Sunday, February 27, 2005

In honor of U.S. Presidents' Day (slightly belated)--my "George Washington chopped down the cherry tree" approach to Jewish tradition

(This was supposed to have been posted last Monday, Presidents' Day, but I was a bit busy with my recent series at the time.)

Every American knows the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree. According to the story, a young George chopped down a cherry tree, but, when confronted with his naughty deed, he 'fessed up (confessed), saying, "I cannot tell a lie."

In my opinion, it's not important whether this event actually took place. What's important is that Americans can learn from this story and teach it to our children. What's important is not that the story is true, but, for Americans, that it's ours.

I approach Judaism the same way. What's important is that we can learn from Jewish tradition and teach it to our children. What's important about Jewish tradition is that it's ours.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

On raising a child with disabilities, part 8: A problem with special education—in which I break a taboo & discuss the economies of scale

In the bad old days, parents had only three options for educating their children with disabilities: Either they paid for the education themselves (which is still done by those fortunate enough to have the financial means), they depended on charitable organizations such as United Cerebral Palsy, Easter Seals, etc., or they sent their child to a state school. In many cases, children whose parents couldn’t afford to travel didn’t see their parents for months at a time.

Then the U.S. federal (national) government passed a law requiring not only that a free and appropriate education be provided to every child, but, also, that that education be provided close enough to each child’s residence that s/he could live at home.

The good news was that no longer would a child of six be torn away from his or her family and sent to live in a far-away residential school until s/he graduated from high school. Finally, a child with disabilities could be raised within the family.

What nobody talks about is the bad news. In the days when most children with disabilities were sent to state schools, one school, (or, in the case of states with high populations, a small group of schools) obtained all the teachers, assistant teachers, aides, special equipment, assistive devices, etc., needed to educate just about every child with that particular disability in that state. (An example of an assistive device is an FM unit, which consists of a microphone worn by the speaker [in educational settings, usually the teacher] and a transceiver that transmits the words coming from the microphone directly into the wearer’s hearing aid, thereby radically reducing background noise and making speech easier to understand. I think this also works with cochlear implants.) Now, as a result of the current law, just about every school district in every state has to do the same thing. So, instead of blind or deaf kids with no additional disabilities being taught in classes of, say, 15 children, a similar class in a low-population area might have, say, 8 kids, yet that class would still need a teacher and possibly an assistant, an aide, equipment, assistive devices, etc.

So, the first dirty little secret of the current special education system is that it may cost far more to educate children locally than to “warehouse” them.

The IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is what’s called an “unfunded mandate,” that is, a law passed by one branch of government (in this case, the “feds”) that requires another branch of government (in this case, the state governments) to provide services for which the mandating branch of government provides absolutely no financial support. The state governments passed the buck (delegated the responsibility) for this special education mandate to the local governments. Therefore, local school districts, funded by local governments, bear almost the entire financial burden of educating children with disabilities, with some reluctant help from equally-unfunded state governments.

So, the second dirty little secret of the current special education system is that, given the fact that special education receives no financial support from the federal government, how could the funding of special education possibly not cut into the funding available for mainstream education?

Both of these "dirty little secrets" explain why local school districts are so desperate to mainstream as many children with disabilities as possible, and to provide the minimum education required by law to children who can’t be mainstreamed.

You can either educate children with disabilities in or near their home districts, thereby keeping them with their families, or, given the fact that special education is an unfunded mandate, you can “warehouse” them in state schools and, thereby, possibly achieve economies of scale that might enable them to receive a better education without their parents having to put up such a fight. But, in my opinion, it’s almost impossible to do both.

If anyone knows of a solution to this problem, please share it.

Here's a later thought: It's possible that the costs of housing and feeding all those children in centralized residential schools might offset the costs of decentralizing special education. If that's the case, then I've just shot myself in the foot, big-time. What's your opinion?

