Hope for children with disabilities

April 10, 2008 8:54:53 PM PDT
For years, having a child with disabilities meant having them separated into different educational paths from other children. Now a handful of Montgomery County women are empowering parents with new options.

Most educators agree that children learn better by example, and that's true for ALL children, even those with disabilities. We went to the heart of a grass-roots organization that's arming parents with knowledge; information they say could drastically change their child's future.

Jill Houseal and Camille Desnoyers both have a child with disabilities.

Seven-year-old Anna has Down Syndrome.

Nine-year-old Jacques Paul, who goes by J.P., has autism.

When it was time for the kids to enter the public school system both families were worried about where their children would be placed.

"If you have Down Syndrome you're usually put in a life skills class," Jill said.

A class that takes the child out of the general classroom setting.

For J.P. his time in the general setting was limited to just 45 minutes a day.

Neither family was happy with those solutions, so they searched for other options and worked with the Norristown area school district for alternatives.

Both children now spend a large portion of their days in general-education classes.

"She has made, we feel, bigger strides in her placement in regular-ed class because she's being exposed to the curriculum, all the curriculum," Jill said.

"He'd have these cute quips he would say and we knew it had to be because he was modeling his peers. But it wasn't just what he was saying; he was saying it in an appropriate manner," Camille said.

Inspired by the progress their children were making, Jill, Camille and three other mothers formed the organization Norristown Education and Advocacy for Children with Differing Abilities, or NEACDA for short.

"Our goal is to empower parents to find whatever opportunities are available for their children," Camille explained.

NEACDA works as a central resource in collaboration with the Norristown area school district to educate parents on "inclusion" options for children with varying types of disabilities.

In 1994, Pennsylvania entered into the Gaskin Settlement Agreement, which requires schools to consider FIRST, the "least restrictive environment" for children with disabilities.

"A lot of parents don't know there is a such thing as least restrictive environment," Jill said.

At NEACDA's recent monthly meeting, parents heard from co-principals at Twin Valley Middle School in Berks County.

It's a "total inclusion" school, meaning the children with disabilities are NEVER removed from the general classroom setting.

It works by having one classroom in a co-teaching environment; with 2 teachers, often in each classroom, some with general -education training, some with special-ed training, and some with both:

"Our whole attitude is all kids can be included, it's just a matter of what do we have to do to make that happen," said Dr. Kim Donahue, co-principal of Twin Valley Middle School.

For Anna and J.P. being included has made a huge difference in their social and educational abilities.

"We cry, we cry because he's becoming more like our other son who is typically developing," Camille beamed.

If you are wondering what is offered in your area, NEACDA suggests parents banding together and working with your school district on alternative solutions.


Norristown Education & Advocacy for Children with Differing Abilities (NEACDA)

A Parent's Guide to Helping Kids with Learning Disabilities

Disability Rights Network of Pa.

Kids Together, Inc.

National Center for Learning Disabilities

Parents Involved Network of Pa.

Pennsylvania Dept. of Education

Special Education ConsultLine
800-879-2301 (in-state) or 717-657-5842

Vision for Equality


State Department of Education: Special Education

Programs for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities: Ages Birth through 2

Councils on Developmental Disabilities

Protection and Advocacy Agency


State Dept. of Education

Birth to Three Early Intervention System
(302) 577-4643

Delaware Developmental Disabilities Council
(302) 739-3333

Division of Child Mental Health Services Department of Services for Children, Youth, and Their Families
(302) 633-2600

Parent Information Center of Delaware, Inc. (PIC)
(302) 999-7394