Speak and Be Heard

Special-education students are learning that their own best advocates may be themselves.

In addition to learning about their own disabilities, L.E.A.D. members mentor younger special-ed students at middle and elementary schools one day a week, teaching them that it's okay to learn differently. They discuss learning problems only if the younger kids wish to bring up the issue; otherwise, they serve as a big brother or sister who helps with homework and plays games.

Perhaps the most important task L.E.A.D. students perform came about accidentally. During the group's first year, Lambros called Sheila Buckley, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Colorado, and asked if she could recommend a successful adult with a learning disability to speak to the kids. Instead, Buckley suggested that his group speak to the LDA at the organization's next meeting.

"We didn't arrive with a presentation; we just came to answer questions. We came home totally jazzed, because we realized that we knew so much, but at the same time, we didn't know so much," Lambros says. "From those questions...our group started to grow, because we were so excited about learning more about learning disabilities. People started calling me and asking if I'd bring the kids to talk to them again. Since then, we've done hundreds of presentations."

Michael Hogue
Mary Anne Fleury teaches kids how to speak up; her son, Matt, has several learning disabilities.
Mark A. Manger
Mary Anne Fleury teaches kids how to speak up; her son, Matt, has several learning disabilities.

The students speak to school boards, to students, to professionals and to parents about the social, academic and emotional problems that come with having a learning disability. A few years ago they spoke to their own teachers, and last year they went into some of Cheyenne Mountain's English classes. In another presentation before a group of family-law attorneys and judges in Colorado Springs, the students explained how divorce affects kids with ADHD.

The students developed a video about what they do and have distributed it to people in other states; they've also given presentations at the LDA's international conventions in Washington, D.C., New York and Denver.

But people who've been inspired by L.E.A.D. are discovering that replicating the group isn't easy.

Claudia Lowe lives in Eldorado Hills, California, a town forty miles east of Sacramento; her son Adam has ADHD and bipolar disorder. Lowe heard about Lambros and L.E.A.D. from someone at the LDA California chapter, and when the organization held its annual meeting in Denver in February, she decided to attend because the L.E.A.D. students were planning to give a presentation. After the convention, she spent a day shadowing some of the kids in Colorado Springs as they mentored younger students.

"I was so impressed with them that I went back to our school superintendent and said that I wanted to bring them out here to do a presentation," Lowe says.

The superintendent told her that the L.E.A.D. students could speak only during an upcoming staff development day; later, he told her they couldn't come at all because the teachers were going to be receiving training in another subject that day. "He didn't provide an alternative," Lowe notes. "There are 364 other days in the year." She believes it was just an excuse and says teachers and administrators in the school district have always been antagonistic toward special-education students and their parents. For instance, during an IEP meeting for Adam, his science teacher told her he wasn't convinced that Adam had a neurological disorder. Adam wanted to take his exams orally and be pre-tested to determine his weaknesses in the subject before the new science unit was introduced. "[The teacher] refused to make the accommodations," Lowe says.

She and her son didn't fare any better with his French teacher, who insisted on teaching a certain way; she told them that if Adam couldn't learn the way she teaches, too bad. Lowe realized that her frustration was shared by many others, and two years ago, she formed a group for parents of children with ADHD and other learning disabilities. Lowe says she naively approached the principal of her son's school, thinking he'd help put her in touch with other parents, but he wouldn't. So she posted fliers throughout the community advertising the first meeting. Two hundred parents showed up.

The group's purpose was to learn about different ADHD medications and exchange parenting tips, but as parents started swapping stories and educating themselves about their rights under federal special-education laws, they discovered that some administrators were lying to them, saying they couldn't force teachers to make accommodations and claiming they didn't have enough money or staff to provide special services.

Meetings were initially held at Oakridge High, where Adam is enrolled, but administrators there weren't comfortable with the group, Lowe says, and discouraged other parents from joining. So the parents now communicate by e-mail or by getting together outside of school.

Lowe has some ideas about what's behind the hostility that parents of special-ed students say they face. "Historically, special-education students weren't involved in regular education, and when laws changed to include them, it was viewed by some as an encroachment," she says. "I constantly hear administrators say that special-education students cost too much money and that because the federal government doesn't give schools enough money to educate them, they have to take money away from other students and programs, and that sets up antagonism."

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