It can take the strength of a weightlifter to haul documents, books, and a laptop from one’s car to an IEP meeting. That particular Individualized Educational Plan meeting for my then 10-year-old son was pivotal (not that every IEP meeting isn’t). My husband and I, along with our advocate, had one ginormous task in mind: to have a communication device for Zach in the classroom.
For our non-speaking child, my husband and I relied on computer-generated and homemade (mostly homemade) PECs to understand our son’s needs and wants. This picture exchange system was designed to allow communicative attempts from the giver of the printed, laminated, and Velcro-ed card to the recipient. If Zach wanted a puzzle, he (theoretically) would search his PECs binder or the PECs board or the PECs schedule to find the tiny icon of the puzzle. Upon ripping it from its Velcro perch (oh, sensitive ears!) he’d find someone to hand it to, and seconds later, a puzzle would emerge.
That was the general idea of PECs. We used it, and the special ed teachers used it, with Zach for almost a decade. Some parents find Cheerios everywhere; we had PECs cards everywhere. And oh, the tragedy of a torn or a lost PEC! I learned early on to make multiple copies of the “good” ones. To this day, there’s probably 47 PECs for bacon hiding in various corners of my house.
Some time prior to the fifth grade IEP meeting, Zach had decided enough was enough. He stopped using the bulky PECs binder, and his teacher and aides reported that he wasn’t following the PECs schedule. I altered those damn little icons the best I could, thinking he needed real pictures rather than cartoon-y ones. The novelty of that lasted about two weeks. He was still done with them. I would be, too, in his shoes. Enough of bent corners and peeling laminate! Au revoir, noisy Velcro!
Around that time, our speech-language pathologist (SLP) introduced Zach to a Dynavox “V.” She began using this heavy, chunky, clunky tabletop device during her sessions with him. He took to it immediately, and his intuition guided him through the menus. Through persistence and squeaky wheelness, we acquired a V for use at home.
We quickly realized that transporting the device to and from school presented problems. The battery alone must’ve weighed three pounds. Imagine carrying an old IBM PC to and from work!
Thus, our goal was to have a second “V” in Zach’s classroom. He clearly did not like PECs anymore, and his sign language was limited. (At previous IEPs, despite our requests, no one was willing to teach him ASL, and no aides assigned to him knew sign language).
After a room change (did someone purposely announce a room change after we set up just to throw us??) 13 of us made introductions and began the meeting. Out the window, I caught a glimpse of Zach and his aide in the after school program. I wished I was hand-in-hand with him on the playground rather than in this meeting.
When the time was right to jump in about the device, I did so. No demands, no complaints on my part: just a passionate speech about a boy needing a voice. By the looks on some faces, you’d have thought I asked for a stretch limo to take Zach to and from school everyday. With plates of crispy bacon served to him on silver platters.
One person in particular took the opportunity to announce that they definitely could not provide one student with such a device and deprive the others. Um, well, maybe we were mistaken, but wasn’t the whole idea behind an IEP an individualized plan to support the student in need?
Another person at the table began telling us of her plan to initiate verbal language. Zach lost all speaking ability before age 2, and no amount of ongoing, pervasive, all-encompassing therapies was bringing it back.
“We are working on saying hippopotamus and giraffe,” she proudly announced. My husband, the advocate, and I stared at her in disbelief.
At that point, the advocate signaled me. I reached under the table and produced the freshly-charged Dynavox “V.” She began speaking about the merits of the device and how consistency was integral to his learning. I could not have agreed more.
We gave a mini demonstration. Most of the ten people had not seen this device before. That oughta tell you something. When I ran through the menus, it did not take long for questions (read rejections) to start up like popcorn in a microwave.
How is he going to know where anything is?
Why are the buttons so small?
You can’t possibly tell us he’s using that!
It’ll be outdated before you know it!
You better alter it so only TWO buttons appear at once!
Zach was navigating through multiple menus with pages of 40 buttons each. He knew exactly where everything was. If mobile phones had video function back then, we could have and immediately would have provided evidence they (desperately) needed to understand the beauty of this communication device. They would have been asking us how to get one for the classroom.
I hadn’t been certain what to expect from our planned entreaty. But I surely hadn’t anticipated outright rejection.
Two figures approached the window: a short one and a taller one. They shaded their eyes and peered into our meeting room. In a flash, the door swung open and 13 heads moved in unison. There stood Zach. He saw me and came to me, stepping over purses and chair legs. He looked directly at the “V” as if to say What on earth is this doing here?
And what happened next was utterly magical. He worked his way to the home screen, and from there, he went to the food menu. Next, he pressed SNACKS. He scanned the page. The administrator to my left saw this up close and personal. I deliberately moved my chair back to prevent anyone from birthing suspicious thoughts.
He looked up at everyone. No one spoke. In fact, there were mouths hanging open.
He pressed it again, as if to say Did anyone hear me?
Our advocate covered her mouth as tears welled. I was covered in goosebumps.
“Does he want an apple?? I have an apple! Right here! Zach! Here’s an apple!” the administrator’s words flew like butterflies around the room.
Without hesitation, Zach took the apple, and the aide took Zach, apologizing for the interruption.
“That’s fine! Totally fine!!” someone told her. I think I was too astounded to speak.
“He will have one,” said the administrator. “Now, how do we go about getting one?”
Somehow, some way, Zach’s timing was providential. The fact that someone had a fresh apple in her bag was golden. Nothing more needed to be said.
Walking back to the car, despite carrying a heavy load, I felt buoyant. “Did that really just happen?”
My husband and our advocate were as incredulous as I. After loading the car, we walked to the playground to get Zach. As we described for the aide just what had occurred, she began laughing.
“You know,” she said, “he chewed up that apple into little bits and then spit it out.”
Perfection, Zach. Sheer perfection.
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