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Dear 2017 Graduates – The Special Education Edition

If you have a child with significant special needs graduating in 2017, people will congratulate you and wish you luck. They will send cards. Your graduate will be encouraged with all manner of exciting and inspirational things headed their way, like ‘new chapters’ and ‘open doors’.

But I’m your friend and I’m here to tell you about the cliff.

You are inevitably walking towards the edge of a chasm. When they hand your son or daughter that leather-bound folder, you take the step to the spot where the earth below your feet ceases to exist. I promise – honesty is the best policy.

Whatever it is that you have been believing in and using as your guideposts no longer exist. The rules, the laws, the people, places and programs have all vanished. When you wake up post-graduation day, there’s a brand new map and you better learn to use a compass.

So, here is my best advice, which is worth about exactly what you are paying for it.

First, please remember that you are on your own.  No one is coming to save you. Whether you find that scary, liberating or shocking, it is true. If you don’t look for them, they are surely not looking for you. Don’t wait for someone to call you or set up a meeting, find a program, or offer you anything. The internet is your friend, your BFF, so put on your research cap and get to work.

Second, be flexible and prepared for sudden changes of direction. Be ready to rethink, replan, and regroup. Ethan’s exit IEP at school was productive and everyone seemed engaged and  knowledgeable about how things were going to work. We all had ideas and plans and none of them worked out the way I initially thought they would.  My strength is strength – like a brick wall or an an oak tree. So. Little. Give. My thoughts settle into ruts like fast moving streams and I have had very hard time changing direction – so we’ll work on that together, huh?

Next up – Read All Of The Things. I mean it. All of the laws and acronyms that applied  to your newly-minted adult child’s life for the last 18 years of your life have changed. There is a new sheriff in town and her name is The State of New Jersey. True to form, there are lots of complicated programs, documents and rules. If you don’t read and understand the programs, it is like playing a board game and depending on your opponent to play fairly or even know all of the rules themselves! Please, get to know the system you are working in. I have AN AWESOME SUPPORT COORDINATOR. She is smart, effective, and has tons of experience. Together, we still struggle to make certain things work.

Here is another imperative skill:

per·sist·ence [pərˈsistəns]

NOUN
  1. firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition

Be it. Know it. Tattoo it on your forehead. It took us 4 months of daily struggle to make Access Link work for Ethan. It took us 13 months to get any services from the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.  It took several months to find and get into a day program. Damn it, Dr. Suess is always right.  But don’t give up and don’t give in and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Ever.

Talk, talk, talk to other parents! Find out what their kids are doing, what programs they go to, how they found work, transportation or a great personal trainer. I don’t hesitate to ask for names and phone numbers when I neighbor says that they know someone who has a daughter with a great job or a son who is participating in an exciting and innovative adult program. I shamelessly ask for information. I call and visit ANY program someone mentions, even in the most casual of circumstance.

I did not appreciate the question – “So what will Ethan do after graduation?” – as if we had all of these interesting and appealing options available for only our choosing! Although graduation came with it’s share of pride and triumph, it came with a hearty serving of doubt and fear.

So, off the cliff you go. You have me to thank when the free fall does not surprise you and catch you unaware. You will be able to keep your wits about you and you can even start planning mid-air. Use the above suggestions as a blueprint.

You can begin to build a net or a staircase or a bungee cord….

or wings.

Trial Work Experience, Oh My!

The services that the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation offers make so much sense. The goal is to mitigate factors that make competitive employment difficult for people with disabilities.  The idea of “Supported Employment” looks like it fits our situation, over here, like a glove. But it is not a glove, it’s cheese…and I am a mouse. I have run the gauntlet in search of my tasty prize – the walls of the labyrinth are made of red tape, long waits, inept agencies unprepared for their stated missions and misinformation. I wrote another post explaining the pitfalls of all this here.

But one sunny day, 13 months after first meeting with DVR, Ethan was offered a spot with an agency that could provide a legitimate Trial Work Experience during which someone would take him out into employment situations in the community to assess if he is eligible to be supported by DVR. Baby steps.

Continue reading Trial Work Experience, Oh My!

14 Years

There is a 14 year age difference between Ethan and Sean and when I find myself watching them engage in some type of cooperative activity on a Friday night, as I sometimes do, I grab my camera and I marvel at the sight. The joy of this is NEVER lost on me. I always feel like I am watching something magical.

