Monday, November 1, 2010

National Family Caregivers Month




Every day, family members, friends, neighbors, and concerned individuals across America provide essential attention and assistance to their loved ones. Many individuals in need of care -- including children, elders, and persons with disabilities -- would have difficulty remaining safely in their homes and community without the support of their relatives and caregivers.

Caregivers often look after multiple generations of family members. Their efforts are vital to the quality of life of countless American seniors, bringing comfort and friendship to these treasured citizens. However, this labor of love can result in physical, psychological, and financial hardship for caregivers, and research suggests they often put their own health and well-being at risk while assisting loved ones. Through the National Family Caregiver Support Program, individuals can help their loved ones remain comfortably in the home and receive assistance with their caregiving responsibilities. This program provides information, assistance, counseling, training, support groups, and respite care for caregivers across our country....

Our businesses and companies can also contribute to families' ability to care for their loved ones in need. By offering flexible work arrangements and paid leave when caregiving duties require employees to miss work, employers can enable workers with caregiver responsibilities to balance work and family obligations more easily. Such efforts impact countless lives across our Nation, easing concerns and contributing to the well-being of individuals and families as they go about their daily lives.

During National Family Caregivers Month, we honor the millions of Americans who give endlessly of themselves to provide for the health and well-being of a beloved family member. Through their countless hours of service to their families and communities, they are a shining example of our Nation's great capacity to care for each other.

Signed Oct. 29, 2010, by President Barack Obama. Read the whole thing.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Looking for GOOD News!

Taking a glance at my Google Reader today, I was once again reminded how much negative news we hear each day in the area of special education and disability policy. Just today, I see:
- "Autistic Boy Abused by Bus Driver"
- " 'Drop Your Disabled Kids at Shelter,' Indiana Parents Told"
- "Special Education Attorney Convicted of Defrauding Parents"
- "Behavior Specialist with Bogus Credentials to Serve Prison Time"

I'm on the lookout for some positive news, and I need your help. Tell me about a teacher or school that's doing a great job for students with special needs. Or how much fun your child is having for Halloween. Or an elected official who "gets it." Or anything -- but it has to be good news. Add a comment here or email me.
I'll start with a news item from work, where we (Children's National Medical Center) hosted a Halloween party for kids on the oncology/hematology unit. These photos of kids who are spending the holiday in the hospital will make your day. View photos here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Apple Highlights Apps for Special Needs

Apple has created a section titled "Useful for Everyone: Right from the Start" that lists 72 applications for the iPhone and 13 for the iPad to help people with special needs develop skills in areas from emotional development to communication to life skills. Many parents and consultants have identified useful apps for people with special needs, but this seems to show an increased focus by Apple to meet the needs of -- or should I say "market to" -- people with special needs. If the tools like iPhones and iPads are expensive, the apps are not. Read more.

What technology tools and applications have you found helpful?

Friday, October 22, 2010

School District Sues Family for Legal Costs of Special Ed Lawsuit

When you hear "lawsuit" and "special ed," you probably assume parents are suing a school district, right? Not this time.

A school district in Texas is going after a family who sued to improve their autistic child's education program. The family gave up after nearly four years of fighting, and now the school district is going to federal court to try to force the family to pay the estimated $250,000 that the suit has cost taxpayers. A teacher at the school says pressure is building to drop the lawsuit. "I think the lawsuit should end," he said. "I think the community should demand that it ends. I think there should be a major uproar because if they are going to sue this parent when is it going to be your turn next."

Watch the news story from Fox 26 in Houston. Thanks to Disability Scoop for the scoop.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A New Direction

I want to say thank you to my loyal readers -- everyone who has submitted suggestions, commented on my posts, challenged my opions, and shared my blog with others over the past few years. As any parent of a child with special needs will understand (and, really, any parent of any child will understand), I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed with my "outside" activities beyond my 9-to-5 job (if only it were 9-to-5!). I love my job, and I love all of my volunteer activities -- maintaining this blog, advocating for people with disabilities as a board member of The Arc of Montgomery County, coaching young hockey players and serving as communications director for the American Special Hockey Association, and playing hockey myself.

In addition to that, my wife and I are working hard to ensure that our daughter receives the level of education and instruction that she needs and is entitled to. I'm not going to go into the details here, but I'd be happy to talk to parents or other advocates about some of the issues we're dealing with.

For all of those reasons, I'm going to be blogging less often. Honestly, I feel guilty whenever an issue comes up and I don't have time to properly comment and analyze it here. So starting today, I'm enhancing the news feed on this page -- showing the most recent items from some of my favorite news sources -- Disability Scoop, Disability News by Patricia E. Bauer, Autism Speaks, and some that specialize in special education law. That will keep this blog timely in a different way, and when I feel strongly about something or have an urge to post, I will. I encourage you to follow these and other sources to get the news you can use to advocate for the people you care about and all families affected by disabilities.

You can also follow me on Twitter, at -- I will post news related to special needs several times a week. And please follow special hockey at and at That's always a good source of inspiring news about athletes with special needs and the volunteers who are helping them win on and off the ice. And feel free to shoot me an email any time. Thanks!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Internet "Equalizer" for People with Disabilities

A recent article from Agence France-Press explores how Facebook, email, online chats, and other technology are helping to crate :a virtual world of equality" for people with disabilities. Pacific Diversified Services, an organization that promotes inclusion, trains clients in basic computer skills and to safely use social networks. "It really adds to their sense of acceptance in the community," the program's director says.

Read "Internet an Equalizer for People with Disabilities."

Monday, September 6, 2010

Open Letter to Special Needs Professionals

Last week Pia Prenevost -- blogger, developmental psychologist, NICU nurse, and full-time advocate for her son -- posted "An Open Letter to Special Needs Professionals" on a blog called The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. If you are a parent, teacher, therapist, or anyone who knows someone with a family member with special needs, I encourage you to read her letter. It's particularly appropriate as the school year begins. It reads in part:

"I just wanted to...caution you. Or warn you. Please, tread carefully. You see, what you might not realize as you look at me, talk to me, tell me your opinions, our options, our lack of options, and your predictions of our outcomes is that; well ... you see that heart? The slightly broken, definitely bruised one? Yeah, that’s my heart.

"Now, I realize that as you look at me you might see a confident parent, or an angry parent, or a happy-go-lucky parent. You might think that I understand everything, or nothing, or that I have all the experience in the world because I have done this before, or that I know the rules, or that I don’t know the rules and that is for the best. You might believe that I am high maintenance, or overreacting, or maybe neurotic, or disengaged and uninterested. Or that I don’t really care, or maybe I care too much...

"Some of 'us' parents -- the ‘special’ ones -- can be a pain in the ass. I know that. We know that. But we are fighting a fight we never planned to fight, and it doesn’t end. We don’t get to clock out at the end of the day. We don’t get a vacation from it. We live it, everyday. We are fighting without knowing how to fight it, and we depend so much on you to help us. We are your harshest critics. We are our own harshest critics too. We are genuinely fearful, and driven, and absolutely devoted. And we also know, we need you. So please, be careful with us. Because as hard and tough as we may look outwardly, our hearts are fragile things."