On the third hand (you should pardon the expression), perhaps the real problem is that education is considered the responsibility of the states, yet the protection of children (and adults) with disabilities (see also the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, among other laws) is considered the responsibility of the federal government. Hence, the federal government mandates many services for which it does not pay. Would the education system in the United States be better funded if it were nationalized? And would it be worth giving up local control in exchange for federal funding?

And you thought that the only school-funding issue worth discussing was the question of whether it's appropriate and/or constitutional for local governments to subsidize religious schools!


On raising a child with disabilities, part 7: A problem with special education—concerning an “appropriate" education

The United States federal (national) government legislation known as IDEA—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—mandates that every child in the United States receive a free and appropriate education. It does not require school districts to provide the best possible education, one that is most likely to enable a child to reach his or her maximum potential.

Unfortunately, that’s left to the parents.

After serious reconsideration, I can understand Z’s point concerning labeling. (See her own excellent Jan. 20, 2005 series on raising a child with disabilities, "When Something's Wrong," at .) In some cases, labeling a child may be the only way to get him or her the help that s/he needs. In other cases, however, it might be better just to have the special education system deal with the child’s symptoms, because the school district might use a specific label to give it an excuse to provide the minimum required by law, rather than providing all the help that the child actually needs.

In other words, to rework an old saying, eternal vigilance is the price of parenthood.


On raising a child with disabilities, part 6: A problem with special education—concerning the concept of the “least restrictive environment”

Let me start with a definition: The term “mainstreaming,” also know as “inclusion,” refers to the integration of children with disabilities into classes intended for children without disabilities.

First, here’s the good news: Mainstreaming, or inclusion, is much more widely accepted now than it was 30 years ago.

Now, here’s the bad news: Mainstreaming, or inclusion, is much more widely accepted now than it was 30 years ago.

The United States federal (national) government legislation known as IDEA—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—mandates that every child in the United States receive a free education in "the least restrictive environment." The problem with the term “least restrictive environment” is that many people consider it a synonym for mainstreaming. That’s not necessarily the case. Some children with disabilities thrive in the mainstream. Some, like Z’s son, benefit most from a combination of mainstreaming/inclusion and special education. Others, like our son, do best in an exlusively special education environment.

When I was studying American Sign Language roughly two decades ago, one of the major concerns of the American Deaf Community (roughly defined as those deaf people whose primary form of non-written communication is American Sign Language) was that mainstreamed deaf children were very isolated socially. Horror stories were told of mainstreamed deaf kids who had literally never met another deaf person in their lives and/or who’d never met a deaf adult and, therefore, had no deaf role model. The deaf author of one memoir of growing up mainstreamed envied his older sister not because she was hearing, but because she had a social life.

So which environment is more restrictive for a deaf child, a mainstream class or a class for the deaf? Even in this case, one answer may not be correct for every child.


Sunday, February 20, 2005

On raising a child with disabilities, part 5: Deaf and *dumb*?!!!—concerning hearing loss of various degrees

Lo t’kalel cheresh (Do not mock the deaf . . . )“ (Parshat Kedoshim, Leviticus chapter 19, verse 14)

When our son was first being tested for disabilities, the people at the hospital tested his intelligence before they tested his hearing. We were told that he was borderline retarded.

Two years and two hearing aids later, our son’s intelligence was suddenly borderline superior, a jump of roughly 25 points.

So who’s “dumb” here?

. . .v’lifnei iver lo titen michshol (and in front of a blind person do not put a stumbling block) . . . (Parshat Kedoshim, Leviticus chapter 19, verse 14)

On a related subject, the daughter of one of my best friends was also nearly diagnosed mentally retarded until one of her more intelligent doctors suggested that perhaps she needed to have her vision checked.

I’ve happy to report that one of these two children is now a fine arts major and the other is now a physics major.

How can any health professional be dumb enough to test a child’s intelligence without knowing whether or not the child’s hearing and vision are normal, given that just about every intelligence test is designed on the assumption that the person taking the test can hear and see normally? If you can’t hear the question properly, how can you answer it? If you can’t read the question or see the object about which you’re being questioned, how can you answer correctly?

