Speak and Be Heard

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

"There are 425 students with a documented disability on campus, and that's pretty significant, because it represents 10 percent of the undergraduate population," May continues. "I always wanted to see students with disabilities take an active role at DU. Students would express interest in forming a group and get together for a few meetings, and then it wouldn't continue. I think that was because of the stigma."

But a team-building event held this past fall as a kickoff for students with disabilities gave the group the boost it needed. Now it's more active in speaking to faculty members and fellow DU students about the challenges of having a disability in college. And the thirty-member group also holds an annual meeting with high school special-ed students.

"It's not designed to be a recruiting tool for DU, but to teach high school students about the college experience as a special-needs student," May explains.

The group formalized this year and finally chose a name for itself -- a name the students felt provided the perfect analogy for the assist-ance they offer one another. "A belay is nothing more than a clip, a small thing," May says, "but it offers a great deal of support."


Mary Anne Fleury, a parent and former special-education teacher in Littleton, is trying to do for kids in the Denver area what L.E.A.D. has done for students in Colorado Springs and what Belay has done for those at DU. She knows she has a big task ahead of her, but she wants to be able to give other kids what comes naturally to her son Matt, who is self-aware beyond his twelve years and doesn't give a second thought to speaking up for himself in school.

Fleury is highly respected in special-ed circles in Colorado; for the last six years, she's been operating the Colorado Advisory Network, a nonprofit advocacy service for children with special needs. When parents can't seem to get the accommodations they want for their kids, they often turn to CAN, and it's usually Fleury who educates these parents about their rights and even accompanies them to IEP meetings.

She's always had an interest in reaching out to people who need help, so it seems only natural that Fleury has made a career of helping those with learning disabilities. "My mom said that when I was three, I wanted to help the kids who needed it. In elementary school, I volunteered in the special-education classroom," she says.

Fleury has a bachelor's degree in elementary and special education and a master's degree in special education with an emphasis in teaching the emotionally disturbed. She has taught elementary school in Chicago and special-ed classes in Denver. She quit teaching, though, when Matt, the eldest of her four children -- and the only one with learning disabilities -- was born. Several years later, she formed CAN. And now Fleury is ready for a new challenge.

"We had talked about training kids for a while," Fleury says. "I saw how Matt has been able to understand his disabilities and how he's been able to tap into his strengths, and in working with other kids, I've realized that their parents hadn't explained anything to them -- probably because they didn't know how to explain anything. Most kids I've worked with don't understand why they've been labeled with a learning disability, and most don't even know what their disability is; all they know is that they're in special education and they're treated as if they're stupid. That's when it dawned on me that kids can really benefit from being told everything and not having their disability kept a secret."

In February, Fleury started Kids CAN!, a program that helps children develop the self-confidence necessary to become their own advocates. She charges $15 an hour for group trainings -- the Boulder Valley School District has already arranged to have her do a workshop there in the fall -- and $25 an hour for individual trainings, but she hopes to secure a government grant so that she won't have to charge anything.

Her approach involves explaining the ins and outs of a particular learning disability to students and their parents and describing how that learning disability manifests itself in school. She also teaches kids to accept their disabilities and helps them develop strategies for overcoming them. She only works with kids in the fifth grade and higher because, she says, it's not realistic to expect younger kids to advocate for themselves.

However, some people doubt that Fleury's efforts -- or those of any self-advocating student -- will work.

"That's all well and good, but here's the drawback: By the time a teacher gets the class settled down and gets into the heart of the lesson, the bell rings. I'm not saying self-advocacy is a negative thing; the reality of it is it just doesn't work," says the mother of a dyslexic sixth-grader in the Cherry Creek School District, who asked to remain anonymous. "It's like Communism: In theory it sounds good, but try putting it into practice. I mean, how do you teach children to advocate for themselves when they don't even know how to ask questions?

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