Yesterday Pia posted a summary of reactions to the piece on her blog, The Crack and the Light. Thanks for sharing, Pia.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Autism-Related Risk of Divorce Exaggerated?

While no one would question the fact that raising a child with a disability presents additional challenges to parents, allegations that parents with a child with autism are much more likely to get divorced may not be accurate. Studies have claimed that raising a child with autism significantly increases the rate of divorce, but a new study reported on WebMD says 75 percent of parents of children with autism remain married.

If you consider that about half of all marriages end in divorce, could it be that parents actually stay together at a higher rate when dealing with autism? Interestingly, as many as 66 percent of divorces involve couples who do not have children at all. You could speculate that not having children leads to loneliness (as one study claimed) or that the lack of responsibility makes it easier to break up.

Instead of examining statistics, I think more work should be put into helping couples improve their relationships -- both for the good of their marriage and their child. Dr. Robert Naseef of gave a presentation just last week on "Living with Autism in the Family: Taking Care of Everyone's Needs." Dr. Naseef debunked the myth of the high divorce rate, saying, "Citing autism as the reason for a marriage failing can be seen as yet another reasons for saying why autism is awful. Exaggerating the negative does not help us." And he offered the following tips:

For men:
- Learn to listen without trying to fix.
- Tell her what she is doing well.
- Do something to give her a break.
- Find romance in everyday life.

For women:
- Tell him to just listen -- that's all you need.
- Tell him what he is doing well.
- Tell him what he can do for you.
- Find romance in everyday life.

Do you have other tips, or sources of useful information?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Wheelchairs and Burritos: Court Says Chipotle Violated ADA

Maybe it's because I'm a fan of Chipotle, but I'm not sure how I feel about a recent ruling against the restaurant for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act -- because it's counters are too high for people in wheelchairs to see the food. I've noticed before that the walls are too high for even some short people, like children, to see the ingredients, but no one is denied any food. The people who sued want Chipotle to lower their walls, but I wonder if it would be an acceptable compromise to offer a menu with photos so people could choose their ingredients. Another chain, Qdoba, is set up the exact same way. Read about the San Diego case from 10News.

What do you think?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

20th Anniversary of ADA

I have not been very good about keeping this blog up to date. Has anyone noticed?

The biggest news story since I last posted is the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Patricia Bauer at Disability News has a good summary of media coverage.

Read more on the anniversary:

Autism Speaks blog

President Obama's executive order on Increasing Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities

ADA at 20: A Nation Transformed, in which Senator Tom Harkin refers to the ADA as the "Emancipation Proclamation for people with disabilities."

Proposed rule by Department of Justice to ensure web access to people with disabilities

More federal resources from

Are you encouraged or discouraged about where we are as a country when it comes to the rights of people with disabilities?

Department of Education Adds Two Special Ed Officials

Sue Swenson, former commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities, has been appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and Melody Musgrove will be the Director of the Office of Special Education Programs. Read more from Education Week.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Transition Tips for Parents of Adult Children has new resources for parents who are planning for their child's transition to college, jobs, and adulthood. Read Preparing for Post-Secondary Education.

2010-11 White House Fellows Include Gallaudet Professor

From a White House media advisory today, Gallaudet faculty member Kubby Rashid, who is deaf, has been chosen as a White House Fellow.

"Kubby Rashid has been a member of the Gallaudet faculty since 1994, including a stint as Chair of the Department of Business. In addition to teaching, Dr. Rashid was active in faculty leadership and administration, and was co chair of a major initiative to reconfigure all academic programs at the University. Dr. Rashid served on the board of the World Deaf Leadership Program, guiding development projects for the deaf communities in South Africa and Thailand. She has also worked with individuals from many developing countries, helping deaf people learned to develop leadership skills and advocate for themselves. Dr. Rashid has previously been involved with the National Deaf Business Institute and taught several years for NDBI and Merrill Lynch's summer program for Deaf Business owners and would-be entrepreneurs. She was the first coordinator of the Bernstein Leadership Institute's Deaf Women's Leadership Program, and implemented the program and curriculum that form the core of the DWLP today. In 2008 she was appointed by Governor Martin O’Malley to a six-year term on the Board of the Maryland School for the Deaf and also serves as a Board member of Discovering Deaf Worlds, an NGO dedicated to helping deaf people in developing countries."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

L.A. Official Justifies Cuts for Students with Disabilities: Special Ed "Takes Away from Regular Kids"

Many think it; few say it.  Los Angeles Unified School District is closing 200 classes and a campus for students with disabilities.  The explanation from Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines: "You have to look at it in perspective. When you fund some of the special ed things, you're taking from regular kids."

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, to help close a $640 million budget gap, LA is cutting back on a campus for blind students, closing a special-needs center, and eliminating 200 classes.  As in any district, parents of "regular kids" are also not happy -- other cuts are being made to the arts, music programs, and libraries, not to mention more than 1,000 layoffs.
About 13 percent of students in the L.A. school district have an identified disability.  Now more of these students will be put in larger classes, commute farther to school, and in some cases will have no bus transportation at all.

Yes, the city and the state are facing a tremendous budget problem.  But if you agree with me that Superintendent Cortines should not pit "special ed things" against "regular kids," email him at  (The defender of "regular kids" is pictured above.)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

DC Admits Bungling Inclusion Plan; Vows to Press On

As I've pointed out before, truly exceptional services for children with disabilities -- especially preschoolers -- are few and far between.  When parents find services that are appropriate to their child's specific needs, they will do anything possible to access them.  So when quality services are taken away, with little thought about either the students or the parents, bad things happen.  People get mad.  Children don't get the services they need.  Even if there are short-term savings to denying children the services they need, the long-term costs are astounding.

As an example, yesterday the Washington Post reported that the District of Columbia's top special education official admitted that his department mishandled its plan to "reintegrate" students with special needs into the public school system.  (Read "DC Special-Ed Official Issues Apology: Initiative Mishandled, Parents Say; System Tried to Move Kids from Private Schools Back to Public Schools.")

The backlash from parents in DC should come as no surprise.  I recently reported on a similar plan in Maryland to move preschool children with special needs from an exceptional "non-public" school to the county's public elementary school in the name of inclusion -- seemingly with little regard for quality.  While county officials and parents have only positive things to say about the preschool that's been serving these children for decades, the county claims the students will be better served in large schools without specialized instructors or services.   Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast has made the laughable assertion that this move has nothing to do with saving money.

The problem in both the District and Montgomery County is twofold -- the plans themselves are flawed, and officials have not been honest and open with parents about their plans to make radical changes in the way they serve students.  Richard Nyankori, deputy chancellor for special education, has taken an interesting approach of bad-mouthing the private schools that many parents are so thankful for.  He said, "I can't overemphasize that some students enrolled in private schools are not getting what they deserve."  That may be true for a portion of students, but when parents are actively fighting to get their students into those schools and to keep them there, that argument loses a lot of steam.  And the District has offered no evidence of its newly discovered ability to meet needs it has historically been unable to meet.

