We no longer shut our severely disabled children, including those with traumatic brain injury, away in institutions 24/7, that’s true. But public school systems, mandated to teach the disabled by 1975 federal law, today struggle to find the best way to care for these students.
The New York Times on Sunday did a masterful job of describing the difficulty of teaching kids with multiple disabilities, with 20-year-old Donovan Forde used as the case study to illustrate the issues and challenges.
Donovan has spent 15 years in the New York City public school system. He is blind, wheelchair-bound and has cognitive problems, all the result of a traumatic brain injury he sustained when he was nearly six months old.
Donovan is one of 132,000 students in the U.S. classified as having “multiple disabilities,” at least two disabilities and special educational needs, according to The Times. They are part of a group of 6.5 million that now get some kind of special education at a cost of $74 billion annually.
”Students with multiple disabilities, like Donovan and his schoolmates, can have a wide range of diagnoses, including cerebral palsy, rare genetic disorders and problems that stem from conditions in utero or at birth, some of which have no name,” The Times wrote.
It is heart-breaking to hear about Donovan’s cognitive difficulties, how teachers shine a flashlight in front of his eyes to get his attention, how he can’t talk, how he can only see shapes and sometimes doesn’t even respond to being called by his name. His teachers, quite frankly, don’t know if they are ever getting through to him.
“Donovan’s mother, Michelle Forde, likes his special education high school, Public School 79, the Horan School, in East Harlem, where she feels he is welcome and cared for,” The Times wrote. “But she wishes his teachers would spend more time working on his practical challenges, like his self-abusive habit of hitting himself in the face so hard that he has to wear thick white cotton mitts most of the time, even when he sleeps.”
Donovan was born with club feet, but was otherwise healthy. But in 1990, Donovan, nearly 6 months old, was being held by a family friend out on street in Brooklyn when a underaged drive in a stolen car hit them both.
Donovan fell and hit his head on the pavement, and his heart stopped. A bystander administered CPR and revived him, but he was in a coma for six weeks, long enough so that the swelling of his brain damaged his optic nerves, leaving him basically sightless.
Donovan’s mother never recovered a settlement for his life-changing accident, either. He is living in a nursing facility, sharing a room with three other severely disabled youths, where he can get the constant care he needs.
One thing is clear about Donovan to his teachers: He loves music, and makes a pretty good effort to sing.
According to The Times, the trend in educating severely disabled children is to use emotion and human connection to reach them.
“As higher functioning areas of their brains are underdeveloped, emotion moves them at a deeper level, lighting up the same part of their brain, the limbic system, as meaningful music, and possibly creating a bridge to greater intellectual cognition,” The Times wrote.
But read the full story, which starts on Page One and jumps to a two-page spread.
Attorney Gordon Johnson
Past Chair Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group, American Association of Justice
email@example.com :: 800-992-9447 :: Attorney Gordon S. Johnson, Jr.