It Takes a Village

NOTE: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month

Courtney Hansen holding her two boys on their front porch.

Courtney with her twin sons on their first day of kindergarten in a new state. The boys play t-ball together, love Super Why, biking to the park, and are in the same kindergarten class.

A guest blog by Courtney Hansen. Courtney is a non-attorney special education advocate. She advocates at the local, state, and national level for disability rights, and blogs about it at www.inclusionevolution.com


My son with Down syndrome and his typically-developing twin brother just started kindergarten. The military also just moved us across country this past summer.

There’s been a lot of change this year, and I was often overwhelmed by the idea of my first-born twins starting “real” school in a new state. I cried like a baby their first day of school, but they just marched off to school like they owned the place. I was amazed, but realized that it was the result of years of preparation and help from so many different people. Having a son with a disability has shown me the value of “the village.”

About two years ago, I really started investigating the idea of a fully inclusive education for my son with Down syndrome. I even blogged about my ultimate goal: my twins graduating together in the year 2031.

For most other sets of twins graduating together wouldn’t be a goal, because it would just happen automatically. With lower graduation rates for students with disabilities compared to non-disabled students, and even lower rates for student with intellectual disabilities, I knew our path would be hard fought. It all starts in kindergarten of course. So, I worked tirelessly over the past two years to get where we are today. Both Hunter and Troy are in the same class, and Troy is 100 percent included with his typical peers with the appropriate supports to be successful.

Too many kindergarteners with intellectual disabilities don’t have the same opportunity as my son, even though federal and state laws require the continuum of placement to start in general education with appropriate supports. You might ask how I successfully got him included 100 percent of the time and if he really is being successful. I will tell you it all starts with the village, as well as learning you and your child’s rights.

1. Find Your Tribe

Social media can be a blessing and a curse, but for parents of children with disabilities it’s often an awakening.

Getting plugged into the Down syndrome community via social media helped me realize what is possible.

Even though we’ve lived in three states since our twins were born, I’ve been able to make friends in each state and around the country who have shaped my perspective on what it means to live and thrive with an intellectual disability.

Can my son go to college? Of course, because I just talked to Beth whose son with Down syndrome is moving across country to attend George Mason University.

Can Troy really find a meaningful career? Yes! Elizabeth’s son just got another promotion at Kroger.

These friends have pushed me to set high expectations for my son.

2. Lean on Experts

No doubt about it, you are the expert of your child.

When he was little you were up in the middle of the night with his croupy cough, and you’ll be there when he ages out of the system.

Still, we can learn so much from doctors, therapists, counselors, and teachers.

I’ve always taken a hands-on approach to my son’s endless therapy sessions and education.

I always set some of the private therapy and individualized education program (IEP) goals. In return, many doctors, therapists, and teacher have taken the time to really educate me on best practices in my son’s areas of need and given me functional tips to help my son at home.

3. Start Advocating

I started advocating early ensuring my son would receive an inclusive education with proper supports. I attended conferences and special education trainings to learn my son’s educational rights.

You can start local with school board meetings and school superintendents. Request training for teachers in best practices like Universal Design for Learning and Multi-Tiered System of Supports.

At the state level, I advocated for a bill that is now law in Ohio to end organ transplant discrimination for people with disabilities. Many disability organizations provide opportunities to advocate nationally either over social media or in person.

I attended the Buddy Walk on Washington, and had the opportunity to ask my U.S. Senators and House of Representatives to preserve important health care protections for people with disabilities and better fund IDEA. Positive change starts with you and me. So get out there; our children’s futures depend on it!

4. Take a Break

Most parents of children with disabilities are the most tenacious, hard-hitters I’ve ever met, but this heightened existence of higher highs and lower lows can take their toll on Type-A personalities like me.

I have to make a conscious effort to lean on friends and family outside of the disability community.

The military affords our family respite hours every month, and I use every last minute. The only way I can be a superhero for my son is if I take care of myself.

Parenting a child with a disability is a marathon, not a sprint.

Even with the strong start my son has, I know we will hit many bumps in the road.

Will I know when his needs aren’t being met? How will I ensure he’s included, but also gets the support he needs for a successful future?

My best answer is to lean on my village. I wish more people would embrace their “village.” Our children, community, and country would be better for it!