When the city says the public school system "now has the capacity to serve more students with disabilities," that doesn't mean they have teachers with better qualifications, training, and experience.  It means they have budget problems and don't want to pay for private schools, even if those schools are more suited for many children with special needs.  I know many families who have spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to make the case for their children to receive an education in a private school setting, because the public schools have failed to meet their children's needs.  Are we to believe that these schools have drastically improved their ability to meet these needs?  Or are the District and other school systems asking parents to accept a lower level of quality and specialization for their children?

Despite bungling this situation enough to attract national attention, Nyankori has vowed to continue the "reintegration" plan.

I think there's a simple solution for the District.  Let the public schools show they can provide excellent instruction for kids with special needs, and let them compete with the private schools.  If parents value inclusion -- and many do, very much -- then the public schools should be able to attract their share of students.  In the meantime, they have a tough case to make.  The reason that more than 25 percent of special-needs students are in private placements is because the District has been unable to provide the level of education required by federal law.  The burden should be on DC schools to prove they can offer the specialized instruction that's needed.  Parents should not be asked -- or required -- to risk their children's educations and future success because the District doesn't want to pay for private school.

As the trend toward "inclusion," "reintegration," or whatever you want to call it continues -- often at the expense of students with the greatest needs -- what can we expect in New York City, the nation's largest school system, which is seeing record increases in the number of special needs students?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Disability Community Reacts to Supreme Court Nominee

From JFActivist:
The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law congratulates President Obama on his nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to replace Justice John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court. "The advancement of legal protections for people with disabilities has always been a bipartisan effort.We need strong leaders on the courts to ensure that disability rights laws have the broad remedial effect Congress intended," said Robert Bernstein, Ph.D., executive director of the Bazelon Center.  "We hope General Kagan will be such a leader on the Supreme Court."

Read more.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dr. Stanley Greenspan, Pioneer in Autism Therapy, Leaves Legacy and Lessons

I was sad to read today that Dr. Stanley Greenspan, the founder of "Floortime" and the Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-based model (DIR) approach to developmental therapy, had died.  His books, his lessons, and his therapeutic models will benefit children for generations to come.  If you haven't seen how children with autism do (or do not) learn, it would be easy to write off Dr. Greenspan's approach as simple "play therapy."

But the brilliance of Dr. Greenspan's model is in its apparent simplicity.  While some therapists, teachers, and parents will continue to debate the relative effectiveness of applied behabioral analysis (ABA) and DIR/Floortime, anyone who has met more than one person with autism knows that it is a wide spectrum.  As with any other learners, there is not one method that works equally well with all children with autism.

My daughter has received both ABA instruction and Floortime therapy (in fact, through Dr. Greenspan's office).  What has worked best for her has been a combination.  In lay terms, Dr. Greenspan's approach recognizes that a child cannot learn unless they are engaged in an activity.  So instead of forcing a child to do something he doesn't want to, the child gets to direct the activity.  For example, if the child shows interest in a ball, the therapist (or parent) can use that ball to initiate engagement.  Dr. Greenspan valued social skills, playdates, emotional awareness, and relationships -- helping children develop life skills while expanding their cognitive understanding.  He saw every child as a unique human being with feelings, needs, interests that could be leveraged to help them learn.

Whether you are interested in DIR/Floortime or want to learn about how children with autism learn, get Dr. Greenspan's book "Engaging Autism," co-authored by Serena Wieder.  In it, he writes: "Often we look for a way to reach a child – the magic key that will unlock the hidden door – when all the while the child is showing what he needs by his actions and the way he’s processing what comes his way....

"The child may have a disorder or a set of problems, but he is not the disorder. He is a human being with real feelings, real desires, and real wishes."

Read tributes to Dr. Greenspan.  For more information about DIR/Floortime, visit the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders at  Mike Frandsen, who reports about autism for the DC Examiner, wrote a nice article about Dr. Greenspan.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sec. Duncan Calls on Teachers to Raise Achievement of Special-Needs Students

Speaking to 6,000 special educators at the annual conference of the Council for Exceptional Children Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on teachers to improve the achievement levels of students with special needs.  He said that while we have made progress in expanding educational opportunities for all children, "a significant gap between our aspirations and reality" for students with disabilities. "The graduation rate, postsecondary education rate, and employment rate are all increasing, but they are still, frankly, far too low."

"Even in my lifetime, public schools virtually ignored children with disabilities. Many children were denied access to public schools, and those who attended didn't get the individualized instruction and appropriate services they needed and deserved.

"Over the past 35 years, we've made great strides in delivering on the promise of a free, appropriate public education for children with disabilities. Thanks to the advocacy and hard work of people and organizations like the Council for Exceptional Children, six million students with disabilities are in school—and millions of them are thriving.

"Yet unfortunately, many children with disabilities are not getting a world-class education. The President and I are committed to doing everything in our power to make that bedrock American promise of equal educational opportunity a reality. With the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we have a historic opportunity to move closer to fulfilling that promise for all students."

Read his full remarks, "Keeping the Promise to All America's Children."

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Back from a Break: Disabled Hockey Festival

I haven't updated this blog in a while, partly because my attention shifted last week to managing communications and another blog for the 6th Annual USA Hockey Disabled Festival in Laurel, Md. I've mentioned before that I volunteer with the American Special Hockey Association, which is similar to Special Olympics for ice hockey (because SO doesn't offer hockey) for people with developmental disabilities. But special hockey was just a part of the festival, which also included sled hockey, deaf and hearing-impaired hockey, and amputee hockey. The festival included several games with the USA Warriors, a program for wounded soldiers who are using hockey as part of their physical and emotional recovery.

Please read and share the festival blog, even with your friends who aren't hockey fans.  One of the best articles about the festival was from the local Gazette newspaper, which really explored the therapeutic benefits of hockey for children with autism, Down Syndrome, and ADHD. Read "Disabled Hockey Festival Ready to Score: Coaches, Parents Say Players Feel Part of Something Beyond a Disability."

Sled hockey

One of the USA Warriors, a double amputee who's an inspiration to his teammates and opponents.  Read about the Warriors, "The Warriors Way," from USA Hockey magazine.

Duff Goldman of "Ace of Cakes" on the Food Network, designed and delivered a special cake for the festival. While he was there, he asked to try out sled hockey and got to play alongside members of the USA Sled Hockey Team, which just won the gold medal in the Paralympics in Vancouver.  A future episode of the "Ace of Cakes" will feature his participation.

To learn more about special hockey, visit us at, follow us on Twitter at, or visit

Friday, April 2, 2010

Puppy "Not a Pet, but a Friend" to Twins with Autism

As Autism Awareness Month begins, take a look at this touching story about how a dog is helping twins with autism.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Health Care -- Thoughts?

