Special Education is a Service, Not a Place

A Brief Overview

  • A student with a disability has the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). General education spaces and curriculum are LRE.
  • Services are generally portable, and special education is delivered to the student to enable access to FAPE within the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate.
  • Federal law protects a student’s right to FAPE within the LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not for convenience of resource allocation.
  • The TIES Center at the University of Minnesota partnered with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington to build a resource to support families and schools in writing IEPs that support students within general education classrooms: Comprehensive Inclusive Education: General Education and the Inclusive IEP.

Full Article

An ill-informed conversation about special education might go something like this:

  • Is your child in special education?
  • Yes.
  • Oh, so your student goes to school in that special classroom, by the office…in the portable…at the end of the hall…in a segregated room?

This conversation includes errors in understanding about what special education is, how it is delivered, and a student’s right to be included with general education peers whenever and wherever possible.

This article intends to clear up confusion. An important concept to understand is in the headline:

Special Education is a service, not a place!

Services are portable, so special education is delivered to the student in the placement that works for the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), in light of the child’s circumstances. A student with a disability has the right to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

General education is the Least Restrictive Environment. An alternative placement is discussed by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team if access to FAPE is not working for the student in a general education setting with supplementary aids and supports.

Here is some vocabulary to further understanding:

  • FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. The entitlement of a student who is eligible for special education services.
  • IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The entitlement to FAPE is protected by this law that allocates federal funds to support eligible students.
  • LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. A student eligible for special education services has a right to FAPE in the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate. General education is the least restrictive, and an alternative placement is discussed when data indicate that supplementary aids and supports are not working to enable access to FAPE in general education.
  • IEP: Individualized Education Program. School staff and family caregivers make up an IEP team. The team is responsible to develop a program reasonably calculated to enable a student to make progress appropriate toward IEP goals and on grade-level curriculum, in light of the child’s circumstances. Based on a student’s strengths and needs (discovered through evaluation, observation, and review of data), the team collaborates to decide what services enable FAPE and how to deliver those services. Where services are delivered is the last part of the IEP process, and decisions are made by all team members, unless family caregivers choose to excuse some participants or waive the right to a full team process.
  • Equity: When access is achieved with supports so that a person with a disability has a more level or fair opportunity to benefit from the building, service, or program. For example, a student in a wheelchair can access a school with stairs if there is also a ramp. A person with a behavioral health condition might need a unique type of “ramp” to access equitable learning opportunities within general education.
  • Inclusion: When people of all abilities experience an opportunity together, and individuals with disabilities have supports they need to be contributing participants and to receive equal benefit. Although IDEA does not explicitly demand inclusion, the requirement for FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment is how inclusion is built into special education process.
  • Placement: Where a student learns. Because the IDEA requires LRE, an IEP team considers equity and inclusion in discussions about where a student receives education. General education placement is the Least Restrictive Environment. An IEP team considers ways to offer supplementary aids and supports to enable access to LRE. If interventions fail to enable access to FAPE, the IEP team considers a continuum of placement alternatives—special education classrooms, alternative schools, home-bound instruction, day treatment, residential placement, or an alternative that is uniquely designed. 
  • Supplementary Aids and Supports: The help and productivity enhancers a student needs. Under the IDEA, a student’s unique program and services are intended to enable access to FAPE within LRE. Note that an aid or a support—a service that enables access—is not a place and therefore cannot be considered as an aspect of a restrictive placement. Having a 1:1 to support a student, for example, does not violate LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint in Washington State. 

Note that the IDEA protects a student’s right to FAPE within LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not in light of the most convenient way to organize school district resources. Placement is individualized to support a student’s strengths and abilities as well as the needs that are based in disability.

Tip: Families can remind the IEP team to Presume Competence and to boost a student from that position of faith. If the team presumes that a student can be competent in general education, how does it impact the team’s conversation about access to FAPE and placement?

LRE does not mean students with disabilities are on their own

To deliver FAPE, a school district provides lessons uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and struggles (Specially Designed Instruction/SDI). In addition, the IEP team is responsible to design individualized accommodations and modifications.

  • Accommodations: Productivity enhancers. Examples: adjusted time to complete a task, assistive technology, a different mode for tracking an assignment or schedule, accessible reading materials with text-to-speech or videos embedded with sign language…
  • Modifications: Changes to a requirement. Examples: an alternative test, fewer problems on a worksheet, credit for a video presentation or vision board instead of a term paper.

