“Do you want to take it untimed?” I was taken aback at the question, not knowing exactly what it meant and its implications. I looked up with what must have been a confused stare, so my Urbana High School guidance counselor continued. “Your ACT—you did okay the first time, but given your physical handicap, you would be entitled to taking the test untimed.” I hesitated, and felt a creeping sense of anxiety, confusion and guilt .“I’m not sure.” Up until that moment, at least in my memory since I was a child, no one had ever called into question my ability to perform functionally in the same manner as my peers, with some minor differences.
Walking home that day with my brother Peter, I confided in him how much I resented my guidance counselor—for not only using the word handicapped in association with me, but also for believing I needed extra help when it came to being a student. That was the one area in which I was certain I could function just like everyone else. Whether it was holding a pencil or typing, I neither needed nor deserved any special treatment.
“Do you want to take it untimed?” I was in my Junior year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, speaking to my favorite Professor, Kenneth Sacks, in his office after class. Within a year or so he would be off to become a Dean at Brown University, but in the meantime I was fortunate enough to have someone like him as my guide as I focused on getting into the best possible law school. We had been discussing my LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) results. They were strong but not perfect and my goal was to get into a Top 5 law school. “Really? You think I should? I feel like that is cheating….I’m not so sure I need the extra time to take a test.” Professor Sacks, a father of a ‘special needs’ child himself, looked at me warmly. “Meg, it is up to you. But given your physical difference it is quite possible
that your hands are slowing-up your ability to perform on the test in the same manner as everyone else. You have nothing to lose and only something to gain.” I trusted his judgment, but I was desperate, too.
The following month I took the LSAT again untimed, and only confided in my best friend Lia but without telling my parents. I felt ashamed. I was positive I was taking advantage of the system. When I finally received my results, there was no point in telling them about it anyway. Even with the extra time, I performed worse than the first time.
“Does he want to take them untimed? Many parents would give their right arm to get their kids more time for tests.” I watched the Principal as she winced as she realized the expression she had decided to inadvertently provide to us. Ethan was about to start Kindergarten the following month, and thankfully he was home with out nanny while John and I sat in her office along with the guidance counselor and gym teacher to discuss his abilities (or in their minds, lack thereof). “No!” I felt my temper rising and then the pressure of my husband, John’s hand on my thigh, his signal that I should calm down. I took a deep breath and swallowed. “Please, whatever you do, don’t give Ethan extra time in school. If you give him the extra time, he will take it, and then believe he needs it.”
This past week I read an article in the Huffington Post about the wonderful Nicole Kelly, Miss Iowa 2013, who wrote a fantastic Guest Flaunt for DHIFI last year. The piece focused on Nicole’s post-coronation public efforts to help guide parents who have kids born with a blatant physical difference. Nicole was born without one of her forearms but never let that stand in her way. She was now sharing with others her understanding that many people “parented in fear, limiting their child’s life since they were concerned about protecting them.” She wrote, “I had assumed everyone else’s parents would be like mine, but many are far more concerned about limiting their child’s lives to protect them from harm. I saw then that I could make a change by showing these parents that their child can and should be able to do anything they want……it makes such a difference!”
I was not surprised by Nicole’s reaction, given her approach to raising her. In her Guest Flaunt, Nicole’s mom, Pam, wrote, “As [Nicole] grew older and her personality began to emerge we soon learned that there was absolutely NOTHING this child could not do, and we encouraged her to try any activity that tapped her interests.”
Reflecting on both Nicole’s efforts of late and her Mom’s guidance of pushing through fears, I couldn’t help but think about other stumbling blocks that can still present themselves.
Right before our Ethan was to enter Kindergarten, we were surprised to be offered by the Principal and Guidance Counselor the option of a special-needs plan and services that would be provided by the school system. These thoughtful educators thought the benefits would be obvious to us: physical accommodations could be made and test taking could be untimed to allow Ethan all the tools needed to be a successful student. The Principal mentioned that she had other mothers begging for their children to qualify. Although I have nothing against untimed tests for those that may need it, I think the option actually can be damaging to those who really don’t.
While the offer by the school faculty was well-intentioned, I was in no mood to accept it. For five years we had been raising a boy born like me, with one finger on each hand, and now he was beginning to understand his difference and come to terms with his lot in life. It was a critical time, since we were guiding our young son to expect that anything was possible, and that although he might approach things differently than his friends, just like his mother before him and his younger brother after, he could still be just as successful. Already he was excelling in academic skills, reading and writing easily from age three and ½. We wanted to see his confidence grow and thought that in his case, a special needs plan would undermine that goal. We politely declined the offer of special accommodation. Okay, in truth I was a bit offended at the assumption that his physical difference meant he was a slow writer, but fortunately my husband once again kept me in check and I kept my mouth shut.
Now twelve, Ethan fortunately has achieved a solid level of self-assurance, once again trying and succeeding at things (according to his camp counselors this week) that I never fathomed, such as hockey and lacrosse. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to his psyche if we had accepted the extra time in class, knowing he didn’t need it physically. In my gut, I think it would have made him a very different person, one who would constantly be questioning rather than trusting his capabilities, always opting for the ‘handicap’ alternative.
And then my greatest fear would be realized. His instinct at school would be dependence, rather than independence.
“Mommy, you are the fastest typist I have ever seen!” Savanna sat next to me as I was writing this post, and I smiled, grateful that more than thirty-five years ago when my brother Ted and I wanted to learn how to type on a typewriter, Ted questioned whether I was going to need anything special to help me type. Swiftly reacting, my Mom replied, “Great idea you two. And Meg, with no other fingers to get in the way, I expect you might be the fastest typist of us all in no time!” And indeed, I was.