Sometimes in the special needs world, people are overlooked. I am not talking about individuals with special needs being overlooked - although that is all too common and it should raise more concern than it ordinarily does. I am talking about people whose job it is to work with those who have special needs and/or developmental disabilities. They are often unsung heroes whose dedication and effort can go unnoticed.
Take for example a man named Wayne. Coach Wayne, as we knew him, did something for my son Zach out of the goodness of his heart. He worked with Zach every morning on the junior high school track just because he wanted to and felt that Zach was ready and willing to accept his guidance.
Without the mandate of an IEP goal, Coach Wayne took Zach under his wing and taught him to ride an adult tricycle. I came to learn that he acquired a semi-rusty “trike” with blown-out inner tubes which he decided to fix up a bit and transport to the campus where he taught physical education to students in special ed classrooms.
Each morning for many weeks, under a blanket of Napa fog, Zach and his PE teacher would go out to the track and practice pedaling. Eventually, they practiced steering. And of course, Coach taught him how to use the hand brake. This was no easy task, and it required patience and perseverance - for both people!
After months of surreptitious practice, Coach Wayne beckoned me to the gate by the track one morning when I dropped off Zach. I walked to the field with him. With his booming yet gentle voice, he told Zach it was time to let Mom see what they’d been doing in PE.
And with that, Coach held Zach’s backpack and simply patted the bicycle seat. Zach sat upon it, and before I knew it he was zipping around that track by himself in full control of the trike. Coach watched him - he was not running alongside. My boy was riding independently and expertly.
The image of Zach riding that trike with the fog-capped hills of Napa Valley in the background is one that stays in my mind. I’ll never forget it. It’s as if I watched it this morning.
Coach Wayne may have no idea about the impact he’s had on one student’s life, and our family’s life. Bike riding was one of the few activities we could count on and enjoy during the 2020 lockdowns. Like a duckling, Zach immediately knew to stay behind me on his trike as we cruised the neighborhood. When it’s safe to do so, I let him take the lead. And I can see the corners of his mouth go up.
The ability to ride has given my son confidence and a measure of freedom. I’m proud of him: he has fallen off a couple of times, but he has gotten right back up without hesitation and pedaled on. If that isn’t a good life lesson, I don’t know what is.
There’s a host of unsung heroes just like Coach Wayne out there. There are so many people who willingly choose to spend 20, 30, 40 or more hours per week working with special needs individuals in various capacities. Like health care workers who showed up everyday during COVID despite difficult circumstances, the truly dedicated special needs workers show up everyday with a mission to improve the lives of children, teens, and adults with disabilities.
They are passionate about what they do, and they give selflessly, sometimes with little reward. Such people are not driven by money or fame or public recognition; they glean satisfaction from the seemingly small things they do every day to help those who need help.
And for parents, those “small” things are not small at all. One occupational therapist we saw when my son was little decided to teach him how to nod yes and no. At the time, I knew that was important, but I had no foresight into how valuable that skill would become for a non-speaking individual.
Speech therapists, special education teachers, behaviorists, classroom aides, respite workers, music therapists, sign language interpreters, and so many others who answer an inner call to work with special needs individuals should have more accolades coming their way.
Sesame Street made kids aware of the people in our neighborhoods, and 2020 raised our awareness of “essential workers.” People in the field of special needs care and education are people in our neighborhoods and should be essential workers.
If I may, I will speak for parents of special needs individuals when I say we are grateful for and appreciative of the hard work, commitment, creativity, and enthusiasm exhibited by those who work with our precious children. We couldn’t make it without you.