Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Ivy Ceiling

What happens after high school?

That's one of many questions that many of us that have kids with disabilities think of. Will our kids be able to go to college, get a job, live independently? Will they be happy?

Two young people with disabilities enrolled in Florissant Valley Community College in the St. Louis, Missouri, USA area. They had hopes, dreams, and scholarships they had earned during high school. What happened to them is detailed in a story found here.

...It happened to Jennifer Adelsberger two years ago. She attended Florissant Valley for four years and was close to getting her associates degree in early childhood education. She has disabilities, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and has difficulty in reading comprehension. But, with help, she graduated from McCluer North High School.

However, at Florissant Valley, Adelsberger couldn't get her degree because her advisor, she says, told her that she would not be able to graduate. She needs four classes to get her degree; a math class, two in student teaching and a fourth in class training with children.

After she was told she wouldn't be able to pass those classes, she left school and has been looking for work since. Her father, Larry, says she's had her heart set on being a teaching assistant, working with young children, and what happened at Florissant Valley has affected her outlook and personality. ...

It would appear that the math class is the stumbling block. I find it hard to believe that the school can't identify a tutor that could help her to get thru that one class. I'm sure it couldn't possibly be that this young woman looks and talks a little different from the norm, and they didn't want her student teaching. Surely there is no other discrimination involved. This is born out by looking at the other case, in which things seemed to start out just fine:

...For Jeremy Andert, the fall at Florissant Valley was much quicker. He too had an A+ scholarship and he graduated from Hazelwood West High School in the spring of 2006. In the Fall, he began at Florissant Valley, taking just a remedial reading class and physical education. It was to be an easy transition from high school to the rigors of college.

He was doing well in reading and physical education. In fact, his teacher had written him a mid-term report, indicating he was passing the class and was succeeding in school. ...

It sounds like Jeremy was approaching things in a realistic manner, and things were going well. His mom thought he was doing well, too (who wouldn't, having been given the satisfactory mid-term report).

...However his mother, Cathy Andert, had a meeting with a school advisor, who told a different story. Cathy says the advisor told her that she didn't care to have "retarded" students in her classes and she wasn't "having" it. Cathy says she was taken aback by those comments. ...

I think I would have been more than "taken aback" by those comments. Ms. Andert was much kinder than I would have been. The school, for its part, offered this lame response:

...Laura Sternman, a vice president of student affairs at Florissant Valley, says such comments are not the college's "attitude" taken on campus. Sternman says the college does all it can to help disabled students, saying the school is "very proactive" when it comes to such help. ...

Actions speak louder than words, and Florissant Valley's actions speak volumes. And so does its web site, where you can follow a link from this page called “You Should Know the Difference Between High School and College for Students With Disabilities.”

There are things written there, such as

A college education is a privilege instead of a right and special programs are not required

Students are responsible for their own behavior and inappropriate behavior is not tolerated

Students are expected to do the same work in the same time frame as all students

These hardly seem consistent with an institution that says it is doing all it can to assist disabled students.

For those that are not in the US, community colleges are 2 year public institutions that offer lesser than bachelor degrees, usually "Associate of Arts" degrees. Students can pursue various courses of study there, or use it as a stepping stone to a four year institution. As can be gleaned from the above, education at the college level is not governed by the same sets of rules that apply to education up to that point.

Various people on the web have commented regarding how some colleges in some instances are providing accomodations for students with special needs. But it appears that their legal responsibility is only to supply equal access (things like physical access, access for guide dogs, etc.), and there is no requirement for them to accommodate developmental or behavioral disabilities.

While some colleges seem to have greater outreach than others, it appears that at least some people at Florissant Valley Community College feel so emboldened that they can say that they don't want to have to deal with 'retarded' students in their classes.

If you wish to express your opinion to Laura Sterman personally, here is her contact information:

Laura Sterman
Vice President of Student Affairs
St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley Campus
3400 Pershall Rd.
St. Louis, MO 63135


You also might want to copy your note to the president of Florissant Valley, Ms. Marcia Pfeiffer:

I could not find a public listing of the e-mail of Henry Shannon, Ph.D., the chancellor of all of the St. Louis Community Colleges, but if it follows their convention, it should be

Friday, September 21, 2007

How much accommodation is enough?

That was the question I asked myself when I read the story of Sophie Currier, an MD/PhD graduate of Harvard University who is asking for additional break time during testing for her medical license because she is breastfeeding.

The test that Currier is taking is the USMLE Step 2, a nine hour test that is the second of three tests that are necessary to become a fully licensed physician. A physician must pass at least the first two steps prior to starting their residency training. This test is usually taken one year prior to completing one's medical school education. That way, if you are not successful the first time, you have another chance to take the exam the following year, prior to starting residency. Evidently Dr. Currier took the test when she was 8.5 months pregnant the first time, and failed by a few points. If she doesn't pass the test this time, she'll have to delay starting residency for at least another year, until she passes the test.

