It has been a hot minute since I opened up and discussed details of my personal life. This week's blog explores a part of my wife's and my adventure as being parents to a special needs son.
My wife and I have several kids, well 4 which is several to some and only a few to others. One of our kids is special needs. He was diagnosed with severe, low-functioning, non-verbal Autism at a young age so this is something that we have been aware of and working with for many years now as he is an adult today.
One of the things about having a child with special needs, especially one who can't talk, is that you are the ultimate advocate and mouthpiece for that child. No matter how old they may be, you are always the one that will understand their needs better than just about anybody else, especially them, and if you don't speak up for them then likely nobody will.
From the get go we were both pretty involved parents, even when our marital relationship was not in a good place. My wife handled a lot of the medical appointments and doctors and I handled any issues with schools, clinics, etc., that didn't live up to the standards and policies they promoted and preached.
Every school year we would all load up and go to meet his teachers and the various faculty members at whatever school he was attending that year. We would always be polite and courteous to those we interacted with during those initial meet and greets but we always let everyone know that we were both actively involved in our son's day-to-day activities and that if there were any issues or concerns by the staff that they could call, text, or email either of us at any time of the day.
We wanted them to know that we were there to support them as much as we were for our son but that the main thing was that we wanted them to know that we were there. All too often for special needs kids their families aren't actively involved. I don't know if it is an ego thing, they're embarrassed to have a special needs kids, a financial thing, or what but many special needs kids don't seem to have anyone actively looking out for them and we were determined to not be like that for our son and we wanted the school staff to be cognizant of that fact.
While I'd love to say that these meet and greets seemed to do the trick if I did I'd be lying. I don't think there was a year that passed while our son was in school that we didn't have to address at least one issue with someone, usually someone that we hadn't had the chance to meet during that meet and greet night at the start of the school year.
After a while, we started introducing ourselves to principals, vice-principals, and other administrators as Beauty and the Beast. She was the beauty with her shiny blonde hair, enchanting smile, and small stature. That left me as the Beast with my 6' tall frame, broad shoulders, and acid-laced tongue that would verbally bitch slap someone into submission.
Our routine was always the same. In the initial meeting my wife would do all the talking with her sweet voice and smile and I would sit in the back with my mouth shut taking notes either physically or mentally of the conversation and agreements being made. Following the conclusion of the meeting, I'd generally write up the meeting notes and send it out to my wife and the individual(s) we spoke with that day, being sure to include any ETAs or timelines that had been agreed to for any required resolutions. If, and usually when, the response and resolutions were not put into place, my wife would try a polite follow-up and when that failed I would jump in. Usually within hours, at the most a couple of days, from the start of my involvement people got things done.
We learned through our experiences that if you ask nicely things don't happen as often as when you apply considerable pressure. My wife has always been one of those "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" people while I have long been of the disposition of "give 'em rope to hang themselves and then kick the stool out from under them". She wants to be friendly at all times and see things done out of mutual respect and a shared understanding of what is right. I want people to do their jobs but know that most people are too lazy to do it on their own accord and only do it when forced.
She is the scalpel and I am the hammer. She is discreet and I am anything but. She is precision and grace while I am nothing but a brute force that leaves lasting trauma in its wake.
There was one incident in particular where we approached an administrator while trying to deal with a host of serious issues in our standard vibe. My wife sat across from this individual at their desk and I sat at a table near the back wall of the office. We introduced ourselves when we came in but beyond that I stayed silent and let my wife do all of the talking. She is the calm one of us and we agreed that despite the serious nature of the issues at hand that it might be best that I not start things off by barging into someone's office with a profanity filled tirade.
Things were going well. My wife had her talking points ready and stuck to them while still being her polite and sweet self. The administrator sat behind their desk and listened intently, only speaking briefly between points to either express their own agreement with her position or to indicate that this was the first they were hearing of these issues. Either way, she talked, the administrator listened, and all was good.
Well, after a while, the administrator stopped my wife and looked at me. "Mr. Richardson, I've heard what your wife has to say on these subjects. Is there anything you'd like to add? I'd like to hear your input too," the administrator said to me, not knowing what can of worms was about to open.
I simply looked back at the individual and said, "you don't want to talk to me. If you're talking to me then that means that you didn't listen to her and you didn't address the many concerns that she's bringing to you today. Your hope should be that you never have to talk to me because if you do, that means you have a much more serious problem at that point. I'm the last person you want to talk to. My advice, listen to her, address these issues, and hope that I don't have to get involved."
"Okay," was the administrator's somewhat stunned response.
The rest of the meeting went without me having to say another word while the administrator and my wife discussed resolution terms and times. We brought a lot of issues and concerns into that office that day and knew that it would take some time to sort through. We made it clear that we weren't expecting a same day turnaround and the administrator set a deadline for their part and promised a reply to us by that deadline to share what details they could. We all thought it was an acceptable agreement and went about our way with me sending the typical follow-up email that same day to reiterate the various issues discussed and the administrator's self-imposed deadlines.
