Speak and Be Heard

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

After he started taking medication for the ADD, his already good grades improved. "His B's went to A's, and his A's went to A-pluses," Fleury says. "I never knew his potential. Matt's a rare kid. He understands a lot about what's going on with himself, and I listen to him more now."

Because he has a mother who is knowledgeable about special education and is open to discussing it, Matt has never been afraid to tell people about his disabilities, for which he's managed to develop numerous strategies. "I remember when I was little, I had to tap things four times or else I was scared that life wouldn't go on," he says. "It was really annoying. It's good to know you have a problem, because then you can move on."

What Matt described is a classic symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder; now that he knows why he felt he had to touch things repeatedly, he can tell himself that it's the OCD and that he won't really die if he doesn't tap the light switch four times. Still, the disorder sometimes makes schoolwork difficult. "He used to do his homework at school, and he wouldn't leave until he had it done," Fleury says. "He didn't participate in his Valentine's Day party in fourth grade because he wanted to finish his homework."

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.

"If I don't finish something, I get a bad feeling, and I know that's probably my OCD," Matt explains.

In the middle of working on a recent assignment in which he had to put together a family photo album, Matt got stuck. Some of the photos he needed hadn't been developed yet, and he got to a point in the project where he felt that he physically could not move on. He thought about ways he could stop fixating on the missing photos and decided he could finish the project by filling in the album with existing family photos. When he finally got the new pictures developed, he replaced the ones he'd used as filler.

"Since I know about my disability and can strategize, it doesn't seem like I have a disability," Matt says. "I just seem like another normal kid."

Kathy Kennedy-Tuchfeld, Matt's fifth-grade teacher at Littleton's Highland Elementary School, appreciates it when students describe their needs to her. "The most powerful thing about self-advocacy is that kids learn that they have rights as learners. It sounds so simplistic, but it's not. So many kids have sat through class and suffered because they didn't know they could stand up for themselves and ask for what they need," she says. "It's incredible to hear them say they could do better if they had the reading material in bigger print or on tape. Modifications have always been written on paper, but the more kids are aware that they're entitled to those modifications, the more they're actually made."

Karen Todd is worried about her son. She thinks that in addition to ADHD, he might also be suffering from depression, but she's been unable to get a straight diagnosis. She's not sure what it will take for Chris to do better in school or be a happier kid. But he's set to graduate from high school in two years, and she wants him to have more to look forward to than his current job at McDonald's.

"Let's say, by some act of God, he gets into college. He's going to need to deal with his teachers on his own, and if he's never had the practice to do that, he won't be able to," Karen says.

She's called on her background as a speech therapist to help Chris advocate for himself, and he's met briefly with Fleury, but Karen wants him to meet with her again before the school year ends.

Recently, as Chris was leaving band practice with his mom, he reached into his backpack to get money for the soda machine and remembered that he'd received his latest report card. He dug it out of his bag for her, and she stared at it for a long time. Chris had a 1.8 grade-point average.

Karen let out a sigh and said, with a trace of hope in her voice, "Well, there are a couple of A's."

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