Children with learning disabilities have a right to an appropriate education. But those who come from disadvantaged families often don’t get anything close to what they deserve. One big reason: they need a capable advocate, and they don’t always have one. For disadvantaged children, congregations can be that advocate.
For parents without money, battling school districts is a daunting task. “A parent needs to articulate the right goals and objectives for an IEP (individualized education plan),” said Claire Sullivan, a special education teacher in Kona, Hawaii, when I interviewed her recently. “Now imagine if you worked three jobs and made $30,000 a year. Would you be able to get the services that your child needs? That’s where it’s just like, ‘whoa.’ Services shouldn’t be dependent on those factors. But they are. They just are.”
Such realities ring all-too-true for teachers and parents across the country. Few congregations, however, have confronted these injustices that afflict the most vulnerable children in their neighborhoods.
It’s a tragedy driven not by malice but by money. School districts are required by law to make accommodations for children with disabilities, yet they don’t have to make special provisions until parents or advocates can prove that such steps are warranted. Cash-strapped districts (which are many these days) sometimes fight fiercely to discredit special needs petitions which, if approved, can put them on the hook for big bills – sometimes $100,000+ per student over a decade.
Families with means can and do fight back. After all, their children’s educations are at stake. These battles can involve hiring, to the tune of several thousand dollars, experts and lawyers to prove the needs of a dyslexic or otherwise disabled child. Parents who can’t imagine mounting a meticulous, expensive campaign often don’t stand a chance. Those who feel intimidated, struggle with literacy or speak broken English are no match for the gatekeepers charged with reigning in the high costs of special education. Their petitions are denied. Children who might have learned to cope instead fall far behind. Many lose hope and drop out.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Congregations can develop ministries to raise awareness and advocate for disadvantaged children. In the early stages of a case, advocates simply need to know the basics of the law – they don’t have to be lawyers, just informed citizens – and be a voice for a child who has rights. For cases that require professionals, congregations could establish funds to help cover costs. What better social mission could a church support than helping a needy child get a good public education?
I suspect personalities have a lot to do with reticence in congregations to get involved in this issue. Churches tend to have attendees with close ties to local public schools, whether as teachers, administrators, staffers, parents or past parents. Nobody likes the specter of confrontation – especially with individuals one might see a few days later at church or at the grocery store. It’s easier, and it sometimes feels holier, to maintain harmony and not think too much about injustices close to home. It’s easier to call for human rights in China or Sudan than to insist on education rights in classrooms down the street. It’s easier to say that parents, not the church, should be the ones doing the advocacy – and then ignore the tragic outcomes that ensue when parents lack the wherewithal to get results.
I hope justice-minded congregations will consider working on this issue and sharing what they learn with others through this forum. If you’ve been involved in this type of advocacy, please share experiences and insights in the comments. We can all learn from you.
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald, an independent journalist, ordained minister and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010, www.thievesinthetemple.com).
Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free by Emily Colson (daughter of Chuck Colson). Published by Zondervan in 2010, this book has done much to raise attention to the issue of autism and the role of faith.
Unlocked by Karen Kinsbury. A Christian novel that tells the story of an autistic boy who is a victim of bullying in high school.
"Catholic parish starts religious education for autistic kids" USA Today, February 2, 2009.
"Autism and Spirituality: Information for Religious Educators," United Methodist Church, 2007.
"Sensory Integration for the Child with Autism," Pediatric Services, 2000. A guide to creating a welcoming worship experience for members with autism.
"Cathetical Resources for Children and Youth with Disability," a partial bibliography of predominantly Catholic resources for working effectively with autistic individuals. Published by the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh.
The Congregational Resource Guide (CRG) is a project of the Alban Institute. The abundance of resources available for congregations and their leaders can be overwhelming. The CRG is constantly sifting and mining these materials for those that demonstrate a high likelihood for usefulness in congregational life. With the assistance of our affiliate organization, the Indianapolis Center for Congregations in Indiana, the staff of the Alban Institute, and our board of advisors, we strive to point leaders to those materials that can assist them in aiding their congregation's efforts to become healthy bodies of worship and agents of transformation in the communities they exist.