Courtney's two boys

Troy and Hunter


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

The Importance of Connection

AR PROMISE logo

The Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income or PROMISE, program is an interagency collaboration of the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Social Security Administration. The program strives to improve the education and career outcomes of low-income children with disabilities receiving Supplemental Security Income and their families. Under the PROMISE program, state agencies have partnered to develop and implement six model demonstration projects (MDPs) serving 11 states.


Arkansas PROMISE program’s three primary components are intensive case management provided by a case manager, known as a “connector,” hired from the community; at least two paid summer work experiences of up to 200 hours each; and additional education provided during required monthly meetings and through a week-long, statewide summer camp.

The first component gets perhaps the least attention and is regarded as the least sustainable. Connectors support the household’s needs and engagement with PROMISE services and existing resources.

While the realities of agency budgets make small caseloads difficult, data from the PROMISE projects where small caseloads were a component may encourage us to rethink priorities and invest in a strategy that has proven its value.

We invited Arkansas youth and parents to share stories of the impact PROMISE has had on their lives and communities. Their testimonies emphasized the importance of the relationships the connector has been able to build and the lasting impact that they have had on the families they engaged.

Phillips County, located in the Delta region of Arkansas, is a prime example. The median household income in Phillips County is $26,829 and the poverty rate is 33.5%. African Americans make up 62 percent of the population and 91 percent of those individuals live in poverty.

In September, Denise Olloway, the Phillips County connector, began the final monthly meeting for her caseload participants by sharing some statistics as part of a ceremony to recognize the participants’ accomplishments. She started with a caseload of 23 youth and their families three and half years ago. Of those, four moved out of state and three did not engage with the services. Of the 16 youth remaining, 10 have graduated from high school and two are seniors scheduled to graduate in 2019. Five youth are employed full-time, and two are attending college. One of those attending college is also working part-time.

Denise had asked three youth and three parents to say something about how PROMISE had impacted them, but almost every youth and parent at the ceremony chose to speak.

The youth used the words, “PROMISE changed my life.” They spoke about how they had learned to earn money, use money wisely and save. They talked about how they had learned about communication and work skills. One young man talked about how he had been living on the streets and stealing to survive before PROMISE, and now he was earning and bringing in money.

Parents talked about how PROMISE had “opened doors for our kids.”

“It’s not just about the money. It’s about all the things the kids have learned. When they said we had to come to these meetings, I thought, ‘I’m not going to meetings,’ but I came to the first one, and I’ve been to all of them since then,” said one father who attends required monthly meetings.

As each youth and parent spoke, it was clear that “Ms. Denise” was the stimulus that brought people into the program, got them engaged, encouraged them, goaded them to keep them motivated, and kept them involved in working toward their education and employment goals.

One mother talked about how Denise had “come into our home, not with anger or disrespect, but with the same [positive] attitude every time.”

It was clear that the youth and families felt loved and supported by Denise, and that they loved and supported her in return. Every single person present said to her, “We love you” or “I love you.”

I attended the meeting in Phillips County to give a presentation about the Arkansas no-cost extension, which services would continue, and to reassure participants that they were not being left alone.  However, that presentation proved to be superfluous.

Denise had done her job well. She had connected the families on her caseload with local and statewide resources that could provide assistance and showed them how to access those services. She had helped the youth and parents identify goals and the steps needed to accomplish those goals. She believed they could achieve their goals, and they believed in themselves.

The participants in Phillips County did not need PROMISE any more. They did not need a connector. They will always want Denise in their lives as an encourager, mentor and friend, but they did not need her as a service provider. She provided them with the knowledge, skills, and connections to continue achieving their goals and setting new ones.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

NDEAM 2018 | Kwik Trip

NOTE: October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Kwik Trip Storefront

In addition to assisting individuals with disabilities prepare for, secure, retain, advance in or regain employment through the provision of vocational rehabilitation (VR) services, state VR agencies provide training and other services to employers who have hired or are interested in hiring individuals with disabilities under the VR program. A few state VR agencies in the Midwest have demonstrated how uniquely positioned they are to meet the needs of both individuals with disabilities and employers through their partnership with Kwik Trip, a family-owned business of convenience stores.

