When he was 3 years old, my oldest son was barely talking. Our pediatrician suggested we get him checked out. It turned out he had some hearing loss due to recurrent ear infections. He was also diagnosed with Auditory Processing Disorder. As a result, he was placed into New York State’s Early Intervention program. He was initially referred for speech therapy, but within a few weeks, they were telling us he needed physical therapy and occupational therapy for his short attention span, inability to sit still, and poor crayon handling. I thought he was just a typical little boy, and that he’d outgrow it.
And he did.
At 5, we sent him to the most academic kindergarten that would take him, one that specialized in giving oral instruction and required massive public speaking–two areas where my son was weakest. Because he’d aged out of Early Intervention, our pediatrician urged us to have him classified as Special Needs. “There are lots of advantages,” she said. “He’ll get extra time on tests, and other accommodations.”
I refused. For a variety of reasons. But the most important one was my belief that real life doesn’t come with extra time and special accomodations, so the sooner my son came up with coping strategies for functioning in a world stacked against him without outside help, the better for him in the long run. I wanted to make his life harder now, so that it would be easier later, instead of vice-versa.
In 1st grade, the students were evaluated and we were told that he needed more speech therapy. (As a side note, out of a class of 14 boys, 12 were referred for some kind of developmental services. With numbers like that, you’ve got to wonder: Have we set the bar in the wrong place?) Even though my son was in a private school, he was still eligible for services through the city. The city agreed that he desperately needed these services. And that he would receive them–in 12 to 18 months. Unwilling to wait, we decided to pay for speech therapy out of pocket, and nip the problem in the bud before it grew worse.
“Oh,” I was reassured. “Things would have been different if you’d been in public school. In public school, he’d have gotten all the services he qualifies for, right away.”
Fast forward to last year, when my son started public high school. It was a huge transition for him. He went from a grade of 45 students to one of 850, from classes of 15 to 30-something, from a cozy brownstone on a side-street to a 10-story building by a busy highway.
Freshman year was a struggle on multiple levels, but we insisted he stick it out and muscle through. Sophomore year, he told me he was really having trouble concentrating. Between the noise of the street (even with the windows closed), the hustle and bustle of the packed hallways, and the overcrowded class, it was very difficult for him to both hear the teacher (though he does always ask to be seated at the front of the room), and to sift through the near-overwhelming audio input and discern which sounds were relevant and which weren’t, not to mention respond to them in a timely manner.
“Can you do something about it?” he asked me.
I contacted his guidance counselor. The counselor referred me to the school’s Special Needs Coordinator. (In the plus column, both were very prompt with their replies.)
The Special Needs Coordinator pulled up my son’s transcript. There was a pause on the other end of the phone. Finally, she said, “He’s getting all A’s.”
“He’s a hard worker,” I confirmed.
“He’s doing exceptionally well,” she repeated, in case I’d missed her point the first time.
“But it’s been very difficult for him,” I explained. “We have his initial evaluation of an Auditory Processing Disorder. Might it be possible for him to receive the accommodations it recommends? For instance, his Spanish tests are currently all oral. Could he maybe—”
“The Department of Ed would have to do its own evaluation.”
“Sure. How can I arrange for that?”
“Well, first you’d need to put in a request. That should be processed in about 90 business days. Then, we’ll sit in on some of his classes, talk to his teachers.” Another pause. “I don’t see any notes about him being a disciplinary problem.”
“He’s not, as far as I know.”
“So none of his teachers will say he’s causing trouble in class?”
“I don’t think so.”
A sigh. She lowered her voice. “I’m going to be honest with you: The school doesn’t care how hard life might be for your son. All they care about is that he isn’t failing and he isn’t disruptive. I’m going to talk to his teachers, and they’re going to say he’s doing fine. I’m going to present his grades, and it’s obvious he’s doing better than fine. Your request for testing and accommodation will be turned down. I’m sorry.” (She genuinely did sound sorry.)
“But we’ve had him privately tested. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“You could sue,” she advised. “Hire a lawyer and demand that we re-test him and provide the accommodations he qualifies for. That process should take about a year. But you can only do it once you’ve been turned down by us.”
I did some quick math in my head. “At that rate, even if we win the case, nothing will happen until he’s a Senior!”
“I’m sorry,” she repeated. I genuinely believed that she was.
I gave my son the news: His grades were too good for anyone to believe he was struggling. And even if he was struggling, nobody cared, since he somehow ended up getting his work done, anyway.
“Let’s hire the lawyer,” he urged. “I want extra time on tests, like the other kids.”
“No,” I told him. “The process isn’t worth it.”
“But it’s so hard,” he whined, all but petulantly stamping his foot for good measure.
Not a smart move on his part. “You think you’ve got it hard?” I challenged.
“You think you have it harder than kids whose parents don’t speak English? Where they didn’t go to college or maybe even finish high school? Harder than kids from weaker middle schools than yours who didn’t develop good study habits, not to mention all that ‘prior knowledge’ your teachers are always saying you came in with? You think you have it harder than kids who commute to school two hours a day in both directions?”
“I’m guessing you expect me to say no?”
“Everyone has some hardship,” I told my son. “Everyone has to learn how to deal with it. Especially since, as we’ve just seen, even the people whose job it is to help are going to do everything in their power to pass the buck. I’m sorry it’s difficult for you. Now go to your room, and study harder.”
And he did.