Are you looking for a long analysis of the health care bill? You won't find it here. I want to know what you think.

Quoted in Disability Scoop, Liz Savage, director of health and housing policy at the Disability Policy Collaboration, said "I think everyone in the disability community is thrilled because everything that we fought for was included."

So are you thrilled?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Light It Up Blue for Autism!

Autism Speaks is asking people to be creative by deciding how to "Light It Up Blue" during Autism Awareness Month in April. They're asking bloggers to post in blue during the month, and when they contacted me they recognized that my blog is already blue (just a coincidence). So the best thing I can do is challenge you to Light It Up Blue and let me and our readers know how you're doing it. Some ideas from the Light It Up Blue website:

- Wear your Autism Speaks puzzle piece pin every day throughout the month of April, and tell people about autism if they ask about it.
- Change your Facebook profile picture to the Light It Up Blue logo and tag at least 10 of your friends.
- Post on your blog about how you are “lighting it up blue” to raise autism awareness.
- Add the Light It Up Blue logo to your e-mail signature … and type your e-mails in blue!
- On April 2, wear blue clothing and ask your co-workers, schools and friends to wear blue too. Take pictures and add them to our Flickr gallery.
- Bake puzzle piece shaped cookies and frost them with blue icing, then bring them to your school, work, or place of worship to raise autism awareness.

In honor of the third annual United Nations World Awareness Day on April 2, the Empire State Building will have a special lighting on the evening of April 1. If the Empire State Building can "go blue," the sky is literally the limit.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Children with Special Needs Left Behind -- Again

I have a confession to make.

Many people have told me my blog is one of their most important resources to keep up to date on disability issues. The blog was even named one of the top resources for special education teachers.

But I have to confess that the only reason I started this blog -- and the only reason I keep it going -- is to support my daughter and people like her. Yes, it may help inform other people, raise awareness, and support important changes. But it's really all about her. My only expertise in education is from my attempts to navigate the system as a parent.

My 6-year-old daughter has autism and a seizure disorder, and she is non-verbal. She's also a student, and as a student she has a legal right to an appropriate education.

I try not to be partisan in this blog, but as a Democrat, it was easy for me to criticize the Bush Administration's policies in education (and so many other areas). It's harder for me to acknowledge that under the leadership of Secretary Arne Duncan, the Obama Administration's education policies appear to be more of the same (or worse), at least as they relate to children like my daughter.

My wife reminds me that our family is in the minority -- most children in the United States are not disabled. For most of them, focusing on the need to increase test scores and get into the best college makes sense. Unfortunately, the single-minded focus on test scores and academic achievement means that my daughter and others like her are positioned as obstacles to progress, as opposed to welcome members of the education system. They are undervalued, underserved, underfunded, and "left behind" in the truest sense of the term.

I'd like for my daughter to attend college one day, but today her schoolwork is focused on teaching her to care for herself, to pay attention to her surroundings, and to match shapes and colors. If you are a parent of a typical child, maybe even a child in a Gifted and Talented program, imagine these two scenarios:

1. Your child's school is judged solely on students' academic performance -- test scores and college readiness. The higher your students' performance, the more federal and state money and other benefits your school will receive. You are punished for low test scores. Do you want my daughter to attend your child's school?

2. Your child's school is judged on students' academic performance and its ability to incorporate children with disabilities, children who are still learning English, and others with special needs -- so they can learn from typical peers, and vice versa. The federal and state governments reward your school and provide incentives for incorporating these students and teaching them important life skills. Now do you want my daughter to attend your child's school?

Occasionally, Secretary Duncan does talk about special education. What he says is that more students in special education should graduate. That's nice for the children who have the ability to achieve at that level. But what about the many children who don't? Are non-diploma students who also have a right to an education on his radar at all? Or they mere obstacles to his legacy as a reformer?

Sadly, when asked about special education, even after being in office for more than a year, Secretary Duncan punts the question. It seems that he hasn't considered these questions himself, and you have to wonder if he considers special education a necessary evil that comes with his job. Education Week reported recently, "Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., asked [Duncan] how the department would like Congress to revamp assessments for English-language learners and students in special education. A number of schools in his districts are not meeting the achievement targets in the NCLB law because of those groups of students, he said. Secretary Duncan said that he thinks that might be the toughest question the department has to tackle in reauthorization of the ESEA. He said he has tapped Alexa Posney, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, and Thelma Melendez, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education and a former English-language learner herself, on how best to measure those students’ progress."

It's good that he's asked his assistant secretaries to look into "the toughest question" regarding reauthorization. But when you roll out a comprehensive reform plan, isn't it time for some answers? And some leadership?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Obama Plan and Special Ed

I'll have more to say soon about the Obama Administration's proposal for education reform ad its impact on special ed. For now, read Disability Scoop's summary, "Obama Education Overhaul to Up Ante for Students with Disabilities."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In Education Vote, Politics Wins; Kids Lose.

If you've followed my blog over the past few months, you've read about the proposed budget in Montgomery County, Md., that would eliminate a proven program for preschoolers with disabilities, replacing it with a flawed, experimental program that was created without the involvement of parents or the county's partners who have successfully provided these services for 35 years.

Parents vocally expressed their opposition to this plan. Many pointed out that Superintendent Jerry Weast blatantly violated a Board of Education policy that new programs must be presented in time to be reviewed -- before showing up in a budget.

Today, the members of the Board of Education unanimously approved that budget.

Unanimously, they voted against a proven program that parents have relied on to give their children a chance to succeed.

Unanimously, they told parents of special-needs children that they do not value their opinions and experiences when making major changes to the services the county offers.

Unanimously, they told Dr. Weast that he can unilaterally create, change, or shut down any program he chooses -- and they will rubber stamp his decisions.

Unanimously, they threatened the future well-being of our county's youngest and most at-risk children.

UPDATE: I've created a Facebook group to encourage people to ask Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett to overturn this decision and preserve MPAC's services for children who need them. Before March 1, email him at or call his office at 240-777-2500 and urge him to overturn the realignment of preschool services and to preserve MPAC.

Friday, February 12, 2010

President's Special Ed Funding Increase Not Enough, Some Say

President Obama's proposed budget includes $250 million in new special education funds, but some advocates say it's not enough. The budget proposal has nearly $12 billion in special ed funding for states, which is $250 million more than last year.

"But despite the increase," Disability Scoop reports, "the federal contribution toward the cost of special education would remain steady at about 17 percent. And that’s a problem for special educators who want the president to stick to his campaign promise of fully funding the program."

Deborah Ziegler of the Council for Exceptional Children said: “We are disheartened to see the president did not use this opportunity to fulfill his campaign commitment to fully fund special education and early intervention programs. Another opportunity to make progress toward fully funding IDEA has, sadly, been missed.”