Several years ago, Kwik Trip realized its ability to deliver exemplary customer services was sometimes hampered by the range of functions its Guest Services Coworkers had to manage while also being available to serve customers, especially at busy times of the day. To address this issue, Kwik Trip developed a new position, the Retail Helper, but early efforts to implement the position within the company were unsuccessful—until the Wisconsin Division of Vocational Rehabilitation proposed a solution. The state VR agency would serve as a single point of contact to implement a uniform approach to designing the Retail Helper position by recruiting individuals with disabilities and training them to be successful.

The partnership in Wisconsin provided quick results and Kwik Trip soon replicated the model with Vocational Rehabilitation Services in Iowa, where the company operates as Kwik Star, and Minnesota Vocational Rehabilitation Services.

Today, Retail Helpers in stores across all three states handle a range of responsibilities allowing Guest Services Coworkers more time to focus on customer service.

Currently, roughly half the company’s 634 stores employ Retail Helpers. Not only do state VR agencies help recruit and train individuals with disabilities for the positions, but they provide ongoing supports, as appropriate, including supported employment services.

After five years, the partnership has been a boon not just for recruitment, but also retention. In 2017, the rate of turnover among Retail Helpers was just 9 percent compared to 45 percent for all part-time employees. Many Retail Helpers have been promoted to Guest Services Coworkers—creating new opportunities for them and those hired to take their place.

Kwik Trip Employees

For these reasons and more, Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation recognized Kwik Trip as its 2018 National Employment Team’s Business of the Year.

For more information about the VR programs that collaborate with Kwik Trip, please visit our partners at the Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services; Minnesota Vocational Rehabilitation Services; and Wisconsin Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.


In recognition of NDEAM and in partnership with the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR), OSERS highlights one of the many successful business partnerships that state VR agencies have developed across the country.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Kathleen West Evans, Director of Business Relations, Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR)
Posted by
Director of Business Relations Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR)
Chris Pope
Posted by
Rehabilitation Services Administration Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services U.S. Department of Education

The National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM): Finding Promising and Effective Resources in the Clearinghouse Library

For National Disability Employment Awareness Month, check out the many resources available in the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM), funded by the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA).

We offer pointers for finding up-to-date resources in the NCRTM library and showcase a few products from the RSA-funded technical assistance (TA) centers.


National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM) Homepage

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) supports a vision that people with disabilities, including those with the most significant disabilities, can work in competitive and integrated employment.

The NCRTM is one of the first places you should go to find promising and effective practices that have been shared by RSA-funded projects and TA centers so that vocational rehabilitation (VR) personnel, employers, families and individuals with disabilities can improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities.

What Do These Icons Stand For

We constantly add new resources to the NCRTM library, which you can search for by keyword or topic. You can also quickly search the library by clicking on icons that link to RSA information and guidance, products developed with RSA funding, RSA-funded TA centers, peer reviewed products and sign language interpreter resources.

Whether you are a person with a disability, a VR professional or service provider, an educator, interpreter, or in business, the NCRTM contains useful, interesting and accessible resources to learn more about a topic or share ideas and resources with others.

The following resources from three RSA-funded TA centers demonstrate the type of information you can check out as you explore ways to celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

ExploreVR logo

Job-Driven Vocational Rehabilitation Technical Assistance Center (JDVRTAC)

JD-VRTAC has identified, adapted, embedded and sustained job-driven practices in order to lead to improved employment outcomes for people with disabilities. Their lasting contributions include toolkits such as:

  • Business Engagement Toolkit
    • Useful information and tools to optimize interactions between employers, VR, and other organizations
  • Employer Supports Toolkit
    • Useful information and tools for services provided by VR in response to businesses’ needs
  • Labor Market Information Toolkit
    • Useful information and tools to use labor market information to assist job-seekers and understand employer hiring trends
  • Customized Training Toolkit
    • Useful information and tools for programs and partnerships to meet employer or industry needs for skilled workers
    • Contains the Paid Work Experiences Toolkit that explains internships, pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships and includes case studies and highlights models across the U.S.

Though funding for this JDVRTAC ended September 2018, the Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance Center (WINTAC), in partnership with the Institute for Community Inclusion and the University of Washington, will continue to provide technical assistance to VR agencies in the topic areas covered by the JDVRTAC through September 2020.

Vocational Rehabilitation Technical Assistance Center for Targeted Communities (VRTAC-TC) (Project E3TC) logoVocational Rehabilitation Technical Assistance Center for Targeted Communities (VRTAC-TC) (Project E3TC)

Project E3TC provides technical assistance so state VR agencies and their community-based partners can address barriers to VR participation and competitive integrated employment of historically underrepresented and economically-disadvantaged groups of individuals with disabilities.

