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Richson: Disabled students need a guiding hand

BY BRIANNE RICHSON | MARCH 27, 2014 5:00 AM

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Where I am from in New Jersey, going to college is largely an expectation. It is perhaps an unspoken judgment, but if you aren’t taking Honors or Advanced Placement classes, people turn their noses up. I was in such classes but identified as something of an underachiever, just doing as much work as I needed to. I am the oldest of four children, and my parents never had to stalk my course grades online or nag me about the college application process … I simply did it myself.

My parents did not have it as easy, however, with my younger brother, who will graduate from high school this spring.

My brother is high-functioning autistic. He enjoys video games, walking our family dog, religiously reading movie reviews on his iPad, and would live off of cereal and granola bars if my mother let him. He does not have a driver’s license, nor does he wish to. He competed on my high school’s swim team, but he doesn’t go out of his way to have a so-cial life other than the connections he has made through sport.

He can tell you the score of every Super Bowl that was ever played, but he has never written a simple research paper; he finagled his way out of it in his junior-year English class. Why? Because he has learned to use his disability as a crutch, and educators let him.

If you had asked my parents, when they first received my brother’s diagnosis when he was only 2, if they had been asked if they could see him graduating high school, they probably would have said no. We were fortunate enough to have the luxury of in-home therapy, which entailed a variety of activities, anything from making my brother eat vegetables that he hated the textures of to explaining to him that, as impressive as he was that he practically harbored an index of movie quotes in his brain, it wasn’t appropriate to break into character mid-conversation.

My brother has come a long way. Writing an essay is still difficult for him, but he enjoys learning about marine biology and sometimes talks about trying to earn an Associate’s Degree that would allow him to work in a veterinarian’s office. He likes the idea of ambition and goals rather than the pursuit of them, because our country’s education system views itself as a temporary placeholder for capable young adults such as my brother. Rather than being a driving force in these kids’ education, schools have bought into the misconception that to graduate high school is good enough.

I know my brother can do better, and I hope that for the sake of future children in his position, schools will demand better. Why was my brother excused from writing his junior year research paper, the hallmark of junior year English at my school?

Why did no one encourage him to take an SAT-prep course after he took the PSAT? Why should the burden fall entirely on my parents, who have gotten him this far? There are other kids out there like my brother, who need a guiding hand rather than a free pass. I know that the lives of teachers are stressful, but so is the life of a parent who doesn’t know if their child will ever live a so-called “normal” independent life.


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