I have a lot of sympathy for physician/mothers. Both jobs are very time consuming and tough, and juggling two full time jobs is next to impossible. One of my heroes during my internship year was a fellow intern who was a single mom to a 2 year old (her husband couldn't handle having a wife that was "smarter" than he was, so left her when she was in med school). We all tried to pitch in and help her out, but there was no doubt that that doctor mom fully pulled her share. She asked normal favors of us (as all friends would), but never asked for any special considerations because of her situation.

So my first inclination when reading the story was to think "Why couldn't the board give her some extra time to pump during the test? It's a 9 hour test, with only 45 minutes allocated to break time. Surely they could make some accommodation. I mean, this can't be a unique situation." But then I continued reading the article:

...Currier has already received special accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act for dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, including being granted permission to take the test over two days instead of one.

In the lawsuit, she was seeking an additional 60-minute break on each day. The board cited the need to be consistent in the amount of time given to doctoral candidates and said other nursing mothers who have taken the exam have found the 45 minutes of permitted break time sufficient. ...

I'm all in favor of her getting accommodations for her dyslexia and ADHD. But it appears that since she'll be taking the test over two days instead of one, then she'll have 4 hours of testing on one day, and 5 hours on another. She still has 45 minutes of break time that she can allocate over that time, to take when she wants. This may not be the extra hour of break time each day that she wants, but it appears on the surface to not interfere too badly with her breast feeding requirement of having to pump or feed every 3 hours. Also:

...The judge said the board offered Currier several special accommodations, including a separate testing room where she could express milk during the test or during break time, and the option to leave the test center to breast-feed during break times. ...

For its part, the USMLE (United States Medical Licensing Examination board) responded publicly on its website to the "Currier question" regarding breastfeeding during exams.

...How have you responded to Sophie Currier’s request for extra time to express milk?
As the papers filed in court show, NBME offered Ms. Currier a variety of comfort measures and personal item exceptions, such as permission to bring multiple, assembled pumps to eliminate the time involved in cleaning, assembling, and disassembling them; permission to pump milk while taking the test and on break time, with privacy within the constraints of exam security, in the individual testing room that she receives on account of her ADA disability. We also provided her with a sample schedule demonstrating how an examinee can flexibly manage the time to take a 20- to 30-minute break every three hours. ...

And I gotta tell ya, that's starting to sound pretty fair to me. But to give myself a little reality check before I ran my mouth off (since I am male, and therefore have never faced such a situation) I bounced this question off of a colleague of mine, herself an MD/PhD, who has small children and has breast fed. After thinking a bit, and without me even telling her the part about her getting to take the test over two days, she felt that the medical board had gone far enough. Indeed, she didn't even think they had to go that far. "Whisper Pump.", she said. To my blank look, she explained that the Whisper Pump is a wearable bra/pump contraption that you can wear while you work. It takes about 5 minutes to rig up, and pumps while you work. So it appears that Dr. Currier might not need any extra time at all in order to take the test and also pump.

I gotta tell ya, it feels a little uncomfortable arguing against someone getting an accommodation they say they need, especially when I have not walked in that person's shoes. But this one doesn't seem to pass the sniff test, and it would appear to me that Dr. Currier would spend her limited time better studying for her exam, rather than talking to her lawyer.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


And by a 7 year old, no less. I don't know if I should be happy about this or not. I was totally flim-flammed by Buddy Boy tonight.

Let me back up a bit. Buddy Boy has been getting into playing computer games, as well as games on a Game Boy that we bought about 6 months ago. I'm sure that many of you are very familiar with the concept of using "electronic bribery" in order to encourage certain behaviors (reading, doing math problems, cleaning room, etc.). Well, not being perfect parents, we also are not above using time on the computer/Game Boy in this manner. The combination of his obsession with our limiting access has made time on electronic games very desirable to Buddy Boy.

If left to his own devices, Buddy Boy would play electronic games every waking minute we let him. Obviously, being an old fart who's first computer game was "Pong" in high school, I don't think that's very healthy.

I'm the one who usually puts Buddy Boy to bed at night. We put him to bed at 7:00 PM, as he will consistently get up between 5:00 and 5:30 AM, no matter how late he goes to bed, and we want him to get a good night's sleep.

I put Buddy Boy to bed at the usual time. We went thru our usual bedtime routine, making sure he went to the bathroom and brushed his teeth, picking out what song he was going to listen to on his "boombox" all night long, tucking him in. Prior to bedtime Buddy Boy had elected to play in his room by himself, not wanting to play with me or Sweet Pea. When I left him to go and play hide and seek with Sweet Pea he was laying under his bed playing with some small squishy animal figures.

