Articles from Live Free Learn Free
He Was Labeled
by Sharon Miller
In May of 1997, my husband Brian and
I traveled to Russia to bring home our first son. He was diagnosed with "developmental
delays," as are most children of orphanages, but was expected to "catch up"
quickly. We brought Harrison home and began our adjustment into parenting a sixteen
month old who had recently discovered how to run... everywhere. He was slow to grasp
language, and our pediatrician encouraged us to have him tested by a child
development specialist. We thought he needed more time to adjust to his new life,
which now encompassed physical freedom from a crib most of the day, all the
nutritional food his stomach could hold, and constant visual/verbal stimulation. We
chose to wait.
In November of 1998, we traveled back to Russia to bring
home Harrison's new brother and sister. Jared and Jade were 9 months old when they
came to the United States and, like Harrison, were diagnosed with "developmental
delays." We were toying with the idea of homeschooling almost as soon as we had
all the children together. Brian had attended a Catholic school, and I was a public
school "chronic under-achiever." With no real positive school experiences
to draw from, Brian and I decided to give homeschooling a go and joined a support
When the twins turned four, we watched as they both passed Harrison
developmentally. Their language skills were more advanced, their play was more
purposeful and it was easier to engage them in activity. Brian and I panicked. We
made the appointment with a developmental specialist who was supposedly one of the
best in the nation. We paid $700 so an occupational therapist, a physical therapist
and a social worker could spend a combined total of two hours "testing"
Harrison. When the doctor finally sat down with us, we were terrified at what we
would hear. We listened as our son's mere six-year existence was dissected, his
skills evaluated, and a forecast of his future was presented to us. We were told
that at six years old he was functioning at the level of a three-year-old. By
definition, he was "severely mentally retarded." We were told that we
should focus on helping him with his activities of daily living. "Teach him the
basics," they said. "How to make a sandwich, keep himself clean. Potty
training will probably be difficult. Most likely, he will need to be placed in a
group home as an adult. Fortunately for him, he is a sweet boy and is enjoyable to
Brian left the room in tears. My head was spinning.
Harrison played on, unaware of the implications this evaluation had on his life. We
were encouraged to enroll him in kindergarten for the remaining three months of the
school year to be able to take advantage of all the "benefits" public
school could provide. He would have a case study done by a social worker as well as
hearing and vision testing. An individualized education plan would be set in place
for him. He would have an aide assigned to him to help him with his school work.
Brian and I were lead to believe there was no way we were qualified to give Harrison
any of what he needed in terms of his education. And so, with tears in my eyes and a
feeling of dread in my heart... I took Harrison to school.
In that three
months’ time, I kept hearing what a "normal" six-year-old could do.
The more Harrison was tested and the more he didn't "fit" into the school’s
idea of the correct box, the more tests they put him through. He was becoming more
and more "abnormal" by school definition with each passing week. Having an
aide assigned to him was supposed to be helpful. Instead, it made him feel different
and somehow not a "big kid" like the rest of the children. It was
uncomfortable for him. Being in school focused on his weaknesses, not his strengths.
School for him was about working on what he couldn't do, not what he was good at. I
became more and more angry as I watched my beautiful, gregarious, joyful son become
cautious and less confident in the things he loved to do. He went on a field trip
once which required him to bring a sack lunch. I cut his sandwich up for him into
bite sized pieces (he had a habit of stuffing his mouth), and his teacher asked me
not to do that anymore because it took too long for him to eat. At the end of the
three months, we were told Harrison would have to repeat kindergarten. The only part
of the whole experience Harrison seemed to enjoy was performing in the of school
play. I missed him terribly.
We then moved to a rural town, and September
rolled around. With the words of the specialist still ringing in my ears, I was
still not confident in my ability to give Harrison what he needed. We went so far as
to enroll him in kindergarten and meet the teacher a week before classes were to
start. Brian and I were told then that Harrison's records had been reviewed and he
had been placed in the class for children with learning disabilities. (I had
specifically requested that the words "severely mentally retarded" not be
included in the report from the developmental specialist. I asked that the focus of
the report remain informational and objective. I felt that labeling Harrison in such
a way would automatically lead people to make assumptions about his level of
functioning which was not fair to him. My copy of the report arrived and to my
shock, my request had been ignored.) There would be twenty-one children with him
with varying needs attended to by one teacher and one aide. Some of the children had
educational needs, some had behavioral issues, some had physical problems. At that
point, the light went on. I asked myself how on earth one teacher and one aide could
possibly give my son the quality attention he needed and deserved? I called the
school, informed them we would be homeschooling, and so began our journey.
That was four years ago. Harrison is now on the brink of turning ten years old.
Jared and Jade are seven-and-a-half. We spend all our days together. Inside,
outside, wherever the day takes us. We meet with other families for stories and
crafts if we want to. We go to the library once a week. We go camping ‘till we
just can't camp no more. It is a challenge for me to keep up with everyone’s
interests. Harrison is an artist. He loves to paint, color and work with clay. He
has a new idea every day for some sort of contraption. He challenges my vision.
Harrison is an actor. He puts together dress up outfits and acts out stories he's
heard or movies he's seen. He loves Harry Potter and Dr. Seuss. He talks about
becoming a paleontologist or a doctor who delivers babies, and he wonders who his
wife will be. Harrison wants to be a father one day. Harrison rides his scooter,
kicks a soccer ball and wants roller blades for his birthday. He wants to travel to
Australia and to Hawaii. He loves music and wants to learn to play the guitar and
the piano. Harrison loves to create mosaics. He wants to help cook the Thanksgiving
By public school definition, Harrison is the farthest thing from
"normal." Does he read? Not yet. Are his math skills that of a public
schooled ten-year-old? Nope. As for social studies, last Wednesday, my children
introduced themselves to a woman in the park with a schnauzer. Harrison spoke to her
for ten minutes about dogs. He was articulate, polite and confident. Science?
Harrison asked to make a "tornado in a bottle" one afternoon, and that
prompted a discussion on how tornadoes and hurricanes are similar and different.
When speaking of any child, I have learned to ask myself what exactly is "normal"?
Thankfully, a definition eludes me. My hope for my children is that they never feel
the need to measure up to anyone else's definition of "normal." Harrison,
like his brother and sister, is a unique soul. His methods of learning go against
established developmental specialist methods, as well as public school methods. But
"severely mentally retarded"? Not by a long shot.
How happy Brian
and I are that we found the strength to focus on Harrison and not the assessment of
a specialist. We see our duty to Harrison, and to Jared and Jade, as helping them to
decide how they learn best. We want to help them learn to identify their own
limitations and then how to work within those limitations so they can feel content
and fulfilled in this life. Past that... the rest is gravy.
her husband Brian are currently unschooling Harrison, Jared and Jade in Dixon,
Illinois. Harrison, Jared and Jade are currently schooling their Mom and Dad in
the important things in life: how to get really dirty, how to dream BIG, and how
to love without fear. They all share their home with two dogs and a bunch of
cats whose numbers vary with the change in season.