  • Project E3TC Poverty Resources
    • Collects resources on targeted populations representing high-leverage groups who are underserved or achieved substandard performance with needs in economically-disadvantaged communities across the country
    • Highlights poverty research and resources that are updated regularly.
  • The Forerunners (30-minute film)
    • Tells the stories of people with disabilities working successfully as information technology professionals in Chicago
    • Helps reduce stigma around hiring people with disabilities through use of a 30-minute, award-winning MIND Alliance film funded by Hunter College – City University of New York and developed jointly with Southern University of Baton Rouge
    • Has helped change employer attitudes against people with disabilities in the workplace

Rehabilitation Training and Technical Assistance Center for Program Evaluation and Quality Assurance (PEQATAC) logoRehabilitation Training and Technical Assistance Center for Program Evaluation and Quality Assurance (PEQATAC)

PEQATAC helps state VR agencies improve performance management by building their capacity to carry out high-quality program evaluations and quality assurance practices that promote continuous program improvement.

  • Vocational Rehabilitation Program Evaluation and Quality Assurance Program
    • Certification program intended to increase state VR agencies’ evaluators and quality assurance specialists numbers and qualifications
    • PEQA Evaluation Studies Certificate Program’s fifth cohort started the online certificate program Oct. 1, 2018
    • PEQA Certificate Program has 34 individuals from 29 states actively participating in the coursework and capstone projects to date
  • 11th Annual Summit Conference on Performance Management Excellence
    • VR professionals from 50 states attended September 2018 summit in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
    • Attendees collaborated and shared resources for quality employment outcomes from state-federal vocational rehabilitation services to people with disabilities.
    • Attendees learned evaluation results and research outcomes from practitioners and researchers and gained insight on VR agencies’ strategies for internal controls, program evaluation, skills gains, and other workplace integration processes.
The first PEQA graduate, Margaret Alewine from South Carolina VR, presented her Capstone project, which designed to enhance the Comprehensive Statewide Needs Assessment (CSNA) related to services for youth and students, at the Summit Conference. She received her certificate at the completion of the conference.

The first PEQA graduate, Margaret Alewine from South Carolina VR, presented her Capstone project, which designed to enhance the Comprehensive Statewide Needs Assessment (CSNA) related to services for youth and students, at the Summit Conference. She received her certificate at the completion of the conference.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

I REALLY Love My Life!

Rachel Mast posing on the floor

NOTE: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month

I am Rachel Mast. I am 19 years old. I really love my life.

I have a great life, and I love telling people how great my life is.

I was born in Memphis. In third grade, my family moved to Olathe, Kansas.

I love lots of things about my life. I love my church. I love my school.  I love my family. I love dancing, acting, and singing. One of the best things about my life is my friends.

I graduated from Olathe South High School in May. Just like my friends, I got a diploma. I loved my school. I was on student council, and was the volleyball manager for four years. In ninth grade, I was on the Winter Court. I was the Prom Princess. I was in National Honor Society and on the honor roll.

Rachel Mast on stage as Strato in “Julius Caesar”

Rachel Mast on stage as Strato in “Julius Caesar”

I took general education classes with my friends. My favorite classes were my theatre classes. Even though it was hard, I learned Shakespearean monologues. It is hard for me to memorize, but I worked very hard and did a great job. One of my best high school memories was being Strato in “Julius Caesar.” I am a member of my school’s thespian troupe. I have my name on a brick at my school.

I liked all my classes, but I don’t like math very much. Math is hard for me. I really like English. My favorite book was “Romeo and Juliet,” but I didn’t really like Frankenstein.” I worked very hard in my classes, so I could make good grades and go to college.

I really liked my parenting class. We pretended we were going to have a baby—that was funny. I had to bring a baby home and I named her Sarah Nicole. She cried three times during dinner. I decided I do not want children.

My senior year, I worked in the attendance office and the counseling office. It was so much fun. I took passes to people and greeted people. They told me my smile made everyone happy. I just got a job as a hostess at the Olive Garden. It is kind of like what I did in the school office.