I didn't see the Game Boy, and asked him where it was. He straight faced said "I don't know, Dad". I proceeded to take 3-4 minutes to search for it in his bedroom, but couldn't find it, so just left, as I didn't want to break our routine too much.

Liz has been the one to usually take him to the bathroom later, after a couple of hours. She's taken over this duty from me, as she thinks my whispering to him at these times wakes him up and makes it harder for him to get back to sleep.

Well Liz went in to take him to the bathroom tonight, and he was laying under his bed playing on his Game Boy. He evidently had sequestered it away someplace near bedtime, and had been playing it from 7:00 PM to 9:30 PM, when Liz went in there.

Liz wasn't too happy with me.

This isn't the first time Buddy Boy has lied about something, and I certainly don't want him to make a habit out of it. But as I sit here contemplating this, I've got to think that the ability to plan out the operation, lie to my face when directly challenged, and carry it out quietly shows some real skills that could transfer quite nicely to a lot of workplaces.

Now if I can only work on some effective strategies for him to remember faces of people he's met...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mostly Good

Well, it's been about two and a half weeks since the kids have gone back to school. We keep waiting for phone calls, frantic notes, or disparaging comments, but haven't had them. We think things are going (mostly) OK.

Buddy Boy starts this year in a self-contained "communications" classroom for about 2/3 of the day, with him going out to "specials" (art, music, computer, Spanish) with his gen-ed peers, accompanied by an aide. This is more time out of the self-contained class than he had last year, and we think this is a good thing. I don't think that inclusion is the end all and be all for everyone, and don't think that Buddy Boy would thrive if he was in the gen-ed class all day at this point. But we do feel that it's a good thing for him to get to know his NT peers (and them him), and to spend some time interacting with them.

His teacher in his communications classroom is one of his former aides from last year, who is now a teacher. She seems fairly eager to try to please us, and appears to be working hard, but it is also apparent that she is in a bit over her head (somewhat disorganized, frazzled at times). But her heart seems to be in the right place, and she seems willing to talk with us on how to improve things, so we're trying not to push too hard (don't want to make her jaded in the first semester on her own).

We have discovered a few problems, like the fact that Buddy Boy was getting 60 minutes of math instruction/week, vs. 300 minutes/week in the gen-ed class. This was totally unacceptable to us, and we're working with his teacher to get it a bit more equitable. Even though we work academics with Buddy Boy on a year round basis, we don't want him set up to fail by not challenging him appropriately academically.

There was also a problem with them reporting that he sometimes did not go to his proper classroom after being dropped off in the morning (all children have to be dropped off at the door-no parents can come inside). We countered (with a letter of support from his pediatrician) that it was unreasonable to expect him to always go directly to his class without getting distracted along the way, and that since we couldn't walk him to his class, they should have someone meet him at the door. They now do.

A more serious problem was when we discovered that they were "not exactly communicating well" with us. Buddy Boy was supposed to (according to a written agreement) supposed to be included for 15 minutes/day in the morning with the gen-ed class with an aide. His papers have been coming home indicating each day that he attended that class and was doing his work OK. It turns out that Buddy Boy told Liz last week that he wasn't going to that class in the morning. When his teacher was asked about this, she said something to the effect of "Well, he wouldn't settle down during that time period, and was disturbing the other kids, so we put him back in the communications room and he did the work there."


We can understand that if he's consistently disruptive, and after various strategies have been tried, that it may be determined that it's not the right place for him. We've tried suggesting a later time of the day, but we think that they don't have an aide to accompany him at other times, so this is why they picked first thing in the morning. We've also suggested they give him some time when the other kids aren't in there to just explore the room, but don't think they've done that. We aren't opposed to having them try different strategies, and even understand if he's temporarily removed. But to keep sending home slips saying he's going to the gen-ed class, and not indicating anything wrong, just irks us to no end. And it makes me wonder what else they're not telling us. But since he did mostly well for the second part of last year at this school, and everyone we talk too says he's doing OK, we're just writing it off to a communication breakdown at this point, and not getting into conspiracy theories.

Buddy Boy generally says that he feels good about school. But one thing I have noticed is a little increase in Buddy Boy's stress levels. He's acting out a little aggressively at home (soft head butts, slaps, and threatening language). It's nothing like he used to do, and he immediately reels it in when we call him on it, so I'm not too worried at this point. Everyone's entitled to a little extra stress when they start a new school year, start a new job, or anything else that's generally considered stressful.

Sweet Pea, meanwhile, has had a fantastic start to Kindergarten. She goes to school for the full day, and reports back excitedly each day what she's done, as well as who did what in school.

So all in all, I think things are going to be OK. We're going to keep a close eye on things, but as long as the teachers are willing to work with us, we'll keep working with them.