Returning to the subject of hearing loss, it’s time for a clarification: The functional definition of deafness is the inability to hear well enough to understand speech. Just because a deaf person jumps when you clang a pair of cymbals behind his head doesn’t mean that he’s not deaf.

And let me continue with some words of advice:
1. Parents of newborns can now have their child’s hearing tested shortly after birth. Do it! If there’s a problem, the sooner you begin to deal with it, the better.
2. Don’t think that you’re in the clear just because your kid’s hearing was tested at birth. Accidents, illness, and/or heredity can cause your child to develop a hearing loss at a later age. (We think our son became hard of hearing as a result of his first ear infection when he was less than a year old.)
3. Odd as this may sound (you should pardon the expression), parents of the deaf have one advantage over parents of the hard of hearing: Since deaf kids respond to almost nothing audible, including their names, they’re often diagnosed at a much younger age. Hard of hearing children often trick their parents into complacency because they respond to a great deal and often speak in a fashion that their parents can deceive themselves into thinking is just “delayed” or even “cute.” I’ve heard of hard of hearing children first being diagnosed at ages as late as 6 or 7. If ever you hear anything odd or unusual about your child’s speech, if their pronunciation is noticeably worse than that of many children their age, or if their pronunciation deteriorates after an illness or accident, run, do not walk, to an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) and an audiologist CCC (with a certificate of clinical competency) and have your child’s ear health checked and hearing tested as soon as possible!
4. Be aware that the communications challenges that children with hearing problems face can cause delays in your child’s develop of appropriate social skills, not to mention their academic skills. The sooner your child learns to communicate—by whatever means possible—the better.

This brings me to Pet Peeve Number One concerning hearing loss. Some people with mobility challenges use one cane. Some use 2 canes. Some use walkers. Some use crutches. Some use braces, with or without any other support device. Some use manually-operated wheelchairs. Some use electric wheelchairs. But nobody expects a person in a motorized wheelchair to suddenly get up and walk with a cane! So why do people think that every single deaf person on earth should be able to speak clearly and read lips fluently? Some can and some can’t. What’s the big deal? I have absolutely no patience with people who discriminate against those who use sign language. Language is not the same thing as speech. The ability to communicate is what’s important. It shouldn’t matter what method is used, as long as the goal is reached.

My Pet Peeve Number Two is that many people refuse to use hearing aids because they’re vain. Gimme a break! First of all, would anyone rather stay in bed for the rest of his/her life than use a wheelchair? Second, shouldn’t everyone care about communicating with their parents, spouse, kid(s) and grandkid(s), boyfriend or girlfriend, friends, co-workers? Shouldn’t everyone care how the people they love will feel when they can’t talk to you anymore?

My Pet Peeve Number Three is that almost no insurance plan pays for hearing aids. Nobody ever said that having a disability was cheap.

Update--Here are some links that might be helpful:

National Association of the Deaf,
(Thursday, April 28, 2011 update: National Association of the Deaf)

Self-Help for Hard of Hearing People SHHH,

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), "the professional, scientific, and credentialing association for more than 115,000 members and affiliates who are audiologists, speech-language pathologists, and speech, language, and hearing scientists,"


On raising a child with disabilites, part 4: Pragmatic Language Deficit—the literal inability to know what to say when

The kids in Hebrew School got annoyed with him because he talked down to them during break time as if he were the teacher—his language was far too formal.

He drove us nuts because he would pun when we were trying to have a serious discussion with him. With adults, his English was often far too informal.

He once bombed out of an elementary-school interview because he made a tasteless joke.

He routinely offended people unintentionally.

Our son couldn’t understand what style of language was appropriate under what circumstances.

And the most shocking part about it was that no one diagnosed this problem until he was almost 11, despite the fact that he has a mild-to-moderate hearing loss in both ears and had been seeing speech therapists since he was three years old.

