Equal Access for All Children
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I believe all children have a right to quality education, but, the fact is, there is not equal access to opportunity for all children and families. I have worked with school districts, families, and organizations for over 30 years to create pathways for all children to benefit from quality education and resources. Still, every day, families fall through the cracks and children don’t get what they need to become, as one parent said, “the best version of themselves.”
The 2015 Kids Count Data finds 22 percent of Indiana children are living in poverty. The reported incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis is estimated at 1 in 68 children according to the CDC. The strain on families of a child with autism who are living at or near poverty is greatly compounded. Even with recent changes to health care mandates, low-income families face access issues, including lack of autism specialists, long waiting lists, language and cultural barriers, and transportation issues. The stress of raising a child with autism has been shown to negatively impact the family structure, with greatly increased divorce rates among parents of children diagnosed with an ASD. Families living in or near poverty are less likely to receive coordinated care services.
There are many excellent organizations that raise awareness about autism and funds for research. FAR fills a specific niche by offering ongoing access to home based or hybrid therapy that brings support not just to the child but to siblings, parents and the whole family.
I left my university position to start the Foundation for Autism Resources (FAR) a new, local 501c3 that connects Indiana children on the autism spectrum and their families to resources they otherwise could not afford. After years of working on the big picture, I am able to impact one child, one family, at a time by providing them ongoing access to individualized evidence-based therapy from quality providers that best meets the needs of the family.
Here are comments from some for whom these resources have made a difference:
“Our family is low income,” says one parent. “We try to arrange to pay for everything we can ourselves, but the high cost of ABA therapy makes it impossible to pay for out of pocket. Neither my husband’s insurance through work, nor our version of Medicaid will cover ABA therapy.”
“Our son has come so far,” Annie marvels. “He was hardly talking before. Now if he wants ice cream, he can ask me for ice cream.” For the first time, mother and son — and father, Nic — can go together “happily” on walks and to stores and restaurants.
"We tried to get services for my grandson, who I have now legally adopted, for two years. Once I found FAR we had services in less than two months,” says Debbie. “I can already see a difference in my grandson's behavior. He is doing things we never thought he’d be able to do.”
While FAR is a fairly new organization -- we began in mid 2013 and received approval on our 501C3 in August of 2014 -- we have begun to receive calls not only from parents in ever widening geographical areas but from doctor's offices, speech therapy clinics and the State of Indiana Children's Special Health Care Services. We are working hard to increase funding, outreach and the FAR service provider network in order to connect more children and families to essential services such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a strategy endorsed by the American Psychological Association and the U.S. Surgeon General. ABA relies on rewards, rather than punishments, to teach skills.
After years of working on large scale change, most recently at the Equity Project at Indiana University and previously working with high poverty schools nationally, I am returning to my roots as a parent involvement specialist with Head Start. Through FAR, I am able to bring all I learned to start a local organization that impacts one child, one family at a time and hopefully builds community awareness that this is something we as a community can do. We can all make sure that every child has access to what they need to learn all they can, and that every family has the support they need to help their children.
How can we all continue to support children with autism and their families? How do we ensure equal access to opportunity for all students? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and on social media using #AmGradIndy.
Shana Ritter has been an educator for over 30 years. Before coming to FAR, she worked for more than a decade with educators, administrators and communities all over the country through The Equity Project at Indiana University, a project that helps ensure an equitable education for all students. Shana has expertise in culturally responsive practice and diversity awareness, community and family engagement, and issues of disproportionality in special education. At the core of all her work is the belief that every child and family have equal access to opportunity.