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Chicago Man

category national | health / disability issues | news report author Wednesday April 19, 2006 19:19author by Kathy Sinnott Report this post to the editors

For the past 11 weeks our Department of Education and Science and one of our Health Authorities have been in the High court spending millions of taxpayers’ money fighting to ensure that a young boy with special needs no longer gets the education that has been of great benefit to him over the last two years. I do not have to picture the spectacle, I know it well.

I can only imagine how different it could be here for children with special needs and the adults they will be.

I imagine a young man I know, standing to attention at the side of his mother. I wrote about him before. He has autism and his mother is very proud of him. He had just received Chicago's highest honour “Chicago City Employee of the Year”, an honour he had earned in open competition.

The young man came from a poor neighborhood in the city. His mother a single parent struggled to make ends meet by cleaning jobs while her son was in school. After school she did her best to understand her son and his autism. Financially, holidays were not an option, but a day pass for the Chicago transport system was affordable and seemed to give her son such joy that packing a snack and traveling by bus train and metro was how they often spent their days off from work and school.

Legislation both local, state and federal mandated that her son was assessed and that an Individual Education Plan was developed for him and that it was followed ensuring that he received not just specialized teaching but occupational and speech and language therapy. It wasn’t the state of the art education that money could have bought, but it was appropriate and he did well.

By the time he reached his teen years the multidisciplinary team that regularly updated his Individual Education Plan, planned for his vocational training so that he would have a smooth transition from school to the workplace. The mandated assumption was that with the right preparation and supports everyone can work even people who have severe disability.

In planning for future employment, the team considered his abilities and his interest. After all the reason to work is not just to earn money but for him to be fulfilled and happy. His interest continued to be the Chicago Transport Authority, so they naturally built on this.

With coaching he learned to work in the information centre of the CTA. He has his own booth, phone, desk and computer. People ring to find out how to get from where they are to where they want to go. He can tell them the best way to go, how long it will take and the price. He can and does advise them on best entrances on exits for the weather, time of day and many other things. He always answers with a smile in his voice and ends his calls, “Welcome to the City of Chicago.”

Our departments of education and Health spend 7,000,000 euro a year in the courts seeking to get out of their obligation to give appropriate services to children and adults with special needs. It has not yet occurred to them that to spend that money on appropriate services would be better than to spend it to deny service. This is obvious in the human terms and is even more obvious in economic terms when you consider the productivity of Andrew and the Chicago man. If we spent the money on children with special needs in the first years of disability we will make it up many times over in increased independence and all that implies to the person, the family and the exchequer.

But there is a complete refusal to take this on board. Instead our government has passed two bills the Education for Persons with special Needs and the Disability Act to protect government from people and their special needs. From the enquiries we are getting in the Hope Project Helpline, These Acts are already having this effect.

Last week I had a call from a mother whose child left her very brief education at 18 years by department mandate. She has been at home loosing skills for the two years since. I also had a call from a mother of a two year old child with special needs. I advised her to act quickly to maximize his early development. The Departments told her to come back to them when he is older.

Would it be silly to ask what would have happened to the man from Chicago if he had been born in Ireland or Andrew if he had stayed? From cases of young men with similar special needs I know, I think it is safe to say that they would not be happily working in position of responsibility and respect. My guess is that they would be staring vacantly at a wall in a residential institution or day centre. The vacant stare would be from drugs, boredom and spent frustration. The chances of them having real jobs would be nil and that is truly a shame.

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