One of the best things I remember in high school was scoring a touchdown at the powder puff football game. During homecoming weekend, the junior and senior girls always play a powder puff game. My friends helped me out and, when I got the ball, I scored a touchdown. It made me have happy tears.

I love my friends very much. My volleyball friends called me the #bestmanagerever. I gave them pep talks. My theatre friends helped me to know when to do things on stage. They helped me when I was on the crew for the “Addams Family.” I love them very much. My friends from church are the best. We go to church camp together. We went on mission trips. We had fun. I miss them very much. We still pray for each other.

Theatre is my life. I have been in 22 plays. My favorite was “Hairspray” because I love to dance and sing.

I have the same dreams as my friends. I want to go to college. In January, I am going to start as a student at Missouri State University. I will be in the first Bear POWER class. I am so excited to live in the dorm, take theatre classes, and make friends. Some of my friends go there, too!

I also travel to Washington, D.C., and to the Kansas state capitol building in Topeka to talk about laws that will help people with Down syndrome. I even got to testify in Topeka. I helped to pass the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act. I was the first person to open an ABLE account in Kansas. U.S. Senator for Kansas, Jerry Moran, says that I am “the best lobbyist in Washington, D.C.”

When I started going to Washington, D.C., I told them to support the ABLE Act so I could live in a pink house. My dream is to move to New York City, be on Broadway, get married, and live in a pink house.

Did I mention I have Down syndrome? I have Down syndrome, but I am not Down syndrome. I am Rachel. I have dreams. I REALLY love my life.

Rachel, now an Olathe South High School Graduate


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Rachel Mast thumbnail image
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Olathe South High School Graduate and future Missouri State University student

NDEAM 2018 | Ida’s Success Story—Knocking Down Barriers for Blind People Throughout New Jersey and Beyond

Ida and her service dog

Ida and her service dog

NOTE: October is Blind Awareness Month and National Disability Employment Awareness Month


Ida is a senior at Drew University in Madison, N.J. where she majors in computer science with a minor in humanities. In addition to a recent paid summer internship and an offer of employment from JP Morgan Chase upon graduation next spring, Ida has had a range of exceptional experiences as she pursues her career goals.

In the summer of 2016, Ida studied abroad at Hannam University in South Korea as a Student Program Developer in the Robotics Program. In 2017, Ida spent the summer as a Research Assistant at Texas A&M University working on natural language processing and information extraction.

Ida is legally blind.

The Governor of New Jersey recently appointed her to serve on the State Rehabilitation Council for the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CBVI).


The Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CBVI) has been a constant presence in my life.

I clearly remember looking up from my plastic dinosaurs and seeing a friendly CBVI caseworker chatting with my kindergarten teacher. From then on, I was pulled out of class about once a week for games and exercises that taught me how to read braille.

As my passions, worldview, and eyesight changed, CBVI remained a steady current in the sometimes tumultuous waters of my adolescence. Like many visually impaired people, I ran into the pitfalls of denial, of trying to ‘pass’ as sighted. However, when I was finally ready to accept myself and embrace my disability, CBVI’s vocational rehabilitation (VR) program offered training, career counseling and referral services to get me up to speed.

I joined EDGE 2.0, a New Jersey pre-employment transition services program, and gained invaluable mentorship. I later joined EDGE 1.0, a similar program for high school students, as a mentor. I strive to make sure high school students have a head start and helping hand at one of the most pivotal points in their lives.

True to form, my greatest opportunity came wrapped in just a few kilobytes when CBVI’s Business Relations Unit emailed me a tremendous opportunity to apply for the We See Ability program at JP Morgan Chase through a Disability Mentoring Day event as part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). I would have never spotted the niche event on my own and might have simply glazed over it in a list of hundreds of other intimidating corporate functions. However, my CBVI counselor encouraged me to apply and all it took was her gentle nudge to urge me into the next chapter of my life.

JP Morgan accepted my application, and CBVI helped me arrange transportation to a midtown Manhattan high rise. There, I went through four rigorous rounds of interviews, met hundreds of talented college students, and eventually received an internship offer. I was over the moon and my CBVI support network was equally—if not more—ecstatic at my achievement.

Throughout the internship, I received orientation and mobility training, counseling, and general support to ensure my success. I knew that CBVI was always just a call away and that they were invested in my development as a young blind professional.

Now that I have accepted an offer to return to JP Morgan as a full time Software Engineer, I realize that I owe my success to the passionate people at CBVI.