Note that accommodations and modifications are not “special favors.” Utilizing these is an exercise of disability rights that are protected by the IDEA and civil rights/anti-discrimination laws that include the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (particularly Section 504 as it relates to school) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA—particularly Title II).

Related Services may support LRE and other aspects of equitable access

An IEP may include related services (occupational therapy, speech, nursing, behavioral health support, parent training, etc.). For some students, related services may be part of the support structure to enable inclusion in the Least Restrictive Environment. If an IEP includes related services, then the IEP team discusses how and where they are delivered.

A tool to support inclusion

The TIES Center at the University of Minnesota partnered with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington to build a resource to support families and schools in writing IEPs that support students within general education classrooms: Comprehensive Inclusive Education: General Education and the Inclusive IEP.

The resource includes a variety of tools and recommendations for how school and family teams can approach their meetings and conversations to support the creation and provision of a program that recognizes:

  • Each child is a general education student. 
  • The general education curriculum and routines and the Individual Education Program (IEP) comprise a student’s full educational program.
  • the IEP for a student qualifying for special education services is not the student’s curriculum.

Keep in mind that IEP teams are required to include staff from general education and special education (WAC 392-172A-03095). All team members are required for formal meetings unless the family signs consent for those absences. Here’s a key statement from the TIES Center resource:

“The IEP is intended to support a student’s progress in general education curriculum and routines, as well as other essential skills that support a student’s independence or interdependence across school, home, and other community environments.  A comprehensive inclusive education program based upon these principles is important because without that focus, a student’s learning opportunities and school and post-school outcomes are diminished. In order to create an effective comprehensive inclusive education program, collaboration between general educators, special educators, and families is needed.”

Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More

Getting the right help for students with disabilities is made easier when families learn key vocabulary and understand how to use it. PAVE provides videos to support learning about student rights and how to work with the school to get individualized support.

The first video provides a visual to help—a pyramid of student rights. Learn how students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are protected by the full pyramid of rights, while students eligible for a Section 504 Plan also have civil rights that protect them at school. Learn the key terms from these rights: access, equity, and FAPE, and how to use those words to help a student get their needs met.

Our pyramid of rights provides a starting place for our second video, which shares more detail about the rights of students under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Key to protecting those rights is the accommodations, modifications, and supports that enable a student with a disability to access what typically developing students can access without support. Click on the video to learn more about what the right to equity means.

Our third video provides more detail about the rights of a student with an IEP. A three-step process is provided to help family caregivers make sure a student’s IEP goals are supporting the right help in the right way. Learn about Present Levels of Performance (PLOP), Specially Designed Instruction (SDI), and SMART goals to become a well-trained partner in the IEP team process.

We’d love to know whether these trainings are helpful. Please share your feedback by completing a short survey.

COVID-19 and Disability: Access to Work has Changed

By Kyann Flint

The world of work is generally not built for the disability community. Federal laws guarantee the right to work and the right to accommodations, but modern-day jobs do not always give each person an opportunity to succeed. Many workers with disabilities must try harder to make the job fit, and some employers see accommodations as extra expenses or special rather than an investment for equal opportunity.

I have experienced this firsthand. My first employer told me that because of my legal blindness, he did not know what he would have me do. No empathy. No innovation. No Universal Design.

Universal Design is a plan for buildings, products, or environments that are accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability, or other factors. Universal Design accommodates everyone, reducing the need for anyone to need or request accommodations. My own opportunity to build a career was boosted by having a boss who is also disabled at an agency that incorporates Universal Design into our everyday work.

COVID-19 has reshaped many jobs and created opportunities for employers to see how Universal Design can benefit everyone. For example, the disability community has long advocated for work-from-home. Until organizations were driven by the need to keep everyone safe, the request for this accommodation did not seem like a good choice for many employers. Many now see the benefit of a work-from-home option.  

Because I cannot drive, working from home benefited me before the home office became common during COVID-19. My colleagues and I were already comfortable with Zoom and knew how to help our community adapt to using that online meeting platform and other tools to support the need for almost everyone to work from home.

Clearly, working from home is not just a disability accommodation but also provides access to jobs for more people. This change represents a benefit of Universal Design.

