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The Dr.'s view: An Advocate of Students with Disabilities

Yesterday, I had an amazing opportunity to hear Dr. Temple Grandin speak at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

My husband called me and suggested I go to hear Dr. Grandin speak and felt I would enjoy it. Although, I had seen Dr. Grandin’s story on Netflix, this event was at night, and would surely have a large crowd of people to boot.

I am not a night person. And I hate large crowds of people, but for the sake of appeasing my husband I went to the event. When I arrived, just as I suspected, there were lots of anxious people hurrying to see Dr. Grandin. I was placed in a holding area to wait and see if there was any room.

I thought to myself, “Why am I here instead of in my sweat pants at home?” I almost turned around and walked out until they said we could go into the theater.

While we waited, a young woman raved about how Dr. Grandin inspired her. This young woman is a person with autism who was provided opportunities because of her self-determination and the support around her.

She was accepted into the University of Florida’s Veterinary Medicine. I knew about how hard it was to be accepted into veterinary medicine and the limited amount of schools that offer it in the U.S. How amazing!

When Dr. Grandin began speaking I was entranced by her no-nonsense approach. She spoke about thinking in pictures and bottom to top thinking. It was like we were on the same wave link concerning students with disabilities.

I get tired of people focusing on a person’s disability and not on the talents, gifts, skills, and the potential of this individual. Dr. Grandin likes that she has a logical way of thinking because of her autism. There are many unique traits to autism that can make someone very successful in this world. Even more importantly, this individual with their unique way of seeing the world could potentially create a far more efficient process to doing business, invent something amazing, like a new way to communicate, travel, etc.

Dr. Grandin spoke about providing more opportunities for students to have hands-on-activities. My research and others have shown providing students with more opportunities increases their success rate academically, behaviorally, emotionally and socially.

One of the key factors is helping students to understand themselves better. For example, what are my strengths and challenges? What do I like to do? What am I good at? How do I learn best?

As educators and parents, we must ask these questions not just between ourselves but to guide the student in answering these questions for him/herself.

We must stop overprotecting our children and start preparing them for the world.

Nobody cares, if we have disabilities when we’re out of school.

I don’t say this to be heartless or mean. My husband and I are dedicating our lives to advocating for students with disabilities and have founded Cornerstone Special Education Advocacy, a non-profit organization in Jacksonville, FL.

I just want to stress that we must provide more opportunities for students with disabilities to be successful.

How do we do this you ask?

By beginning early in a student’s life to identity their passions and strengths.

As Dr. Grandin said, “When their obsessing; expand their obsessions.” Stop looking at everything as a negativity or something that needs to be fixed.

I’m not saying we don’t work on socially inappropriate mannerisms or teach areas of weakness. However, I am saying use their strengths, talents, and their way of thinking/learning to teach them new concepts.

As an advocate, one of the worst things I see is educators continually using the same strategies/interventions year-after-year with a student and expecting different results.

This is insanity!

Parents, I know you may not have signed-up to be an expert on your child’s disability or to become an educator. Nevertheless, you are the only consistent person in your son or daughter’s life.

Teachers change typically every year and most only read the current individual education plan (IEP) and nothing else. You are the expert on your child and you’re the one who is the most vested. Start thinking what does my child do well that could become a potential career/job?

You may be saying my child is only in elementary school. However, now is the time to start identifying your child’s uniqueness and abilities. You can help your child and their teachers discover your child’s true potential.

Don’t hyper-focus on all the areas that need improvement. Start observing all the positive qualities your child has, their strengths, abilities, and potential careers that could use those wonderful talents/assets.

Start finding opportunities to allow your child to discover, use, and expand those interests and talents so they can taste success and build competence in themselves.

Dr. Grandin and many other persons with disabilities have demonstrated that a person’s disabilities don’t have to impact their chances of success!

Angel S. Wildes, Ph.D. holds her doctorate in Special Education. Dr. Wildes is the Founder and Director of Advocacy at Cornerstone Special Education Advocacy in Jacksonville, FL. Dr. Wildes works with families to advocate for an appropriate education and opportunities for success for their students with disabilities.

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