As a marginalized group, blind people like me need someone in their corner to encourage them to reach their true potential.

I believe that—especially in historically homogeneous fields like science, technology, math and engineering (STEM)—diverse perspectives breed innovation. Thus, we must encourage young people from all walks of life to pursue their passions unflinchingly.

CBVI has been instrumental to my success, but their work is not done. We need to continue knocking down hurtles, stereotypes, and barriers for blind people throughout New Jersey and beyond.


In 2016, CBVI established its Business Relations Unit with the primary responsibility of addressing misconceptions regarding the employment of people who are blind or visually impaired through education, training, and other opportunities. CBVI continues to develop partnerships with businesses, such as JP Morgan Chase, in order to promote a work environment inclusive of people with disabilities and assist in facilitating the successful employment of individuals with disabilities, like Ida.

For more information about the VR program serving individuals who are blind or have visual impairments in New Jersey, please visit our partners at the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

OSERS shares Ida’s success story in recognition of NDEAM and in partnership with the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Kathleen West Evans, Director of Business Relations, Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR)
Posted by
Director of Business Relations Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR)
Chris Pope
Posted by
Rehabilitation Services Administration Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services U.S. Department of Education

My Truth About Dyslexia―What I Wish for Other Kids With Dyslexia and Their Parents

Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month


My name is Douglas Rawan II. I am 11-years-old, live in Massachusetts, and I have a story about dyslexia.

It starts back in fourth grade when I began to feel different than my friends in school. Making jokes was the way I would cover up having no confidence in school. No one knew that inside I felt stupid. I remember one day when my mom asked me to do some reading and writing, and I threw pencils on the floor and my book. I remember my mom looked really sad. Inside I knew it would be too hard, but I didn’t know why. Since Kindergarten, my mom hired tutors to help with reading, but nothing changed at school. I also had a hard time focusing at school until one day I came home and told my mom that I asked the assistant principal for a standing desk. My parents didn’t even know what that was.

One day, my fourth grade teacher called my mom and said she thought I was really smart but that my work did not show it. She encouraged my parents to get me tested. I did get tested, and after that I thought things would get better for me but they didn’t. My parents finally told me the testing showed that I have ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] and dyslexia and that I was two to three years behind in reading. I was so mad and asked them “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME BEFORE?”

My parents didn’t know what to say to me and never even used the word dyslexia, as the school told them that they don’t use that word. Once I learned about dyslexia and all the famous people who had it I told my dad one day, “Dad, I hope that I have dyslexia as Albert Einstein had it!”

I am dyslexic, which means I have a problem with reading. Having dyslexia doesn’t mean you have low intelligence or are lazy, it just means that your brain works differently. When I read, I don’t understand what I am reading, and I get easily frustrated. When I see a long word, I think “OH NO,” because I think I can’t read the word. Sometimes I break up the word or skip it. Also, when I read it usually comes out slow. I forget what happens when I read. A lot of words are hard for me to read. This makes me feel stupid.

Luckily, I go to a new school, which helps kids like me. When I came to my new school for fifth grade, I had a gap between my reading and grade level. In my first year, I made more progress in my reading than I ever had before. Today I’m still a little below my grade level, but with the right instruction, I expect to close the gap all the way. The teachers help me understand how my brain works, which helps me to read.

I am now in sixth grade in small classes and can get the tools I need, which is helping me to focus and “unlock my brain.” The way they are teaching me actually builds new connections or neurons in my brain, which changes the way my brain works, helping me to communicate and read better. I don’t have to struggle alone and think about how stupid I feel any more.

Knowing that I just needed the right tools makes me wonder what happens to other kids who are dyslexic. Are there other parents like mine that need the help for their kids? I wish that kids like me who still struggle with reading and paying attention in school can get the help they need.

This is why I decided to write a letter last year to President Donald J. Trump asking him what he could do as our president to make sure no child like me was ever left behind. After I sent the letter, my mom started getting other calls from moms who also see their kids struggling.

At the beginning of sixth grade, I met a new student who was visiting my school named Michael who was having troubles just like me. My mom told his mom that I wrote a letter to President Trump, and she sent it to Michael’s mom. The day I first met Michael, he asked for my autograph. It made me feel like I just won the World Series. Michael had never met someone like me who had the same troubles as he did.