When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed in 1975, Congress committed to funding 40 percent of the cost of educating students with disabilities, with states covering the rest of the cost. But the government has typically provided less than 20 percent of the cost.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Rating the R-Word Offenses: A Bipartisan Look

I don't comment every time someone is criticized for saying "retard" or "retarded," but so many political and media folks have been dropping the R-word that I have to chime in. Particularly why Rush Limbaugh's and Glen Beck's comments are more offensive than the other people in question -- White House aide Rahm Emanuel and David Carney, a campaign consultant to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Here's a quick summary, with links if you want to read more. My ratings are not intended to excuse any use of this word, but I think there are varying degrees of insensitivity and offensiveness. What do you think? Are all uses of the R-word equally offensive?

In a strategy session with liberal groups and other White House, some attendees said they were going to air ads attacking conservative Democrats who were opposing the president's health care plan. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel responded by saying, "F--ing retarded." It was reported in the Wall Street Journal, and Emanuel called Special Olympics head Tim Shriver to apologize to the disabled community. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin called for Emanuel's resignation. Emanuel signed a pledge to not say the word again, and the White House planned a meeting with disability advocates.
Offense scale = 6. Insensitive, in a small group, and not directed toward people with disabilities.

In Texas, David Carney was accused of using the word "retarded" during negotiations over logistics for a Jan. 14 debate. According to Terry Sullivan, campaign manager for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison, when Carney heard that one of the holding rooms would be in a different building, he said, "That's just retarded. That's the most retarded thing I've ever heard."
Offense scale = 5. Insensitive, in an even smaller group, and not directed toward people with disabilities, or any person in particular.

Here is a partial transcript from Limbaugh. I challenge any disability advocate, whatever your political leanings, to defend these remarks:

"Folks, there is so much apologizing going on from members of this administration, it’s just amazing. First place, there’s Rahm Emanuel out there who is in big trouble for calling liberals, for calling liberal activists F-ing retards. Sarah Palin demanded that he be fired. Instead, he is apologizing to liberal activists. He was getting mad at them about health care. The liberal activists kept blaming the White House for all this health care debacle not happening and not getting done. Emanuel’s getting ticked off out there saying, (paraphrasing) “What are you blaming us for? We didn’t do anything about it, you F-ing retards.” I think the big news is the crack-up going on. But our politically correct society is acting like some giant insult’s taken place by calling a bunch of people who are “retards,” “retards.” I mean these people, these liberal activists are kooks. They are Looney Tunes. I’m not going to apologize for it. I’m just quoting Emanuel. It’s in the news. I think the big news is that he’s out there calling Obama’s number one supporters “F-ing retards.”

"So now there’s going to be a meeting, there’s going to be a “Retard” Summit at the White House....From the Wall Street Journal: “Emanuel Steps Up His Apology — Rahm Emanuel privately apologized last week to the Special Olympics after the Journal reported that he used the word ‘retarded’ in a derogatory manner. But advocates for people with disabilities didn’t think that apology, coming in a phone call to Special Olympics head Tim Shriver, was enough. Now, Emanuel is taking his contrition one step farther — hosting a delegation of advocates, including two people with mental disabilities, at the White House.” They’re going to have a “Retard” Summit just like they had the Beer Summit....You know, here’s the thing. If you want to look at how this is broken down, Emanuel compares Democrat activists to retarded people, then apologizes to retarded people. Not to the Democrats.

"Normally if you call somebody a retard, you apologize to them for calling them a retard. But he has apologized to the retarded people for daring to lump them with Democrats. It’s hilarious. So in an effort, ladies and gentlemen, to quell rising questions about the endless apologies necessary from Democrats, Obama is taking a short bus, little yellow bus full of “retards” — “F-ing retards” — to Las Vegas for the weekend."

Offense scale = 10. He calls people with disabilities "retards," "retarded," and even works in a "joke" about a "short bus." Not satire, not funny -- just cruel.

Palin told Chris Wallace yesterday: "They are kooks, so I agree with Rush Limbaugh. [He] was using satire ... . I didn't hear Rush Limbaugh calling a group of people whom he did not agree with 'f-ing retards,' and we did know that Rahm Emanuel, as has been reported, did say that. There is a big difference there."

Glenn Beck, the father of a child with special needs, was talking on his radio show last month to actress Mary Lynn Rajskub of "24." Talking by phone, Rajskub mentioned her love of painting, and when she said she enjoys painting "retarded children and paintings of the insane," you could clearly hear laughter on Beck's end of the line. Beck, trying to suppress laughs, asked how much the paintings of the "retarded" children go for. She then asked of there were "people laughing in the background," he said, "We're not laughing, we're just imagining that those would be nice. ... Honestly, I've been looking for one of those, but I haven't seen them."
Offense rating = 7. Upon hearing the word, Beck should have reminded Rajskub that that term can be offensive to many people. Did he really think that was funny to the point of laughing uncontrollably? How would he react if a guest or caller used a racial or ethnic slur?

I encourage you to visit to learn how to "Spread the word to end the word."

UPDATE: Stephen Colbert on Palin, Limbaugh, and Emanuel, from Patricia E. Bauer's Disability News.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Parent: Dr. Weast Violated Board Policy. Will They Let Him Get Away With It?

On Tuesday, the Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the FY11 budget, which includes a proposal to dramatically change the way the county serves preschoolers with special needs. As the vote nears, more questions are being raised about the program and the way Superintendent Weast is trying to push it through, despite the objections of parents and special ed advocates. Here is a letter that a parent wrote to Patricia O'Neill, president of the board.

Dear Mrs. O’Neill:

Please fulfill your responsibility to establish effective board policies by rejecting the Superintendant’s transparent attempt to circumvent Policy AEB by mischaracterizing his plan to establish a new program as a “realignment” of funds. Policy AEB, entitled “Strategic Planning for Continuous Improvement,” clearly states:

The superintendant shall present to the Board any significant changes to the strategies and initiatives in the strategic plan, including establishing new programs, eliminating existing programs, or making major changes to programs in a manner that provides the Board an opportunity to offer suggestions on the proposed changes before the superintendant finalizes his/her recommended budget.

The superintendant has clearly violated Policy AEB by including his proposal to start a new special education preschool program in his recommended FY2011 Operating Budget once again denying the Board, parents and other stakeholders the opportunity to offer meaningful input before the budget is finalized. Even more egregious he has hired the first teacher for this program which is opening this month even before his budget recommendation has been approved.

The Board amended Policy AEB in May “to reflect the Board’s strong commitment to include staff members, students, parents, and other community members on the School Improvement Team for each school; reflect the alignment of the strategic planning process with budget preparation procedures; and to outline the opportunities for community input into the budget preparation process.” When the Board considered the revised policy, members noted that the proposal to eliminate the learning centers was introduced to the Board through the operating budget and stated that there needed to be discussion about programmatic decisions prior to the Superintendant’s delivery of the budget. The Board approved the amendments over the Superintendant’s objections. What was the point if he is going to ignore the policy and you refuse to enforce it?