Everyone knew that he wasn’t really emotionally disabled—they just couldn’t figure out what he was. That’s why he got the label—it was the only way to get him the help that he needed. And that’s why he kept the label, too, even after he’d been properly diagnosed—it was the only way to continue to get him the help that he needed. When we finally got him into a decent program, and his new school sent him home with a letter saying that he’d be taking a special class in pragmatic language skills, we practically cracked open a bottle of champagne in celebration—in all of his previous years in special ed., no one, other than the speech and language pathologist who finally diagnosed him, had ever even mentioned the term “pragmatic language skills,” much less actually done anything to improve them.

Was having our child labeled Emotionally Disabled for well over a decade rough on our egos? Yes.



On raising a child with disabilites, part 3: Oppositional Defiant Disorder—it’s not just for teenagers

We all expect just about every 16-year-old to be defiant and to think that their parents are stupid.

We don’t expect to see that same attitude and behavior in a child of half that age.

That’s why it was actually a relief to us when our kid hit adolescence. For the first time since he was about 6 or 7 years old, his behavior was actually age-appropriate. Everybody expects your child to be relatively easy to manage during the so-called “latency” years of early elementary school. How can you complain about behavior that noboby else’s kids are manifesting at that age without people thinking that you’re exagerrating or that it’s all in your head, or having your kid thought of as some kind of weirdo? So you just shut up and put up when in public, and deal with the problem through the school and the therapist(s).

“Rule 8: Oppositional Children Believe Themselves to be Equal to their Parents

. . . Although the nonoppositional child will debate with you about your decisions—even argue vigourously—the oppositional child will do as she pleases without explanation because she believes she is your equal.

. . . Oppositional children and teenagers consistently fail to respect how experience helps determine the roles different people are able to play. One fourteen-year-old I presently see tells me he is a better football player than Deion Sanders of the Dallas Cowboys. He sees himself as Sander’s equal without pausing to think that, although he is a talented athlete, he doesn’t have the experience necessary to occupy Sander’s role. Neither does he consider what he must do to gain that experience. His oppositionality allows him to think of himself as Sander’s equal . . . “

“. . . don’t make the mistake of thinking that this sense of equality comes only with teenagers. Although it becomes highly pronounced around age fifteen, it can easily be seen in much younger children. ‘Mother!’ I heard one nine-year-old recently shout at a soccer game, ‘You’re treating me like a child.’

‘That’s what I thought you were,’ her mother replied.”

My father always used to say, “’Ain’t’ ain’t in the dictionary.” He insisted that we speak proper English. We always rolled our eyes, but we always listened. My son, on the other hand, never listened—he always insisted that my English was old-fashioned. The result is that my English is better than his despite the fact that I was raised by a mother with a high school diploma and a father with a GED ([high school] graduate equivalency diploma) while my son was raised by a mother with a bacholor’s and a father with a master’s.

If you think your kid’s too young to have that kind of an attitude, or that your teenager’s defiance is a bit extreme, you might want to check out The Defiant Child: A Parent’s Guide to Oppositional Defiant Disorder, by Dr. Douglas A. Riley (1997: Taylor Publishing, Dallas, TX), from which I quoted above (see pages 15-18). It’s available at both Barnes and and


On raising a child with disabilites, part 2: Dyssemia, or “my son, the ‘space’ invader”

Have you ever been annoyed and/or embarrassed by someone who consistently talked or laughed too loudly? (That’d be me.)

Have you ever avoided someone because, despite having been raised in an environment in which the practices of bathing and using deodorant daily were common, the person just didn’t “get it,” and, well . . .

Have you ever known someone who consistently misunderstood your tone of voice, or misinterpreted your facial expression?

Have you ever known someone who made others uncomfortable by consistently standing too close? Meet my son, the “space” invader.

Welcome to the world of persons with dyssemia, defined as “a difficulty in using and understanding nonverbal signs and signals.”

