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My Son is a Public Policy Success

He’s 28, on the autism spectrum, and just got a job with a large company in Silicon Valley.

He’s come a long way since his diagnoses at age three, and every step of the process was made possible by public policies that facilitated services, mandated inclusion, and outlawed discriminatory practices. Everyday I thank the advocates that promoted these policies; protested and sued the public system to make sure they were enforced, educated the public, and won hearts and minds. 

In 1991, my son went to a special education pre-school with a class full of children with and without disabilities. He had IEP goals to teach him what it meant to have a conversation with goals like, “The therapist will say a sentence and he will respond with a related sentence.” In order to make sure that his anxiety around other children didn’t get in the way of his ability to function, he had a goal “He will stay at the play table for three minutes after another child joins him rather than leave screaming as soon as another child comes” and “He will walk through a door even when he is not the one that has opened it.” Thank you IDEA Part B.

He is a really smart kid and with the help of a full time aide, he went to our local public elementary school. He wasn’t forced to compromise academic rigor for the supports he needed to succeed. His outbursts (generally caused by frustration, fear and generally not understanding the world around him) slowly dropped from multiple incidents per hour to several per day and ultimately to several per week. He slowly learned to interact with the world and I learned that no therapist can offer what a neuro-typical brother, some open-minded nine year-olds, and full-immersion in the world of school can provide. Thank you IDEA Part A.

Middle school was middle school. Enough said. Bullying is definitely a thing. But even there, accommodations were made and we found strong allies.

For high school, he went to our county’s math-science magnet program. His teachers didn’t have specific special education training but most were able to look at him as an individual and see his academic strengths, his sweetness, and his desire to do the right thing even if he didn’t know what the right thing was all the time.  The teachers helped facilitate his use of a variety of natural supports. They carefully selected his team for group projects. They gave him the opportunity to leave the classroom when it became too overwhelming. Thank you IDEA Part A.

His University gave him a housing accommodation so he wouldn’t have the unbearable stress of living with a roommate. He excelled using the same flexibility afforded all college students. He was responsible for the material but how he got it was up to him. He was afforded accommodations in testing and other activities, and although he never used them, that was his choice and they were available if he needed them. His graduate program saw disability as an underrepresented minority group, which helped him get a scholarship. Thank you ADA. 

Thanks to public policy, he has grown into a well-adjusted, gifted mathematician, software engineer, board-game fanatic, and live action role-playing wizard.     

I don’t want to paint a picture that is too rosy. There were definitely bumps along the way. Unfortunately, not everyone is open-minded, patient, and giving. Not every school believed that “least restrictive environment” meant regular education. Not everyone embraced the concept of “reasonable accommodation.” Not everyone cared about civil rights.

I’ve been working in the field of disability policy for 15 years. On a day-to-day basis it sometimes seems like we are spinning our wheels. But then I step back and take the long view. There’s still a lot of work to do, but we’ve come so far and that progress changed my son’s life. 

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Nanette Goodman is Senior Researcher at National Disability Institute (NDI) where she provides technical assistance to Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) through the LEAD Center.  Prior to joining NDI, she conducted quantitative and qualitative analysis of disability policy issues in the US and developing countries as an independent consultant, a senior policy advisor at ODEP, and a research associate at the Cornell University Institute for Policy Research. 

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