At the budget working session on January 28, Mr. Durso asked how MCPS and the Board can overcome some credibility issues. Following and enforcing your own policies and procedures would be a good start.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

With Budget Vote 2 Weeks Away, County Starts Staffing Unapproved, Undefined Program

Here's an interesting (and disappointing) development with the Montgomery County scheme to shift preschoolers with special needs to a new experimental program in public elementary schools. I call it a "scheme" because emerging details suggest that the public hearings, meetings with board members, and letters and phone calls from parents may not have really mattered -- because the county is moving forward with the implementation of this program BEFORE IT HAS BEEN APPROVED.

Yes, as we await the Board of Education's Feb. 9 vote on the FY2011 budget, which includes this proposed plan, the county has hired the first teacher for the program. She started working on Tuesday. That's according to a parent who talked directly to Felicia Piacente, the director of the Division of Prekindergarten Special Programs and Related Services.

Specifically, a parent spoke with Ms. Piacente about her child, who is scheduled to transition from Infants & Toddlers to special education preschool in March. As part of the transition process, the parents and the service coordinator from Infants & Toddlers visited several programs and determined that the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center (MPAC) was the appropriate placement. But before the IEP meeting, the parents learned of Superintendent Jerry Weast's plan to eliminate funding for MPAC. The parents are struggling to find any information they can about the new preschool program, but Ms. Piacente informed them that the program does not yet have a name, schedule, or classroom they can visit.

In addition, Ms. Piacente told this parent that the teacher for the new preschool class at Cashell Elementary School started on Tuesday. No paraprofessionals have been hired, and they won't be until the program has students. The teachers and pareprofessionals will receive no program-specific training.

Is anyone else outraged? Email if you value parent involvement, support appropriate education for all student, and expect transparency and honesty from your elected officials.

Politics vs. Progress: Will Board Rubber-Stamp Plan Threatening Special-Needs Preschoolers?

On Feb. 9, the Board of Education in Montgomery County, Md., will either 1) support proven educational programs for preschoolers with special needs or 2) give in to political pressure at these children's expense. One parent has submitted this compelling case to the Board. Will they listen?

Why You Should Vote NO on the Proposal to Realign Non-Public Preschool Tuition (P. 20 of budget proposal)

It will not improve LRE. The children currently placed at MPAC already have interaction with typically developing same age peers. Three of the newly-proposed Pre-K community-based classrooms do not have access to same age peers at all. The other three have access to same age peers who are at risk and may not be able to model age level skills.

It will undermine FAPE. In determining the least restrictive environment for an individual child, you must consider FAPE, which means children must receive services that are both developmentally sound and based on the individual needs of each child. Most young children with significant cognitive disabilities require intense, holistic, early-intervention in order to improve their outcomes. Placing these children in an unproven, public, pre-K program in an elementary school is not developmentally sound. Moreover, the proposed program is less intense and less holistic than the services MPAC currently provides. Unless MPAC is preserved as an option, the proposed initiative fails to consider the individual needs of each child.

Existing programs can address the needs. If the goal is to serve children with significant cognitive disabilities closer to home, MCPS should use work to make the existing PEP classes appropriate for more of these children. Any child for whom PEP is not appropriate should still have the opportunity to go to MPAC.

It will eliminate MPAC. The practical reality is that if MCPS realigns funding to create new, public, pre-K special education programs and stops funding placements at MPAC, MPAC will not be able to remain in operation. It will cease to exist – thus eliminating for certain children with severe cognitive disabilities an existing and proven educational option that meets their individual needs.

MPAC’s closure is not a “what if” scenario. Last year, MCPS unilaterally terminated its Collaborative Autism Pre-school Program (“CAPP”) with MPAC. Instead, it placed all eligible pre-K children with autism in MCPS’ public CAPP programs – many of which opened with instructors who had no prior experience teaching children with autism. Without students, MPAC had to shut down its CAPP program. There currently is no option available for children with autism ages 3-5 whose severity of needs requires the intensity of the CAPP program MPAC previously provided. If MCPS’ goal was to serve more pre-K children with autism by steering all eligible children into the public CAPP program, that goal was met. Sadly, however, it was achieved at the expense of certain autistic children who, because of severity of their needs, should have been placed in a CAPP program at MPAC.

Federal special education law requires MPAC to provide a continuum of alternative placements. When MCPS eliminates programs like MPAC, CAPP at MPAC, and the learning centers, it eliminates settings that some of its children need to make educational progress. Vote NO on the proposal to Realign Non-Public Preschool Tuition.

There's still time to express your opinion -- email and urge them to oppose this risky proposal.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Kentucky Schools: Pay No Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain

As reported by the Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County last week, Superintendent Jerry Weast was the keynote speaker this Saturday at the annual conference of the Kentucky School Boards Association. The meeting's website said Dr. Weast would discuss his "ambitious comprehensive reform effort" to meet the needs of all students. When I heard that, I was compelled to write a letter to the editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Since the paper didn't publish it, here it is. If you have friends in Kentucky, pass it along to them too.

To the Editor:

I found it interesting that the Kentucky School Boards Association invited Dr. Jerry Weast, superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Md., to speak at its annual meeting in Louisville Jan. 22-24 about his efforts to "invest in preschool education for both public and private providers." At the same time he is preparing his remarks on this important topic, parents like me who are raising a child with special needs are actively opposing a plan by Dr. Weast that would effectively close down a proven preschool for children with severe disabilities who need early intervention.

Before Kentucky educators decide to follow Dr. Weast's lead in the area of special education, you should know that parents whose children would be affected oppose his plan nearly unanimously. At a recent hearing, all 23 parents who testified on this topic adamantly urged the Board of Education to overturn his proposal to abandon this successful program and move children to an experimental public program with no known education model, curriculum, or parent involvement. If parents and educators in Kentucky support the right of all children to receive an appropriate education, think twice before holding up Dr. Weast as a role model.

-Mark Miller

Preschool Targeted by "Ill-Prepared Proposal" Is County's "Best-Kept Secret"

In the second evening of hearings at the Montgomery County Board of Education on Jan. 20, Maria Dudish got a standing ovation for her emotional testimony. Please take the time to read this and then tell the Board why Dr. Weast's plan is a bad idea. Email

"My name is Maria Dudish, and I want to tell you the best kept secret of this whole budget process. The best kept secret I am referring to is the value that the school system gets for its money from the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center.

"With all of the cuts you will need to discuss and make during this budget year, you are very fortunate to have this cost-effective, time-tested, and outcome-driven program for our county’s youngest citizens with moderate to significant needs.

"I am the mother of Tara, age 26, who has intellectual disabilities and autism. She attended the MPAC program at the ages of 3 and 4. When Tara went into a MCPS kindergarten at age 5, because I had a social work background, I began working at MPAC as the family coordinator. That was over 20 years ago.

"With the many cuts you will need to make to many high-quality programs, do not dismantle this comprehensive Early Childhood Program, MPAC, that has given you so much value for over 35 years with experienced professionals like me.