I recommend that parents of children with social difficulites read Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In: Clinical Psychologists Stephen Nowicki, Jr., Ph.D, and Marshall P. Duke, Ph.D., Decipher the Hidden Dimensions of Social Rejection (1992: Peachtree Publishers, Ltd., , Atlanta, GA). It’s available at both Barnes and and

I used to tell my son that, if he continued to get right up in people’s faces and make nervous gestures with his hands, someone would “take his lights out” (punch him in the eye) because they would interpret this behavior as a threat. I’m happy to report that, whether this is one of the issues with with which his school helped him, or whether he just figured it out on his own, my son seems to have “gotten it.”


Park your ego at the door: On raising a child with disabilities

I confess that I’m beginning to find reading some of the posts by Z at depressing. Her tales of seeking help for her son with special needs remind me of the period when my husband and I were doing the same thing.

I remember all too well the first time we put a pair of behind-the-ear hearing aids on our son. All of a suddenly, my cute little boy had “elephant ears” sticking out. I was heartbroken. So I did the only reasonable thing: I said to myself, “Shut up and get used to it.” And I did.

Then there was the year we mainstreamed him. What a relief! Finally, no more labels. No more “Emotionally Disabled.” No more “Learning Disabled.” At last, we had a normal child. (Well, there wasn’t much we could do about the “Hearing Handicapped,” but that was the least of his problems, at that point.)

Our relief lasted only a few months. In the middle of the school year, I went to our son’s school counselor and told her that we wanted our son reclassified disabled and put back into a special education program the following September. She looked at me as if I were nuts. “But he's going to fall behind.” And I looked right back at her as if she were clueless. “What do you mean, ‘he’s going to fall behind’? He is behind!”

From the start of the following school year until our son graduated from high school, he was labeled Emotionally Disabled/Hearing Handicapped. And it was only because he was labeled emotionally disabled that we were finally able to get him into a program that came pretty close to meeting all his needs.

We’ve seen and heard of children who never got the help they needed because their parents were too proud to admit that their kids had a problem. It’s natural for every parent to want to claim parental bragging rights. But don’t let your ego get in the way of your child’s welfare. Every parent has a solemn obligation to help his or her child reach his or her maximum potential. If your kid needs help, it’s your responsibility to try to ensure that he or she receives it.

And if the only way to get that help is to put a label on your kid, do it.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

B’not Akiva: The Late-Bloomers Club

A few of us rebels have been running an egalitarian chavurah service at our shul (synagogue) several times a year. A chavurah service, for the uninitiated, refers to a service organized and run entirely by laypeople (the word “chavurah” meaning “friendship,” or, by extension, circle of friends), and is generally less formal than, say, a daily minyan at your friendly local Orthodox or Conservative synagogue led by a layperson. We got pretty laid back at our most recent service, stopping to discuss a psalm or two (how nice of HaShem to let us wander in the wilderness for forty years just because HaShem was honked off at us for being disobedient; the wicked flourish like weeds only to be cut down—HaShem as weed-whacker?—, while the righteous flourish like palm trees, sprouting kids in their old age), the second paragraph of the Sh’ma (the discussion leader asking whether we prayed out of gratitude or out of fear), and the Mourner’s Kaddish. The discussion leader, who’s roughly my age, reminded me very much of me, in that we’re both latecomers in terms of our earlier Jewish education (or lack thereof), but she’s roughly where I started about 25-30 years ago. Ouch. I wish her luck. I’m 25-30 years ahead of her, but I ain’t anywhere near being “there yet” (and won’t be until I can understand what they’re talking about at

Morning madness--on davvenning Shacharit, part 2, courtesy of Hasidic Rebel (by way of Mis-nagid)

Mis-nagid (, in his Saturday, February 05, 2005 post, "Seditionist Sighting," provided a link to the website of the famous Hasidic Rebel (, whom I've been hearing about since I start checking out blogs. Check out the Hasidic Rebel's own kvetch (complaint) concerning quality versus quantity in prayer--read his Monday, September 08, 2003 post, "Prayers and Mumbles."

July 2, 2009 update, now that I'm better at finding hyperlinks: "Prayers and Mumbles."
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