Friday, February 28, 2014

Being Heard Feels Good

The meeting was drawing to a close. Everyone was shuffling papers and pushing back chairs while chatting and laughing. We had met to talk about how Ethan was doing and what assessments the school will perform on him over the next month as we plan for next year.

I was trying to figure out what was different -- why this meeting felt so good.

Obviously there was the fact that they were saying some really positive things about our little guy. And when your child makes progress, that makes the people who are working with him feel good (and honestly, makes them look good). There were definitely some happy vibes in the air, but that wasn't it.

I looked around at the four other women who'd been sitting around the table with me. There was someone missing. The principal was not there; instead the acting head of special ed. for the town's schools was in attendance.

There was a reason for this: a month before I'd called the department to complain about it taking two months to see a current IEP for Ethan, due to some kind of beaurocratic red tape that was never really explained to me by anyone I'd asked. Eventually I'd ended up on the phone with this woman (I'll call her C.), who I learned had actually come out of retirement to fill in at the position following a ton of turmoil in the department. A five-minute conversation stretched to 20 as I poured out some of my concerns about special ed. in Ethan's school. We talked about Ethan and how I'd felt "pushed" into not having him evaluated, even as we were also being pushed to have him released from special ed. We talked about other kids and families (without using names, of course). I'd been hearing too many troublesome stories. I was tired of none of us being heard.

C. listened. She offered to personally drop off the updated IEP at our home later that afternoon, and she said we needed to set up a meeting at the school to discuss testing for Ethan, and that she wanted to be there.

So here we were, six weeks later. The principal was missing but C. was there. And that was it. This is not to "pile it on" the principal. She is very competent and capable. She's certainly civil and pleasant enough in meetings and is obviously trying to do her job and keep everyone happy, with meager resources.

But I hadn't realized until she wasn't there. I hadn't realized what it was like to meet without tension, without assumptions. I wasn't being treated with the guarded, business-like if my child were an item on a to-do list to be checked off quickly and efficiently. For once we were sitting down with no air of "us vs. them" but just all of us in this together to help a little boy. I felt trusted rather than tolerated.

As we left that room, bantering pleasantly, I wished that more often, the people in high places making the big decisions understood that parents of kids with special needs don't want to be pandered to. They don't want to be just listened to...they want to be heard. That we are not the enemy bent on making unreasonable demands...that we are not the uneducated who need to be schooled in the way things really work in the special education system. We're people who just want to be seen as individuals, not burdens. Just the way we hope they see our children, every last one of them, with their myriad needs, challenges, and yes, talents and abilities.

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