Curb cuts are another example of Universal Design. Curb cuts are built with wheelchair accessibility in mind, but they benefit everyone, making it easier for parents with strollers, people with leg injuries and anyone who might trip or fall because of a misstep over a curb. Ramps, elevators, and accessible websites are other examples of innovations that support everyone.

Better access for everyone means fewer people need to ask for accommodations. People with disabilities feel included. In a world built with Universal Design, disability is not a problem. When society gives people with disabilities access to work, we are all better off.

A lesson learned during COVID-19 is that accessibility is an investment, not an expense. Universal Design an everyday thing that creates equity and inclusion for all.

About the author: Kyann Flint, Director of Accessibility for Wandke Consulting, is a passionate advocate for the disability community. As a person with a disability, she strives to educate society on how social barriers, like ignorance and stereotypes, limit the disability community. Kyann loves coffee and travel.

Placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) Encourages Inclusion

A Brief Overview

  • LRE has been an aspect of special education law since 1975, when there was widespread public concern about children with disabilities historically being segregated and denied equitable education.
  • Research shows that children of all abilities learn social skills from one another when they learn side-by-side.
  • Some Washington schools struggle to support access to general education programs and settings for students with disabilities. In 2019, only 56 percent of students with disabilities are included in general education settings for 80-100 percent of the school day.
  • Under federal law, a student is placed in a more restrictive setting when the IEP team agrees that the student needs a different placement for education to be appropriately accessible.
  • Help from a paraeducator might be part of the support services that enable a student to access learning in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Note that a paraeducator is a service, not a placement. Having a 1:1 to help in the classroom does not violate LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint. Read on for more detail.

Full Article

Some other articles that might be of interest: 

Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request

Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

Schools are responsible to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities. One of the defining principles of special education law is that students with disabilities have access to general education, with nondisabled peers, to the maximum extent possible. That requirement is called Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

LRE is a key feature of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and has been part of disability rights for students since 1975. PAVE has articles about special education history and key principles of the IDEA. The LRE requirements are a response to widespread public concern about children with disabilities historically being segregated in institutions, separated from peers and removed from neighborhood schools.

A student qualifies for the protections of the IDEA and special education services when a disabling condition severely impacts access to learning and specially designed instruction is needed. An eligible student is entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

The IEP includes specially designed instruction and goal monitoring, supplementary aids and services, accommodations and intentionally chosen spaces to meet the student’s needs. Those thoughtfully chosen spaces are a student’s “placement.” A decision about placement is made after programming decisions are made by the IEP team.

Parents can learn this terminology to help in their advocacy. Here’s a statement that incorporates key terms: Placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is part of a school district’s responsibility when providing a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for a student who receives special education services.

General Education is the first LRE option

The general education setting is the first LRE placement option, and how placement is designed is unique to a student’s individualized needs. Research demonstrates that students with disabilities perform better academically and learn social skills when they have access to the general education setting with proper support.

According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which provides guidance to schools in Washington State, “The body of research consistently supports the positive link between access to core instruction in general education settings and improved outcomes for students with disabilities.

“Inclusion is the belief and practice that all students have the right to meaningfully access academic and social opportunities in general education settings.” 

Still, some Washington schools struggle to provide meaningful access to general education programs and settings. In 2019, the state reports that only 56 percent of students with disabilities are included in general education settings for 80-100 percent of the school day.

The 2019 Washington Legislature passed House Bill 1109 to provide $25 million in 2020-21 to  implement professional development in support of inclusionary practices, with an emphasis on coaching and mentoring. Information about the Inclusionary Practices Professional Development Project is available on OSPI’s website.

What the law says

The IDEA states that schools are required to provide FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) “to the maximum extent appropriate.” Each state is required to implement the IDEA. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a website that shares language directly from the federal law. According to Sec. 300.114:

 “Each public agency must ensure that—

  • “To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled; and
  • “Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

LRE decisions follow a 4-part process

OSPI’s website includes information directed toward parents: “Placement decisions are made by your student’s IEP team after the IEP has been developed. The term “placement” in special education does not necessarily mean the precise physical building or location where your student will be educated. Rather, your student’s “placement” refers to the range or continuum of educational settings available in the district to implement her/his IEP and the overall amount of time s/he will spend in the general education setting.”