I once watched a man intensely watching Ethan, Gavin and Mikey closely at a church we used to attend. “So, they act just like brothers?” The only reason I was not too thrown off by the question was that Mikey was a rather new member of the family and I thought the question referenced Mikey’s status in foster care. “Oh yeah, they’re great, endless games and stuff – they are all really wonderful together.” Then he said, “I have a brother like that.” I knew exactly what ‘like that’ meant. It was Ethan. In just a few moments he explained that his brother, who was older than him was placed in residential care when they were young and he recounted how his playmate was removed from his home and his life. He assured me that his parents had to do that because it was ‘best for everyone’. Maybe it was. Maybe it really wasn’t.

Continue reading 14 Years

Colors

I remember the first time I saw Ethan color in a coloring book. He was about 5 years old and had just taken his first pill of an ADHD medication about an hour prior. This is a whole story in its self and sometime I will tell it to you.

I distinctly remembering asking Dennis, “What is that? How do you give a kid a pill and he suddenly develops a hobby?!?! How can that happen? How can a drug facilitate that?!?!?” For several weeks, we called it his sit-down-and-color-pill. The difference was extraordinarily stark – like a flicked switch. Not only did he not color before that trial of medication, he didn’t sit. Or make eye contact. Or lots of other things. But here he was coloring.

Continue reading Colors

What’s Wrong?

Only just about everything.

Ethan’s transition into ‘adult life’ has been nothing like I anticipated. It is has been so much harder, slower and fraught with roadblocks than I could have foreseen. Thank God. I am glad I didn’t know – similar to how I am glad I did not know that he would be born with an extra chromosome.

I have noticed that my frustration and disappointment is not well-met by people asking how Ethan is doing. They want to know that he is busy & happy. They want to hear that there are lots of ‘programs’ for adults with disabilities. They want to hear ‘He’s good, thanks!’ I have not complied with their desires. I’ve bitched, moaned, and complained. I have been honest. People haven’t enjoyed that. I can tell by the looks of disgust on their faces. Most people tell me that I must be ‘missing something’. Unlike them, I am not comforted by this thought, because I know that I am not.

Continue reading What’s Wrong?

C-A-M-P

Ethan is at Camp PALS as we speak. This has been a labor of love ever since I set my alarm for midnight to register for a highly coveted spot at camp. Camp PALS looked too good to be true.

Turns out it is too good ~ and it is true!!

The schedule is jam-packed with fun and frivolity. The pictures showing up on the Facebook Page are pure magic. Ethan has checked in several times via his brand new iPhone. Facetime and phone calls and texts assure him that we are all still here, but we are not coming to get him. It’s hard.

People ask ‘How is camp?’

Continue reading C-A-M-P

The Prom – Midland Style

There is nothing like the Midland Prom.

Dennis and I visited Midland for the first time on the day of the prom many years ago. We heard the buzz in the hallways about eye shadow and dresses. It was hard to believe we would EVER have a kid going to the prom. I blinked, and….

Ethan LOVES to wear his suit. He loved his rented convertible Mustang. I loved seeing these young adults step out of limos, pose for pictures, pair up, smile and encourage their parents to leave. Go.

The parents.

The parents who were told their child might never walk or talk. The parents who were told their children would never recognize their faces. The parents who decided that they couldn’t NOT be parents and were willing to parent children who others deemed ‘too difficult’. The parents who have endured years of people staring and pointing. The parents who in the dark of night wondered how any of this was ever going to be ok.

Those parents – told to leave – by those kids.

Hallelujah.

It rained all afternoon. It drizzled and it was gray. But as the time came to gather in the parking lot at the restaurant and have their moment in the proverbial sun, that was exactly what they got.

sky

Why shouldn’t they.

DVRS – Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services

If securing competitive employment is going to be challenging to someone due to reasons including, but not limited to, being blind or deaf, having an intellectual impairment or have difficulty learning tasks necessary to maintain employment, a person may be eligible for the services offered by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services.

‘Vocational rehabilitation services’ may include such things as job training and job sampling, education for specific employment situations and ongoing support in the form of job coaches and consultations. This is where DVRS comes in.

Our first contact with a representative with DVRS was at Ethan’s IEP meeting. A rep was contacted and invited by the social worker at Ethan’s school. You can request this or invite them yourself. I have found the office very responsive and helpful, so far.

Continue reading DVRS – Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services