Dana lagged behind other children her age; the doctor called it “delayed milestones.” I hoped that she was just a late bloomer. Starting school was a nightmare for both of us. She was shy and scared and did not participate. She just wanted to be left alone in a corner and talk to herself.
I worked hard with her, trying to catch her up to her peers. Every year teachers would raise concerns and I would work even harder. Eventually she was tested and we discovered her IQ was below normal. I decided I wasn’t going to let a test dictate what my daughter could do. She was behind her peers, but not enough to qualify for special education. One school psychologist even tried to label her as ADD (which she is not) just to get her special education services. I did not appreciate this gesture. I was so afraid of a label defining my child.
When Dana started fifth grade, I was told that she could qualify for special education classes once she tested two grade levels behind. I was not about to sit around and wait for that to happen. I took her out of the public school system and home-schooled her for the next five years, concentrating on reading and social skills. Those years were wonderful years of progressing at her own pace, one-on-one attention, and the two of us having a much less stressful relationship. Instead of working with her in the evening when we were both exhausted, accompanied by plenty of tears (hers and mine), we could now work in the morning—in our pajamas if we wanted to—and she could even have time to play and attend Girl Scouts!
By the time she was in the tenth grade, our local public high school had come up with a wonderful program for at-risk kids like Dana. She went back to a formal education and stayed in that high school program for four years. During that time I went through a divorce and some counseling. I had to face some things in myself and in my life. A side benefit of that experience was coming to grips with the fact I had a daughter with cognitive impairments. No matter how hard she or I worked, that was not going to change. I was finally facing a future that wasn’t bleak, just different. It was freeing.
Now Dana is almost 23 years old and for the past three years has attended the vocational school where I now work. This is our first year there together and it is going well. She loves not having to ride the bus to school since she can now ride with Mom. She dreams of getting her driver’s license (she has her permit), finding a job, and having a boyfriend. She collects angels and wants to paint her bedroom purple. She makes the best chocolate chip cookies ever. She and I have a “girl’s night” every other weekend, which usually involves take-out food and a chick flick! I try to encourage her while also helping her face the reality of her disability. I enjoy her!
Dana is part of my story and this has helped me immensely in my teaching. I sense that each young adult I work with has parents who, like I do, struggle with the reality of having a child with special needs who is growing up but in some ways will never BE a grown-up. I try to work with students in a patient and loving way, like I want my child to be treated. I have learned that information needs to be broken down in simple steps and in different ways to accommodate each individual student. I have learned that there is fine line between pushing too hard and encouraging just enough to help them become as independent as possible. Most of all, I enjoy my special students — just as I do my daughter.