If I look back, I wish my mom didn’t have to cry so much. I wish that my school had tested me back in elementary school so that I did not struggle alone. I wish the word dyslexia was used all the time so all kids could know that some of the most successful people like Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Steven Jobs, Sir Richard Branson, Walt Disney and JFK Jr. all had dyslexia.

If kids like me knew that dyslexia doesn’t have to do with intelligence but that we have a hard time understanding how sounds and letters go together, which makes it really, really hard to read. I wish kids knew that when a teacher read me a test I got a 107, but if I had to take a regular test and write the answers I would get a 67 or 57. When the teachers told my mom that I just had to study more, I wish the teacher knew that it wasn’t the material I didn’t know, it was the way that they were asking me to take the test.

I wish for so many things for the kids who struggle. I wish I could go back to my old school and talk to all the kids who feel stupid because of reading and tell them the truth about dyslexia. I wish for all of this and so much more for kids and for their moms and dads.

I hope that no kid spends another minute feeling stupid and sad.


Related Blog: OSERS Assistant Secretary Collett expressed his commitment to rethink special education in a blog post last month.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

High Achievement Requires High Expectations: My Family’s Story

Candice Crissinger and children

Candice Crissinger and children

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month


“High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.”

Charles Kettering, American inventor, engineer and businessman.


As parents, we all want to see our children reach their full potential. Our visions of their successes and accomplishments may vary, but we all yearn to guide our children to greatness. How do we set them up to fulfill their potential? What foundations are we building for them? What roadmaps can we provide to help them navigate on their journey?

I am the proud mother of three terrific children (Biased? Yes!). While each of them is unique and inspiring in their own abilities and qualities, my sons have some very distinct similarities.

In the early school years, both began showing similar behaviors: high impulsivity, defiance, acting out, disruption, the inability to follow direction and under-developed social skills.

Both were bright and strong willed and insisted on doing things their own way in their own time.

Both were identified by educators as “challenging and difficult” and by peers as a “bad kid.”

They were both evaluated at five years old, 10 years apart. That’s where the similarities ended.

Let’s start with my older son’s journey.

In 2007, at age five, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), pervasive development disorder otherwise non specified (PDD-NOS) and anxiety. His individualized education program (IEP) team, despite all good intent, viewed my son through a deficiency lens. We let the troublesome behavior take the driver’s seat. His aptitude for learning did not seem to align with his behaviors. The behaviors escalated. The suspensions began. His progress regressed, and his growth stalled. We changed schools often. Even though we began as advocates, we soon became adversaries in IEP meetings.

On the other hand, my youngest son has had a very different experience. At age five, he was diagnosed with anxiety and showed a high likelihood of having ADHD. He was also identified as gifted. We worked closely with his school to find a teacher who was a good fit and we collaborated with the occupational therapist, the talented and gifted team, and the area education team, just to name a few.

We first took a close look at youngest son’s evaluation and began the work of identifying supports and developing a plan for acceleration. His problem behaviors were seen in the context of his aptitude and understood as a part of his development as a twice-exceptional student. His IEP centers around his strengths. And yet, we have only just begun to build the foundation of his future achievements. There is still far to go.

If you ask me, the major difference between my two children is in the way that we view them. After all, children with learning and attention issues have a unique set of challenges, and my children are not alone.

Children with learning and attention issues make up 1 in 5 students in our nation’s public schools.

Kids with learning and attention issues account for two-thirds of the children with IEPs who are suspended or expelled. They are 31 percent more likely to be bullied than kids without disabilities. They are three times as likely to drop out of high school as kids without disabilities, and half of all kids with learning disabilities are involved in the juvenile justice system by young adulthood.

These numbers could describe my oldest son, and that is alarming for me.

What drives these numbers? And what can be done?

We must set high standards and expectations for our kids. We must encourage and support our kids to meet the same expectations as their peers, and make sure they are engaged and feel a sense of ownership of their learning. We must encourage our students to view a wrong answer as a learning opportunity, rather than a shortcoming.

We expect insight and reflection to instill a lifelong journey of learning. Our expectations should likewise remain lofty.

When we have low expectations of our students, we allow for minimal effort. Student engagement, self-advocacy and achievement will most definitely stall when the bar is set too low. Self-esteem and gaining a sense of confidence in one’s abilities are lifelong benefits with roots in meeting high expectations.