Selection of an appropriate placement includes 4 considerations:

  1. IEP content (specialized instruction, goals, services, accommodations…)
  2. LRE requirements (least restrictive “to the maximum extent appropriate”)
  3. The likelihood that the placement option provides a reasonably high probability of helping a student attain goals
  4. Consideration of any potentially harmful effects the placement option might have on the student or the quality of services delivered

What if placement in general education isn’t working?

If a student is unable to access learning in an appropriate way (FAPE) because of the nature or severity of the disability, then the IEP team considers alternative placement options. It’s important to note that a student is placed in a more restrictive setting because the student needs a different location within the school, not because it’s more convenient for adults or because it saves the school district money.

According to IDEA, Sec. 300.114, “A State must not use a funding mechanism by which the State distributes funds on the basis of the type of setting in which a child is served that will result in the failure to provide a child with a disability FAPE according to the unique needs of the child, as described in the child’s IEP.”

Placement options are vast

IEP teams consider a wide range of placement options. They may discuss whether there’s a need for a small classroom setting, for example, or home-based instruction. For a child with a behavioral health condition, the team may discuss whether a “day treatment” school staffed with specialists in behavior management might provide the best access to FAPE.

The continuum of placement options includes, but is not limited to:

  • general education classes
  • general education classes with support services and/or modifications
  • a combination of general education and special education classes
  • self-contained special education classes
  • placements outside of a school district
  • home instruction
  • residential care or treatment facilities

School districts are not required to have a continuum available in every school building. A school district, for example, might have a self-contained setting or preschool services in some but not all locations. This gives districts some discretion for choosing a location to serve the placement chosen by an IEP team.

Placement and location are different

Note that the IEP team determines the placement, but the school district has discretion to choose a location to serve the IEP.

For example, an IEP team could determine that a student needs a day treatment/behavioral health-focused school in order to access FAPE—an appropriate education. If the IEP team chooses a Day Treatment placement, then the school district is responsible to find a location to provide that placement. Following this process, a public-school district might pay for transportation and tuition to send a student to a private or out-of-district facility. If a request for a specialized placement is initiated by the family, there are other considerations.

OSPI’s website includes this information:

“… if you are requesting that your student be placed in a private school or residential facility because you believe the district is unable to provide FAPE, then you must make that request through a due process hearing.”

Note: Due Process is part of the “procedural safeguards” available to family participants on the IEP team. PAVE has an article and a webinar about options when family members disagree with the school.

1:1 is a service, not a placement

The IDEA specifies that a more restrictive placement relies on data showing that “the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

Supplementary aids and services can include a wide variety of supports. The student might use assistive technology, for example, or teachers could craft unique ways to present the curriculum. The student may get individualized help from an adult.

The LRE requirement means that schools document efforts to enable a student to access general education, however that might be possible. General education access includes classrooms, programs like PE and art, extracurricular activities, recess…. IEP team members can get creative about how to help the student succeed. Some students design their own clever accommodations. Family members and outside therapists or behavioral specialists also contribute ideas.

A common conflict with families and schools is whether a 1:1 paraeducator might enable access to FAPE in general education. Some parents and schools may have conversations about whether a helper might “restrict” a student’s ability to develop independence. Sometimes those conversations lead to misunderstanding about LRE. A 2017 case in Washington addressed the topic and clarified that a 1:1 is a service, not a placement.

In response to a Citizen Complaint filed by parents in the Lake Washington School District, OSPI issued a public report,  with a finding in favor of the family. The parents wanted their child to get help from a 1:1 aide and disagreed with the school that it would “restrict” the student. According to OSPI’s report, parents had requested a 1:1 aide because they wanted the school to provide more support in order to increase the student’s time in general education. School staff on the IEP team said no to the request, citing a belief that a 1:1 aide “is the most restrictive level of service…”

OSPI rejected that argument, stating:

“The District is incorrect in its belief that 1:1 paraeducator support is the most restrictive environment for all students. Paraeducator support is a supplementary aid and service, not a placement option on the continuum of alternative placements….

“Based on the documentation in this complaint, the District did not base its decision to deny the Parent’s request for 1:1 aide support on the Student’s individualized needs. The District erred in failing to properly consider if the Student could participate in a general education setting with the provision of 1:1 aide support.”

LRE does not mean students are on their own

The conversation about what creates “restriction” is complex, and sometimes school staff bring up the concept of “learned helplessness” if they believe that children learn better with less instead of more support. Each conversation and circumstance is unique, but parents can research the topic of learned helplessness to understand various ways that data are interpreted to generate opinions.

