Things I wish I would have known: The battle of the Experts in the writing of an IEP

Something I wish I would have understood when I started to advocate for my children

After the initial shock wore off, regarding my daughter’s learning disabilities, I made the determination to put her into school. Her birthday was behind the deadline, which meant that she would have been required to wait another year before enrolling in school. Fortunately, the work we had been doing at home allowed her to test in anyway. This was important to me because I wanted her to be challenged and having her in school was going to help to push her in areas where her LD was causing her to struggle.

By her 3rd grade year, however, we were noticing that she would pass a spelling test at the end of the week, but she was unable to spell those words by Monday morning. We approached her teacher and were informed that the school, at that time, was already providing a service to my daughter. We knew that she was on an ILP (individual learning plan). Her ILP was to have us do extra work at home with reading and writing, but we did not know our daughter was being pulled out of class.

We then demanded to know why. Why were they pulling her out of school without notifying us about it? We were told that since she was obviously passing her tests, then it didn’t matter if they pulled her out. We then asked to see the tests that made it important for them to take her out of class – even for a short while. In our opinion there must have been some cause for concern for them to take such an action – especially without bringing the parents in on the plan.

The school showed us exams/evaluations that ranged from the lowest 15% to up to 39% of the average test taker in our daughter’s age range. Something they had never shared with us during any meeting we had had for our daughter’s ILP.

Immediately we demanded that our daughter be tested for an IEP (Individual Educational Plan). If our daughter was doing extra homework at home, being taken out of classes for a pullout program and still showing such low test scores, we wanted to know why.

Simultaneously we had heard about a developmental diagnostic program at our local Children’s Hospital, so we signed up to get her tested hoping that these findings, in conjunction with the school findings would help our daughter.

When we finally met as a team, 45 days later, the school refused to even look at the diagnostic paperwork. They casually explained that an “educational” diagnosis and a “medical” diagnosis were different. That it did not matter what the doctors wrote – if our daughter was responding in some way to intervention, then the school did not have to take those records into consideration. Even if our daughter forgot the intervention (something we already knew to be true) – she was still passing on Friday and this was important to the school.

When our daughters state exams were brought into the discussion, the same was stated – she was very behind but responding to intervention. Yes, she did have a great discrepancy between what she produced and what she could do. This did not matter in the grand scheme of things.

After a 4 –hour meeting, in snowy weather, it was finally concluded that my daughter would receive an IEP. This IEP was not based on the diagnostic evaluation created by our local Children’s Hospital, but rather, it was on the Optometrist results, showing that in addition to a lazy eye our daughter’s eyes were making it difficult for her to read. In my opinion an Optometrist is a medical doctor, but this is what happened.

The conclusion for the school was to place my daughter BACK on the rote-memory program that she had been using and that this was all the intervention that they could provide to my daughter and our family.

I now understand that I have a right to push the school to accept a medical diagnosis from a specialist. I did not have to sit by and have them refuse to look at the evaluation. At the time, I was scared. I was not an expert. I had limited understanding of what I was supposed to say. I had requested an advocate and learned, during this meeting, that the person I had requested was friends with my daughters Principal, that individual went quickly from standing firm with our family, to pushing us to take what the could said they had to offer.

I was livid at the time. I wanted to slam doors, and scream and yell. Those things, while cleansing, were not going to help me help my daughter. It was clear that my family did not have a partner – educationally. The school was going to do what was best for them and not what was best for our daughter. We agreed to let them use that ONE tool they said that they could use for our daughter and I started volunteering at the school and working with my daughter after school let out.

If you are an individual or parent and you are facing this issue, I encourage you to get educated on what your rights are and to stand firm.

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From the inside Out

I have spent a great majority of this blog, providing definitions, discussing characteristics and outlining some interesting behaviors, all in an attempt to explain what having an LD is like. The problem is that having an LD is a highly individualized experience. It’s like sharing a dream, you can describe what happened, but, it is harder to help another person fully experience that dream in the exact way that dream made you feel.

Over the last few months I have been in the editing stages of my dissertation. During this time, I have worked with my Chair on the appropriate edits for my topic. A Chair (not the one you sit in) is a person who is an expert in your field of study. This person checks your work for quality and validity. Not every Chair helps in the editing process, but some will. I was lucky enough to have a Chair who participated with me through the editing process.

Editing a dissertation means that you will go over each chapter and determine if you are using the correct voice (your final will be written in past tense), if you are using the correct format, if your table of contents is correct, if your references are clear, if you got everything done up to the standard that is required for this degree. It’s pretty grueling process for many people, not just people with learning issues.

This was complicated for me due to the LD, so let’s discuss what that really meant.

Throughout my educational career, I have had a hard time reading black text on the white background. When computers began to be used by schools, I discovered that reading from the computer proved to be more problematic then reading from a book. Something about the color of the words on the screen made it hard for me to read and understand what was written.

I had difficulty tracking the line. This meant that I would be reading on the computer and find myself on a different part of the page a few lines down. If I was holding a book, I could use a ruler to help me track the page or I could underline the text so that I could see if I was having tracking problems by the marks moving from one line to another.  I could hold a paper to the screen to try to mimic a ruler, but found that the computer screen would light the paper in such a way that it  made it more difficult for me to remember the text. As a result, I was printing my entire dissertation.