"With the many cuts you will need to make, do not dismantle MPAC, a program that excels at serving families, a key component of a successful early intervention program.

"With the many cuts you will need to make, don’t dismantle a program, MPAC, that excels in communicating with our parents and gives them a head start, from the very beginning, at closing the achievement gap. Let me give you some statistics. Out of 75 families at our school, 44 percent qualify for Medicaid and 79 percent of our students are of minority status.

"With the many cuts you will need to make don’t dismantle a program, MPAC, that offers a variety of opportunities for preschool children to interact with their typical peers. MPAC has over 40 children without special needs at our Silver Spring site who play and learn with students from MPAC.

"Dr. Weast, do you know who we really are? On behalf of our families, our staff, and our students, we invite you and your early childhood administrators to come and visit us. Most of the administrators making the realignment proposal have never been to our school, and those that have, have not visited in the recent past.

"We have elected you, the members of the school board, to be good stewards of our taxes. We depend on you to use these funds wisely and in the best interests of all of our children. At a time when you are watching the costs of every program in the system, you have the responsibility to retain one of the best values MCPS has. We are efficient and we are effective. You have heard that from many of your satisfied constituents. Do the right fiscal thing. Yank this ill-prepared proposal. Be the watch-dog that we depend on you to be. Stop the realignment of 36 preschoolers -- and the transfer of non-public funds for this new initiative."

Testimony from Jan. 13 and Jan. 20 is now available on the Board of Education's website.

Even "Least Restrictive Environment" Advocates Oppose Weast's Preschool Plan

Montgomery County Superintendent Weast says his plan to move preschoolers from a proven program to an experimental public program is intended to meet children's needs in the "least restrictive environment." Not so fast, say the lead advocates for LRE in the county.

Testifying at a Board of Education hearing on Jan. 20, Ricki Sabia presented the views of the LRE Access Group of Montgomery County, a project of the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, educators, parents. and citizens. On the issue of Dr. Weast's plan to move students from the Montgomery Primary Achivement Center, she said:

"Our final issue tonight is the decision to open six 'community-based' preschool programs. It has been said that this will improve LRE. What we have learned from the issues with the learning center phase-out is that decisions that are supposed to be based on LRE and improved outcomes can sometimes end up having the opposite effect for certain affected students. Some children from MPAC who are currently well served and have interaction with typically developing same-age peers are likely to end up in one of the three community-based classes that do not have access to same-age peers at all. The other three have access to same-age peers who are at risk and may not be able to model age-level skills.

"The decision to open yet another program designed for a particular disability label is contrary to the direction MCPS was advised to go more than 10 years ago when it commissioned the Classical Program Review. In that report, Dr. Mc Laughlin recommended against continuing its 'sort and place' model. Dr. McLaughlin also raised concerns about the community-based curriculum which can 'track kids into a separate system of placement, instruction, and accountability.'

"In order to serve children with significant cognitive disabilities closer to home, MCPS should use UDL and other strategies and resources to make the existing PEP classes appropriate for more of these children instead of creating a new place for them to go. Any children for whom that solution is not appropriate should still have the opportunity to go to MPAC."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Video Highlights: Testimony Against Plan to Displace Special-Needs Preschoolers

At the Jan. 13 Board of Education hearing on the proposed FY11 budget, 23 of 29 people who testified were parents and advocates opposed to the realignment of preschool services for children with special needs. Here's what a few parents said. (See previous posts for more information.)

Polly MacLaine Pont: "Universal approach will mean lower-functioning students will benefit less....Even the best programs go through learning curves, but we should not make our kids suffer from those curves."

Amy Kim: "Plan lacks experience and understanding. A critical time for our youngest learners."

Lyda Astrove: "A one-size-fits-all model will not work for children with disabilities....It is not too late to reverse this disastrous course that has been pushed on you by the superintendent. Listen to your teachers and parents, and bring back the full continuum of services for students with disabilities."

Bob Allnutt: "Concept of inclusion is popular and politically correct, but the fact is many children are incapable of learning in a typical environment."

Laura Schweitzer: "Elementary school setting is overwhelming and ineffective for 3-year-olds....I don't know where we would have turned if MPAC had not been an option for us."

Doris Lee: "The school board is trying out an experiment on the most vulnerable children. Students like my child can't afford a lost year as the county works out the kinks of a new startup, or even a few months. 3- and 4-year-olds will be lost in the shuffle."

What do you think? Let board members know by emailing or call 301-279-3617.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Backlash Over Special-Needs Preschool Dominates Board of Education Hearing

Tonight was the first of two hearings at the Montgomery County Board of Education about the proposed "realignment" of preschool services for children with special needs. I've written a lot about this and have already shared my testimony (see post below), so now I want to share the perspectives of some other parents. For context, this was a very well-attended hearing on all aspects of the education budget. The standing-room-only group of parents, teachers, and students carried signs and passionately advocated for a variety of worthy issues -- including the opposition to proposed cuts to school bus transportation, library staff and services, middle school magnet programs, and gifted & talented programs.

But there is no question that parent opposition to the proposed special-needs preschool program dominated the evening. In order to comment on any issue, parents had to call on the morning of Dec. 23 to sign up, and the spots filled up fast. Of 29 people who testified, an amazing 23 were there to speak out against the preschool proposal. Not a single parent, board member, or anyone else defended the proposal. (The remaining six speakers addressed the other topics I mentioned above.)

Video speaks louder than written words, so I made sure to record some of the parents' testimony. The hearing was shown on local cable TV and webcast live on the Montgomery County Public Schools website, but the video is not yet available.

The hearings really opened my eyes to the many ways the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center has lived up to its name for the past 50 years -- helping so many children achieve to their highest potential. The parents, many of whom contrasted their experience with the public school system with the specialized services of MPAC, spoke passionately about how MPAC had given them hope and improved their children's lives. From parents whose children have been in the program for several months to parents whose children graduated from the program 20 years ago, all expressed their unqualified support for the program and its staff.

Many parents (politely) lashed out at the plan and the way it's been developed without the involvement of experts and parents. It was called "foolish, "hasty," "unwise," "experimental," and "risky." Attorney and parent Lauren Poper took it one step further, suggesting that the plan (and some of the county's past actions) may actually be illegal. "Federal special education law requires MCPS to provide a continuum of alternative placements," she said, "including instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions. When MCPS eliminates programs like eliminates settings that some of its students need to making educational progress."

She added that under federal law, "least restrictive environment" means children with disabilities "must be educated with children who are nondisabled to the extent that it is appropriate for the individual child. 'Appropriate' means that the education fits the child's special needs and allows the child to make educational progress. The law requires that this be an individual determination for each child. It is not legally permissible for MCPS to make a blanket decision to eliminate a program and predetermine the placement of all the current students in that program prior to their IEP meetings, as MCPS has done with the learning centers and CAPP at MPAC, and now plans to do with MPAC itself."

