It is difficult to imagine a more vulnerable group than that comprised by children and adolescents with special needs. The vulnerability lies in the fact that though they have a voice it is often ignored. This does not mean that people do not want to listen to them, but, unfortunately, adults often either have an agenda or they believe they know what is better for the child than the child him or herself. It is true that children who have a physical disabilities, behavioral disorders and mental disorders such as autism may not understand what is best for them, but they should be able to voice their desires also. This includes both the interactions that they have with caregivers, other authority figures and peers. The individual in this situation needs someone to advocate for them because "they are a particularly vulnerable group and have, traditionally, been even more excluded from decisions about matters affecting their lives" (Knight & Oliver, 2007). This paper presents the case for advocacy for the groups mentioned above and provides a view of the concerns and difficulties these individuals have, why advocacy is crucial to these populations, and then offers a comprehensive plan for giving these children and adolescents the voice that they deserve.
Concerns and Difficulties
One could assume that the difficulties that children with disabilities of all types face reside primarily in the physical realm, and that is a partially accurate statement, but the invisibility of the young person is a concern also. The physical problems that, for example, a child with autism can have are well documented. These children often have tics, do not like physical interaction, do not interact well with their physical environment, and so on (Mulick & Butler, 2002). Physical disabilities can range from the severe in which a child in unable to accomplish individual care to the child with cerebral palsy who just has a slight limp (Knight & Oliver, 2007). Children and adolescents with behavioral disorders may not have a great deal of physical disability, but the ability to interact successfully with the outside world may be completely lacking (Murray, 2005). These outward signs of the disability are present and cause much of the immediate problem that these young people have, but they are also a group who is largely unnoticed when it comes to policy decisions on state and federal levels. When speaking specifically about children with mental disorders, Ptakowski (2010) writes
"Despite 2 decades of dedicated effort there remain many children and adolescents with mental illness without health insurance. Workforce shortages in child psychiatrists, inadequate reimbursement of health care costs, limited government-supported research funding, and lack of coordinated systems of care result in persistent barriers to effective mental health care."
Though she is talking specifically about mental health diagnoses, the case can easily be made that this is true for any child with any type of disability. The constant challenges presented by the actual disability may actually pale in comparison to the difficulties they have related to inadequate care and resources.
Another problem, though it is well-meaning, is that children with disabilities are frequently mainstreamed, at least to some extent, into the public school system. This is actually a good idea, but it does cause issues. It is impossible for staff or a caregiver to be watching all of the time. This means that the disabled child, as an easy target, could be faced with bullying or other degradation on a daily basis.
Advocacy for these young people is crucial, as it is for adults with the same deficits, because, as stated above, they do not usually have a very loud voice. Meaning that though they can speak out, they are often not heard by people who can make a difference. Advocacy can be defined as "speaking out and making a case for something important and about supporting a cause" (Ptakowski, 2010). Others talk about the intercession aspect of advocacy (Ryan & Cole, 2008) or the fact that it can also include lobbying and other political and legal means of influencing the system (Mulick & Butter, 2002). But the fact remains that the practice is crucial.
Youth is generally pampered in the United States. Whereas the nation used to honor people as they grew older and became more wise and infirm, there has been a drive to look and feel younger, and to glorify youth since at least the 1960's. It is an unfortunate trend that looks at age as an impediment rather than a passage to something better, and this has made the culture seem more self-centered and uncaring. This may not be true in general, but it does seem to be the message that is shared on popular media. However, the disabled faction of the youth in America are not regarded with any sort of glorification. Young people who have some type of disability are relegated to the same second or third tier status as those who have grown old and infirm. A youth culture does not want to be reminded that to those whom much is given much is expected. Those who are strong should provide the advocacy for those who are not as physically strong. The practice of advocacy for these individuals is very crucial because they are basically a large but relatively silent group who need the strength of others to help them realize the benefits of life that others who have youth often take for granted.
All three groups -- those with autism, behavioral disorders and physical disabilities -- are prone to bullying to a degree that other children might not be. It is possible that other youth will not pick on a disabled child because they feel bad about it, but that is doubtful. Any child that acts differently is subject to bullying because it is easier to lash out than to understand. Since these groups will likely be targeted, the first step of the plan is to create seminars that can be held both with students and with teachers, in classrooms, teachers meetings and school-community gatherings.
The first step in this process is to be sure and create the seminar in such a manner that it does nt single any student out. Talk about the subject in general because any child that is singled out may have more issues with bullies later on. For the teacher-only seminars design them in such a way that they are aware of the problems that disabled students are likely to have and ensure that safety procedures are discussed. With the students keep the topic generic, but discuss with them both the physical and psychological effects of being bullied. In high school classrooms, it may be appropriate to use recent high school shootings as a part of the seminar (this should be thoroughly discussed), but it would be inappropriate for younger children. Parent attended seminars should also include signs that they can look for regarding having a bully in the home and someone who is being bullied.
The seminars should be concise and interesting enough to hold the audience's attention. They should also be held at times that are designed to include the maximum amount of people. It may also be wise to include other community groups in the discussion to demonstrate the seriousness of the issue.
Teaching Coping Skills
Many different disabled youth will have a caregiver that stays with them during school hours to act as an aide, but there are those who have to face the pressures of school without constant assistance. Even some children with what may seem very serious conditions that would inhibit their ability to learn (such as autism and neuromuscular disorders) are able to attend school without constant assistance. Whether they receive assistance or not the child needs to know how to cope with the added pressure of the classroom, and have an advocate that can help them with that.
Ryan and Cole (2009) note that mothers are some of the most well-prepared caregivers and advocates for their children, but they will likely not be around very much during the school day, so they need to teach as much at home as they can. The parents, teachers and administrative staff at the school need to understand the disabilities of the children, and as far as the instructors and administrative staff, how they can get the best response from the child.
These would also be seminar classes that would be voluntary for the parents, but mandatory for teachers and staff. Each disability poses different issues when it comes to both ability to learn and socialize in the school. The seminars would be split into learning modules that reflect all of the training that is needed for the parents and teaching staff. The teachers, who have certain types of disabled children in their classes will be able to talk about experiences that they have had and this is important and should be encouraged, but there should…