Printing was the easiest way to see what could not be seen on the computer. However, once the document was printed, I had the other problem of trying to find mistakes while also having trouble reading black words on white paper. I found some errors, but not all and I had to mark those errors with a bright color so I could see them and go back and edit them on the computer.

At some point, my husband bought me an iPad because he thought it would be helpful. I sent the document to my iPad one day out of curiosity. The iPad proved to be a good tool, but it was not a stand-alone. I could change the color of the background to Sepia and that allowed me to see some of the errors that I had missed on the computer and in the printed text.  I am not advocating that the iPad was better than the computer or the written text. I used a combination of all three throughout the process. I would start on the computer; switch to the printed text and the load the document to my iPad.

Visually, when I am reading, what I see is something like blinders on the sides of my eyes. The blinders close off parts of the text. If I try to see around the blinder, the page becomes a white space without any words. Alternating colors helps me to see more of what is on the page, but not always. It’s like having a pair of spyglasses, and reading disappearing ink. If you use the glasses you can see the text, but if you raise your head and look around the room, the world looks strange. Now imagine using different pairs of glasses, some designed to help you see disappearing ink, some designed to make letters bigger, some designed to make letters smaller and consider all the various other ways glasses can alter your vision. Now, imagine moving from one set of glasses to another and that would be close to what I see when I am reading and writing. What I see at any given moment determines what I find on the page, the number of errors I miss, and/or my perception of the text itself.

When reading, I get segments of the text, which forces me to go back and re-read the text. When re-reading, I attempt to get all the way through the paragraph to make sure I have understood what I have read. This process, in combination with writing/editing makes me fatigued. So, I pull away from the text, take a deep breath and start again. Is this a complaint – no – it is really a statement of fact. Reading and writing are difficult to me because I experience them in this way. Having these difficulties does not make it impossible to learn, it complicates it.  This is part of what I deal with when I am reading and writing. This is also why I read my favorite books over and over – I find that I learn so much with each new reading.

Over the years I have developed strategies for helping me to cope with these issues. I firmly believe that I should use every tool within my grasp to assist me with these kinds of struggles.  But notice that I did not say that these tools would assist me “through” my struggles. I have heard some people proclaim that people “grow out” of their learning disabilities. This ideology gives people the impression that learning disabilities are a childhood problem. That is not my experience and it is not the experience of many who suffer with an LD. I am happy for those who experience something different – I just don’t happen to be one of those people.

I am not on the other side of the bridge looking back at and evaluating my journey through the land of Learning-Disabilities. Nope, I am dangling over the Grand Canyon, standing on a thin rope, in slippery shoes, as I hold a 3-ton weight on my shoulders. The thing that has kept me from plummeting to the bottom of the canyon is a solid support system, a drive to want to get the other side, and a tempter that could light a thousand torches. I am not a single individual working on my own to learn – I have had a lot of mentors, a wonderful support system, tools to help me help me, and I made the choice to want to push for something I presumed was outside of my reach.

Not everyone with an LD has these types of resources. Some are not able to articulate these problems. I am just learning to articulate them and I have been in school for a very long time. As other individuals come forward and share their experiences with LD, I am confident that our community will find the specific tools we need to deal with the types of issues I have described above.

Art by Rhonda Richmond

Art by Rhonda Richmond

Dr. Richmond, is a native of Denver, CO. She studied Communications, Women’s studies and Liberal Studies. To enhance her academic skills and to cope with her learning issues, she used experiential and creative writing. These tools allowed her to successfully obtain her B.A (2003) and M.A. (2007) from University of Denver.

By 2007, Rhonda enrolled in a doctoral program at Argosy University. When using writing was no longer an option, she began using art to express her thoughts and work through her academic difficulties. She finds inspiration for her work in her studies and from her family. Dr. Richmond successfully defended her dissertation on August 14, 2013 and she proudly advocates for  students with cognitive and learning disabilities, women, and multicultural learners. ​

​A Little More About the Artwork

​​​The artwork on this website would be described by Rhonda not as art but as a conversation. As an individual with  Learning Disabilities/ Differences (LD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and Sensory Issues, she faced many difficulties when trying to use her native language (English) to communicate with the outside world. She spent a great many years of her life pretending to understand what others meant, how others felt, and why others did the things they did. Now, Rhonda describes herself a second language learner who just happened to be taught the second language first.

Rhonda’s work IS about telling the story, reaching out, learning to learn and using her voice.

The large canvases are not stretched. They are imperfectly folded to represent how Rhonda often found herself placing important assignments in her pockets and forgetting them. This is a tribute to her LD, in a way.  Rhonda will never be able to hide her LD, so she proudly lets it show itself in her work.

Many paintings are basic, almost elementary in form. This represents how many students with LD work as hard, and in most cases harder than other students, but still find that they lag behind their peers academically. Rhonda does not see this is an admittance of a failure. In her eyes the things she cannot express in writing or through speaking, will inevitably reveal themselves in her paintings.

Dr. Richmond believes all people have the ability to learn, but to be able to access it every student with an LD must find their first language and use it.  She states, “It will never be easy, but it must be done. Student’s with LD must be multilingual to be successful in a modern society.”

Her piece “3rd Planet from the Sun” illustrates her life story and her struggles with learning and identity.

**For More Information on Learning Disabilities, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Sensory Issues please go to the website and chick on the resources page #ArtbyRhondaRichmond