MPAC is a program Montgomery County should be proud to claim its own. For 35 years, the county has done a good job identifying and referring students who most need MPAC's intensive and specialized services. And that partnership has resulted in positive outcomes for those students and their families. The Board of Education can build on that success by opposing Dr. Weast's plan and continuing to support MPAC and other proven programs.

The Board of Education is still accepting public comments. You can send an email to or call 301-279-3617.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Don't Mess with Success: My Testimony in Favor of Special-Needs Preschool

Tomorrow at a hearing on the FY2011 education budget for Montgomery County, I will join many other parents in speaking out against a plan to displace preschoolers with special needs who are currently being served at a school that has partnered with the county for 35 years. I've written quite a bit about this, and I'm looking forward to the hearings. You can submit written comments to the board at Here's what I'll say:

My name is Mark Miller. I am a board member of the Arc of Montgomery County and a state advocacy coordinator for Autism Speaks. But I am here tonight to speak as a parent of a child who has attended both the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center and the School-Community Based program in Montgomery County.

My daughter is nearly 6 years old, and she has autism, a seizure disorder, and is non-verbal. When she was first diagnosed with autism at age 2, my wife and I were in crisis – we didn’t know anything about autism or what type of therapy she would need. Fortunately, she was able to attend the Toddler Collaborative Autism Preschool Program at MPAC, and she continued in the Collaborative Autism Preschool Program for the next few years. MPAC was the perfect place for herm and the skills she gained there will benefit her for the rest of her life.

MPAC was more than a preschool. It provided a complete range of specialized, intensive services to my daughter and our entire family. Some of the advantages of MPAC were:
- An on-site ABA specialist who worked closely with the teachers and aides to ensure that every child received the instruction they needed.
- There was a therapy room, specialized equipment, and occupational therapists, which was critical for her, because she had gross motor needs that impaired her balance, strength, coordination, and safety.
- MPAC had a family liaison who informed parents about workshops, trainings, and community resources to supplement the school’s own programs.
- All of my daughter's teachers and aides were specifically trained to meet students’ needs, including proven educational models for children with autism and a variety of methods to improve communications and social skills.

After three years at MPAC, when my daughter was 5, it was time for her to move on to kindergarten. Even though she has been medically diagnosed with autism, and despite the fact that the county’s tests classified her as severely autistic, she was not placed in the county’s autism program. Instead, she started kindergarten this year in the School-Community-Based Program.

The teacher-student ratio in her classroom is very good. Her teacher is committed to helping each of her students learn, and the principal, administrators, and other staff are supportive.

However, her teacher and aide did not have past experience teaching children with autism. We have gone from a setting where we learned from autism specialists into one where the teachers are learning on the job about autism.

Her current school has no gym available throughout the day, so the occupational therapist has to use whatever equipment is available in the classroom. She also receives fewer hours of intensive instruction than she did at MPAC.

I’ve read letters from Superintendent Weast and Montgomery County Public Schools referencing the need to give parents more options. I fully support that goal. But the proposed realignment of preschool services will actually eliminate options for the children with the most intensive needs.

For children like my daughter, I urge the Board of Education to oppose any plan that would threaten the specialized services that MPAC provides. MPAC has a proven track record of success. Unless the county has strong evidence that the proposed public program will be better than MPAC’s proven model, it should not take away this option for children like my daughter to receive services that are appropriate for their age and ability.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Plan to Displace High-Risk Preschoolers in Maryland Attracts Media Interest

It seems that when education officials try to shut down specialized services for children with special needs, parents and the media pay attention. Today the ongoing controversy to displace preschoolers in Montgomery County was covered by both News Channel 8 and the Gazette newspaper. View the TV story below.

After a 35-year partnership with the public school system, the Arc of Montgomery County, which oversees the Montgomery Primary Achievement Center (MPAC) found out about the plan to move preschoolers only through a small line item in the county's operating budget.

The change, while characterized as a "realignment" by Superintendent Jerry Weast, is actually a radical change in the way the county provides specialized instruction to preschoolers who need intervention. For three decades, the county has referred students to MPAC, which serves children ages 2 to 4 with developmental delays, autism, and intellectual disabilities. While Dr. Weast and the Board of Education acknowledge that MPAC has provided these services effectively, with measurable outcomes, he seems to have decided to sneak in this major change with no collaboration with MPAC, the Arc, or the parents of students who will be affected. Ellen Widoff, director of children's services for the Arc, said the school system is "trying to do this under the radar by not replicating our program in any way. At a time when there's no cost benefit at all, they're cutting a very appropriate program for high-risk kids."

A parent of a child with Down syndrome who attended MPAC, said the program helped her son learn to walk and gain self-confidence. "It was a very good experience for us," she said. "As a parent, you just get that feeling when you know a certain place is the right fit for your child. MPAC was that place."

The Board of Education is holding public hearings on the proposal on Jan. 13 and 2, and I will testify on Jan. 13 and report on that hearing. Parents have practically overwhelmed the board with calls asking to testify against the proposal and in support of the type of services MPAC provides, and there is a long waiting list for both dates. Interestingly, the public school system -- after not consulting with parents at all when they developed this proposal -- suddenly scheduled a meeting with MPAC parents for Jan. 11.

In a Dec. 29 letter sent to current MPAC parents, Gwendolyn Mason, director of special education services for the county, referenced the county's plan to "expand the preschool options for our youngest children with significant disabilities" -- but for all the talk about "options," "choices," and "expansion," they are proposing to pull their support for one of the county's best programs for preschool children with special needs, limit parents choices, and take away children's access to specialized services.

Special Educators are "Autism People of the Decade"

Kudos to the Left Brain/Right Brain blog (based in the UK) for naming special educators the "Autism People of the Decade." The author explains: "When I ask myself who really has made a difference in the quality of life for my autistic kid, it isn’t the researchers, the advocacy groups, or the 'personalities' in the autism community that I can point to. What has made a difference are the efforts of a group of therapists and teachers who have devoted themselves to low pay and hard work."

And he rightfully points out that the stories about special education that get the most attention are the ones that talk about problems like abuse, seclusion, restraint, and bullying -- so it's nice to see hard-working special ed teachers, aides, and therapists get some well-deserved recognition.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Special Hockey Players Brave Cold at NHL Winter Classic

I started 2010 by spending a fun day with young disabled hockey players at the NHL Winter Classic -- the first hockey game ever played at Fenway Park in Boston. The owner of the Boston Bruins, Jeremy Jacobs, personally ensured that youth hockey players would get free tickets to the game, and he was thoughtful to make sure each of the special hockey teams in New England were invited. We had players from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, and this video shows how much fun they had.

Thanks to the Bruins, Mr. Jacobs, the Bruins Foundation, and the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone program for supporting special hockey players, coaches, volunteers, and parents. To learn more about special hockey and the American Special Hockey Association, visit our website, join our Facebook group, or follow us on Twitter.

Special Hockey at NHL Winter Classic from Mark Miller on Vimeo.

Disability Scoop

Special Ed News (Education Week)

Special Education Law