Generally, when someone receives help–including education provided by a teacher or a teacher’s aide–that person learns how to do something and eventually models what is taught, with mastery over time. Revoking help before a person is ready to do something independently may create a help”less” situation. A person who cannot perform a task with success and doesn’t get the needed help to get better at the skill may over time give up and become helpless. Some articles on the subject relate to individuals who have been unable to cope or problem-solve independently and therefore “learn” to be helpless.

Parents talking with the school about LRE and appropriate support can do their best to provide accurate and comprehensive information about a student’s unique disability condition and what is needed to meet the student where he/she is ready to learn.

Following are a few additional resources:

An agency called Teaching Exceptional Children Plus features an article by a parent about the value of inclusion in general education. The January 2009 article by Beth L. Sweden is available for download online: Signs of an Inclusive School: A Parent’s Perspective on the Meaning and Value of Authentic Inclusion.

Understood.org offers an article and a video about the benefits of inclusion.

An agency that promotes best-practice strategies for school staff implementing inclusive educational programming is the IRIS Center, a part of Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Some other articles that might be of interest: 

Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request

Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

Inclusion Vs. Self-Contained Opportunities for Students in School

Debate continues even today on whether students should be educated in inclusive programs or self-contained programs.

When looking at the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law never uses the word “inclusion,” instead the law refers to “Least Restrictive Environment” or LRE.

For some students LRE cannot be achieved in a fully “inclusive” classroom. There are a number of reasons based on the individual needs of the child.  For instance, in a fully inclusive classroom the level of stimulation may be too high, the classroom size may limit the student’s ability to gain the knowledge they need or there are language barriers.  If a student is deaf and uses sign language, for example, the inclusive class may not have the ability to allow the student to “communicate with their peers in their language or mode of communication.”* However, opportunities for people with disabilities to be educated with their non-disabled peers to the greatest extent “appropriate” for the student with the disability is an essential part of the law. There is the expectation that the student with disabilities is a general education student first. Therefore, removal from the general education environment should only occur when it is determined that even with appropriate aids and services the student will not benefit.

So how is all of this decided and is there a blanket process? The answer is no. Each child’s program and services must be decided on an individual basis. The decision is not “one size fits all’ nor is it a decision that is only made once and then continued for the rest of the student’s educational career. The IEP (Individualized Education Program) Team must consider the student’s placement each year as they review the IEP and develop the new goals. Only after the goals have been created should placement be discussed. Placement does not drive services, but services drive placement options. This means that the parent needs to be a large part of the team discussions and, as appropriate, so should the student. The IEP team should consider the many factors that can have an impact on the quality of the education the student will receive.

To address these different factors the IEP team may wish to consider the following questions:

If the student is going to be in an inclusive class setting:

  • Is the learning environment able to support the child’s academic needs? For some students, the need for more specialized instruction may make learning in the inclusive environment more difficult unless supports are put in place to assist in that instruction.
  • Can the child sustain attention among the 25 to 30 students in the classroom? Classes can be large, especially as students get older, and such increases in student count can cause some students to become anxious or to lose the ability to stay focused. The need for accommodations, such as sitting at the front of the classroom or wearing earplugs, may be needed to support the student.
  • What are some of the unwritten “social skills” that a student is expected to follow and how will the learning of social cues be provided? Social skills are an area that has long been challenging for some people with disabilities. If they have not had the opportunity to learn the social cues they are at a disadvantage that can cause difficulties in learning. Some have the opinion that social cues and social skills need to be a part of the learning environment, not just for students with disabilities, but for all the students.
  • What opportunities will be made possible for the child to display their newly learned skills in different settings or with different people? Studies show that until a skill can be demonstrated in more than one setting, it is not truly learned. Therefore, when considering the inclusive environment, opportunities to demonstrate new skills should be available in different settings.
  • How will the team know if the child is gaining the needed skills outlined in the IEP? Measurable goals require the ability to show data and track progress. When considering goals in an inclusive setting the data collection should not be overlooked. The goals need to be well defined and the tracking needs to be done on a consistent basis using measurements that are understood by all.

