Speak and Be Heard

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

Fountain-Fort Carson High School, which was also featured in the study, has had better luck with self-advocacy. Wanda Hughes, a special-education teacher at the school just south of Colorado Springs, teaches a self-advocacy class for freshmen and sophomores. Like Lambros, Hughes helps her students understand their disabilities. She also helps them put self-advocacy skills into practice. At the end of the nine-week block, the students are required to approach a teacher they don't know, describe their disability and explain the modifications they need. Hughes coaches the teachers ahead of time to be difficult; she asks them to tell the kids things like, "You don't look like you have a disability," and "If I modified your test for you, it wouldn't be fair to the rest of the students."

"I wanted the kids to get practice for when they run up against a teacher who isn't so nice," she says. "It really empowers them."

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.

L.E.A.D. is split in two, with eighteen sophomores, juniors and seniors in the advanced class, and the rest in the freshman class. They meet separately each Friday for a support-group session where they're free to talk about anything that's going on in their lives, regardless of whether it has to do with their learning disabilities.

On a recent Friday, the older students talk about how just knowing they're not alone has helped boost their self-esteem. They talk about how they've derived confidence from standing up to their teachers and peers. Some kids recall how terrifying it was to be called on to read aloud in class before they knew it was okay to tell their teachers that they'd prefer not to. But most of all, the students say, it's been a relief to discover through this class that they're not stupid.

Drew Kensinger, a junior at Cheyenne Mountain High School, has always had a hard time with reading, spelling and sentence structure. "I can't get my sentences put together," he says. "My words get mixed up."

His friends wondered why he was pulled out of the regular classroom in elementary school; he had to go to what was called the "resource room," where he'd get extra attention from a special-education teacher. "It was embarrassing. I was made fun of. They'd be like, 'Why do you have to go down there?'" he recalls. But now he's not afraid to talk about his learning disabilities.

And neither is sophomore Aimee Gravette. Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder in the eighth grade, she also struggles with reading. "Elementary and junior high were horrible. I just thought I was stupid," she says. "When I'm sitting in class, I take in everything around me. I'll concentrate on the pencil tapping or the fan blowing and block out what the teacher is saying. And I turn around a lot in class, so now I ask my teachers to sit me in the back of the class, against a wall, so I can look forward. I also ask for extra time on tests."

The requests seem simple, but to Aimee, those accommodations mean the difference between passing and failing. And just two years ago, she wouldn't have been able to ask her teacher to make those small changes. "In junior high, there is no way I would have been able to sit here and talk about this," she says. "I would have been bawling. In eighth grade, I had two meetings [to discuss educational plans], and I cried the whole way through. My parents talked the whole time. I never used to want to go to those meetings, but now I'm excited about going to them. I run my own meetings, and my teachers respect me for it."

Some of the younger kids aren't as active yet in their education, and part of that has to do with their parents. "My mom doesn't like it when I go to the meetings. She feels like she can get more out of them," says freshman Hillary Howes, who has ADD, reading problems and seizures that affect her ability to process and express her thoughts. "It's basically my meeting, but she says she'd rather me not go. I don't care either way. I've gone to one."

Quinton Wilder, also a freshman, is more eager for independence, however. A car accident left him with a traumatic brain injury that impaired his short-term memory. "My mom gets overworked about my schoolwork," he says. "Like in history, we skipped a chapter and she didn't believe me, so she called the school. She still treats me like an itty-bitty kid."

The ultimate goal of the L.E.A.D. class is to prepare students for life after high school. "If it wasn't for the L.E.A.D. group, I'd probably have second thoughts about going to college," Aimee says. "Everyone in our group wants to go to college now, and the practice we're getting advocating for ourselves is all working up to us talking to our teachers on our own."

While it's true that most students will have to fend for themselves in college, the University of Denver, at least, has a support group similar to L.E.A.D. that's called Belay. "We had a student two years ago who said, 'I wish I knew the things I know now back in high school.' He wanted high school kids to know the opportunities for them in higher education," says Ted May, the university's disability-services director. "That got us thinking about doing a leadership program.

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