We can make high expectations real for so many more kids if we focus on their strengths. Using strengths as a framework for educational support and structure will allow for children to use their natural abilities and talents to reach their highest potential.

Across the country, school districts are taking a new approach with Strengths Based IEPs. The move to this type of IEP will certainly require greater professional development for educators in each district. Parents can go to school board meetings and demonstrate their value, but there are great resources for anyone who wants to begin this process within your school or community.

Using a strengths-based approach made an incredible, positive difference for my younger son. Setting high expectations and focusing on strengths allows parents and educators to view our students through a mindset of competence and high achievement. The tools are available and my family has seen the impact firsthand. So let us begin the work to build the foundations of an exceptional educational experience for every child!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Candice Crissinger
Posted by
Understood Parent Fellow with the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Medical Assistant in Pediatric Specialties, University of Iowa.

NDEAM 2018 | “Always Aim High!”

Note: October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month

Christopher Pauley does the Marshmallow Challenge.

Christopher Pauley does the Marshmallow Challenge / CBS

Christopher graduated with a degree in computer science from California Polytechnic State University and set his sights on becoming a Software Engineer. Over the course of two years, Christopher applied for nearly 600 positions without much success.

As a result of his disability, and like other individuals who have autism spectrum disorders, Christopher had some limitations with social and communication skills that made interviewing for jobs a challenge. His strengths, however, included an acute attention to detail and a strong ability to recognize patterns. He was also a video game guru.

Christopher Pauley plays Rock Band video game.

Christopher Pauley plays Rock Band video game / CBS

In 2015, Christopher began to receive vocational rehabilitation (VR) services from the California Department of Rehabilitation. His VR Counselor provided counseling and guidance and helped Christopher learn more about his career skills through a vocational assessment. A Business Specialist worked with Christopher to build his resume and hone his interviewing skills.

In August 2016, Microsoft accepted Christopher into its Autism Hiring Program. According to the company’s website, “the academy provides applicants with disabilities an opportunity to showcase their unique talents and meet hiring managers and teams while learning about the company.”

Christopher completed Microsoft’s multiple-day hiring process—a hands-on academy that focuses on workability, team projects, and skills assessment; and one month later, Microsoft hired Christopher as a Software Engineer! He completed the company’s onboarding process and developed a relationship with his mentor, a Microsoft colleague.

During his first few months of work, Christopher received supports from PROVAIL, a non-profit multi-service agency based in Seattle as he settled into his new position.

Christopher Pauley working at a computer at Microsoft

Christopher Pauley working at a computer at Microsoft / CBS

Today, Christopher lives independently in his own apartment and drives himself to work each day. His advice to other individuals with disabilities as they pursue their career goals: “Don’t give up and make sure to always aim high. Don’t aim in the middle, you know, shoot for the stars every time cause you never know what might happen.”

In February 2018, Christopher appeared on Sunday Morning, a CBS television news program. The program featured his story and that of a young woman who also has autism and her career with a multinational enterprise software firm.

To read the story or watch the clip, visit Sunday Morning.

For more information about the VR program in California, visit our partners at the California Department of Rehabilitation.


OSERS shares Christopher’s success story in recognition of NDEAM and in partnership with the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Kathleen West Evans, Director of Business Relations, Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR)
Posted by
Kathy West-Evans Director of Business Relations Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR)
Chris Pope
Posted by
Christopher Pope Rehabilitation Services Administration Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services U.S. Department of Education

NDEAM 2018 | “America’s Workforce: Empowering All”

Note: October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month

NDEAM 2018 Poster: Man in a wheelchair conversing with co-workers over laptop computers.

National Disability Employment Month 2018 | “America’s Workforce: Empowering All”

National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), observed each October, celebrates the contributions of workers with disabilities and promotes the value of a workforce inclusive of their skills and talents. Reflecting a commitment to a robust and competitive American labor force, this year’s NDEAM theme is “America’s Workforce: Empowering All.”

To recognize NDEAM, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) will publish a series of blogs, in partnership with the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, throughout the month. The series will celebrate the career successes of individuals with disabilities who received vocational rehabilitation (VR) services and highlight some of the partnerships state VR agencies have established with businesses across the country.

For more information about NDEAM, visit our partners at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

Chris Pope
Posted by
Christopher Pope Rehabilitation Services Administration Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services U.S. Department of Education