If the team is considering a self-contained environment they may wish to consider the following questions:

  • Is the learning environment able to support the child’s academic needs?Research has shown that students who are educated in separate settings from those of their peers without disabilities, have greater learning gaps as they get older. The expectation for learning can be decreased because the student is not challenged at the same level that their peers in the general education setting might be. So, it is important to consider whether the child is being appropriately challenged academically. The team may want to look at the learning objectives for all students of that age or grade and then consider how they can adapt or address those learning objectives in a manner that will support the student.
  • Is the teacher able to address the varied needs of the all the students in the classroom? Many times, a self-contained setting will have students with a wide-range of ages and learning needs. While in an inclusive classroom students will have varied learning styles and skills, the expectation is that the students will all receive instruction in a universal manner that addresses those different learning styles. In the self-contained setting there is still the need for the learning strategies to be universal in their design to provide the greatest opportunity for the student to gain the expected skill.
  • Is there ample opportunity for the student to practice the new skills they have learned? Just as in the inclusive setting, students need the opportunity to test their knowledge and skills with different people and in different environments. If the self-contained setting does not provide for opportunities to test these new skills, it may limit the child’s learning.

The options are there for parents to consider. The questions and how they are answered may help determine the approach that is used to support the student. Remember, that while students with disabilities are to be considered general education students first, it doesn’t mean that the need to look at the full range of placement options shouldn’t occur. The decisions will be made by the team with the expectation that all decisions are based on what is appropriate for that student at that time.

Websites used for this article:

Inclusion vs. Self- Contained Education for Children with ASD Diagnoses

Mainstreaming and Inclusion Vs. Self Contained Classrooms: https://prezi.com/4-eoazdwxtey/mainstreaming-and-inclusion-vs-self-contained-classrooms-for-special-needs-education/

Wisconsin Education Association Council: http://weac.org/articles/specialedinc/

IDEA – http://idea.ed.gov/explore/view

 

A Sibling Perspective

When I was younger I never noticed anything wrong with my brother.

Sure, he was very hyper at times and I do remember taking him to speech therapy with my mom but nothing crossed my mind. I never realized my brother was different. One day at school, I was about 9 and my brother was 12, we were waiting in line outside of the lunchroom to go inside and eat breakfast. Nothing seemed wrong or out of the ordinary, until a group of kids in my brother’s grade walked over to us. They all surrounded us. Suddenly, they looked at my brother and the leader of the pack suddenly called him a “creep”. The group around us laughed. The same boy then started to call my brother other crude names. My brother looked puzzled and just kept saying “stop” but no one listened.

I then had enough of this name calling game. I stepped in front of my brother and said, “Stop calling him those names. He is not what any of you say at all. Leave my brother alone.” After I said that I wished I hadn’t, but somehow, I knew what I was saying was right. Who am I? I was just a 9-year-old little girl. I had no knowledge of people with disabilities at all. I didn’t even know what “creep” or any of those other words meant, I just had that gut feeling in my heart that something wasn’t right and I knew I had to stick up for my brother at that very moment.

My brother picks on me like a normal brother is supposed to do, and sometimes he takes it way too far. Occasionally I do reply, not very nicely, but after I say something back I feel bad. I promise myself I will try harder next time to remember that yes, he does seem ok at times but he still has autism. I love my brother. I wouldn’t ask for any other sibling in my life. He has helped me and supported me at times too. He always knows when something is wrong and he always asks if I am ok.

So, what’s my perspective on having a sibling with a disability? Well, it’s not very simple you see, sometimes I do wish he was normal and understood everything correctly, but then again, I don’t. Having a brother with autism has taught me many things. No one is perfect, normal is fiction, don’t ever underestimate someone’s abilities, be a leader not a follower, learn from mistakes, and the most gifted are the least expected. My brother is actually a very talented person. I like to think of him as a sculptor. I remember when he was little he would make little men with weapons and tanks out of silly putty, gum wrappers, and Nerds boxes. Every once in a while, I still give him my extra Nerds boxes or gum wrappers because I know he really likes making new little men. He’s also very good at voice impressions; he makes me laugh every time he does one.

My brother makes me laugh in general.  Yes, it is hard to explain to everyone how my life with a sibling with a disability is but let me tell you something, he is one of those people that you could not forget. My brother is not normal but neither am I. I am not afraid anymore of being me, and yes, I am a very weird person but hey, at least I am me and so is my brother. I look up to my brother because he’s not afraid of being himself.