The person with the disability gets to experience that participation, the other kids and coaches get to feel that intoxicating feeling of Doing Something Good, and the media gets a story that passes for a little good news before moving on to the gruesome crime of the day.

Most of all, we as a society get to feel as if something has been accomplished, that some measure of social justice or real advocacy has come to pass. It's inspiration candy. It gives us a quick sugar high before things go back to the way they were. The disabled kid of the moment takes off his football jersey and goes back to his special education class, and that class will be just as satisfactory or just as lacking as it was before. As a lasting legacy, he receives a newspaper clipping, not a future. Inspiration candy isn't nutrition. It can be well-intentioned, it can be sincere, and it can come from the very best place. But it can't be the end point. It can't be the standard for which authentic relationships with the disabled are measured.

On its surface, the story of Cory Hahn's selection by the Diamondbacks felt suspiciously like inspiration candy. Barring a medical miracle of biblical proportions, Hahn is not going to play ball for the Diamondbacks. His draft by the team on its own is symbolic of their respect for him as a player and as a dedicated human being, but it's still symbolic. When I first read this story, I was hoping for more.

There was more.

From the Huffington Post:
The Diamondbacks emphasized to The Huffington Post on Monday that they intend for the pick to be more than just symbolic. The organization plans to offer Hahn a job, perhaps in its farm system at first. 
Team president and CEO Derrick Hall wrote the following in an email to HuffPost: 
"We have not discussed with him so I would not want to get too far ahead, but we would like to ease him in during his final year of school, perhaps video work with our minor leagues based out of Salt River Fields and then look to full-time baseball operations opportunities upon graduation."

In another statement, Derrick Hall said:
"We want to make this permanent. We don't this to be just about the selection and him being a draft pick. but about him working in full-time employment with the Diamondbacks."

After returning to school, Cory Hahn has been working as an assistant coach with his old team. Hahn's talents and his skills are more than his physical abilities, and the Diamondbacks recognize that. Picking him in the MLB draft has PR value, but committing to a long-term professional relationship is something else entirely. Major league baseball teams make decisions like this based on what's best for their organization. In looking at Cory Hahn and what he brings to the table, the Arizona Diamondbacks have done just that.

This is what those authentic relationships can look like. Beyond pity, beyond charity, and even beyond a truly sincere desire to help. When relationships with persons with disabilities become mutually beneficial, when both parties find growth and value, and when the abled recognize the incredible potential when taking the time to explore possibilities that don't present themselves in an easy way, something very new and very real starts to happen.

This is the sea change that so many hope for. This is what that might look like.