Sadly, things did not go as agreed. The deadline came and went with no resolution. There was a good excuse though, the school had suffered a major infrastructure issue that day that required many of the staff to deal with different aspects of the day to resolve the issue and manage the students in the interim. We knew of the issue before talking to the administrator when we encountered them at an after school function involving one of our other children and were very understanding of the circumstance but that did not stop the administrator from imposing a new deadline of the next day, another promise that would not be kept.
The original deadline was a Thursday. The modified deadline was a Friday. At the end of Friday when we still had not received any communication from the administrator we tried to explain it away as residual demands from the previous day's issue and held out hope that we would hear something by early Monday morning.
Monday came and went with more silence. We decided it was time to unleash the Beast.
Tuesday morning started with me making a phone call to the administrator's office. I was working on a project out of town that week which made barging into their office something of an impossibility so I adopted the next best approach. The administrator was on campus but not in their office at that time so I left a polite but stern voicemail indicating that we had been waiting for their response but none had been received despite being days beyond their defined deadline and that I needed a response by the end of the day to know that our son's issues had been adequately addressed. After lunch that day with still not reply, I followed up my voicemail with an email stating a similar position.
Tuesday came to an end with the school's appointed representative in this matter still choosing to remain silent despite my stern requests for an update and the deadlines of their choosing having been several days past.
Now it was time to turn up the heat.
The Beast had growled during the initial meeting. Tuesday's contacts had been nothing but a bark to get their attention. Now it was time to bite!
Wednesday morning started with another phone call to the school. Again, the administrator was there but not in their office and the front desk refused to page them for me. We were nearly a week late on addressing a host of very serious issues and infractions dealing with our special needs son and now it seemed the administrator who promised to make this right was ducking us.
I left another voicemail strongly urging the administrator to call me back ASAP with the resolution as we had waited more than long enough for them to make good on the 2 missed deadlines. The tone of the message was serious but my word choices were still professional. Not polite, not rude, but professional and clear.
While I waited for a phone call, I crafted my next email. It laid out all of the school district's policies that each infraction violated. It laid out each state law that the infractions violated. It laid out each federal law the infractions violated. It listed the different groups that each infraction would be reported to if the resolution was not in place by the end of the day. And it made clear that I would lay the blame of all of the infractions at their feet for "being complicit in the violations after failing to take action after being made aware of the staff's behavior regarding these blatant violation of our son's rights." I also made it clear that this email was the sole response to the unreturned phone calls and emails that have been made by us in an effort to reach them after their self-imposed deadlines had passed with no attempts made by them to contact us. There would be no other warnings or attempts to contact them by us in regards to these matters, that all future contacts regarding these matters would likely come from those with greater authority.
I had given them the rope to hang themselves by during that initial meeting and they were now dangling from a limb with nothing to stand on.
Unsurprisingly, within 30 minutes of sending that email around lunchtime on Wednesday I get a phone call from the administrator. The first phone call from them since this ordeal started nearly a week earlier. They were VERY apologetic about their lapse in communication and assured me that the issues had all been addressed and by what means. A few phone calls to some other contacts at the school were able to independently verify the administrator's claims and that brought the issue to a satisfactory close without the need to escalate this to others beyond the school's scope.
And no, this was not a "I'll call my lawyer" email. This was a "here are the may different policies and laws that your school has broken that you should now be fully aware of and the different watchdog, advocacy, and regulatory groups that will be made aware of how it was brought to your attention and you failed to take action to protect the special needs students under your care" email. I wasn't going to have to call a lawyer because these groups had their own and would come for the school in a way that a personal lawyer probably never could.
But more than that, this was about the school administrators taking action to protect its students, especially those with special needs. We didn't bring this up in an attempt to get money from the school but to protect our child and for them to simply follow the rules in place that offered that protection to him while in their care.
Why did it take me threatening to report the school and the administrator to a multitude of groups to get traction on this? I don't know. Why is it so hard for people to listen to my sweet wife and take action then instead of blowing her off only to piss me off before they do anything? I don't know that either.
The sad truth of the matter is though that the Beast has had to get involved in almost every issue we've reported to his schools, care providers, and even insurance providers. We will always try the nice approach first but history has taught us that nice gets you nowhere in these situations. We want to give people the benefit of the doubt but so far they routinely fail us, themselves, and our son which requires more formidable tactics than simply asking them to do their jobs.
I am a Gemini and it seems that there really are 2 different personalities that reside within me. To my friends, I'm a sweet, laid-back, fun-loving guy who likes to cut up, play games, and have a good time. But those who only know me through our interactions involving my son, I'm a mean son-of-a-bitch and an asshole who will ruin your entire day with just the mention or sight of my name.
I don't really want to be that guy, although I'd be lying if I said there wasn't some level of satisfaction gained by watching those same people squirm in their seats across from me when I walk into their offices and see the terror fill them from behind their eyes when they see me. But, at the end of the day, it seems that is the person that I need to be for the sake of my son. My wife never has to reveal the beast in her because she knows that my beast is always there waiting to pounce.
In the years since our son has left school the Beast has not had as much cause to be unleashed. For that I am thankful but it does make me a little sad to know that there are others out there who don't have a Beast in their corners fighting for them when they cannot. One can only hope that our actions have a wider reaching impact than that of just our son and helps others with special needs in similar situations get the care, attention, and protection they need and deserve without the need of another Beast.