My Developmentally Disabled Son Taught Me What It Means to Succeed

I never expected my son to get an education past high school. I was wrong — and am so, so happy.

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Welcome to Great Moments in Parenting, a series in which fathers explain a parenting hurdle they faced and the unique way they overcame it. Here, Neil, a 65-year-old dad of three biological and three adopted children who lives in Pennsylvania, discusses the pride he felt when one of his developmentally-disabled adopted children was recently accepted to a state-operated community college for kids with cognitive disabilities.

We have six kids. Two are mine from a previous marriage, and I have a step daughter. The other three are adopted. We adopted one, Nigel, as a baby. We hadn’t intended to adopt a baby, but adoption is complicated. We thought we were going to adopt a two or four year old. But in the adoption system, you have a social worker, and the baby has a social worker, and the mother, or the parents who are giving up the baby, have a social worker. A mother walked into a pregnancy-services place and said that she wanted to give up her baby for adoption. She looked through the home descriptions and picked us.

Nigel had a stroke when he was born. Nothing on his right side really works exactly. He can only see light and dark with his right eye. His hearing is impaired. His hand doesn’t work so well. He’s got cognitive troubles. My wife was unfazed by that. She was like, Okay, that’s what we’re in this for. And I was speaking like Porky Pig. Ye-ye-ye-w-w-w-what does that mean? But the blazing confidence. That was her.

I was in the Army before I went to college. My wife went straight to college and got a PhD from Harvard and Brown. Our three birth kids went to three different liberal arts colleges. Their future looks so different for parents who have kids who are disabled. My oldest daughter got a masters degree in social work. She’s a counselor for the VA. My younger daughter is just finishing up a PhD program. I’ve got another daughter who owns her own house in her late 20’s, and she teaches knitting because she can. She has a degree in classic languages from Bryn Mawr.

The guys I was in the army with would say, “Gus, your family has more degrees than a thermometer.” And yes, we do. Our expectations for the birth kids were mostly centered around which liberal arts college they would go to, which graduate school they would go to. Once we got to know both of the boys, in particular, it was just a different set of expectations entirely.

I never thought either of our boys we adopted would go to college. I have to say that before we had adopted kids, I would have said that high schools should have more rigid standards, and make sure that everyone who graduates can beat all these academic standards. And now, with Nigel and his brother, Jakari,  the fact that they both graduated high school — I mean, they were academically at the bottom of their classes, no matter how much they struggled. But they could sit still and behave for 12 years. Thats’ a huge difference over a high school drop-out. It really changed my view of what a high school diploma is and could be.

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It redefined, to me, what it means to succeed. So then I learned that Pennsylvania has a state-sponsored special needs community college that is residential. They help kids with everything they need for living, which has been a challenge for us. We found out that he just got in. It’s an oversubscribed program, so the fact that he got accepted is incredible.

We went on the visit to apply in the Spring. I didn’t even know about the place. I found out from another adoptive parent about it. At the time, we were wondering what on earth we were going to do. Nigel had tried to get a job, but since he’s graduated, he volunteers at a mission in a soup kitchen. I’m happy that he’s doing that, that he goes and helps people every day. But eventually he’ll need to have his own career. I’m retired, his mom wants to retire someday. He’s had some vocational training, but it was with unimpaired kids. So he would get it and sort of lag behind. But this is different.

He had to have a pretty thorough cognitive-abilities evaluation to even be accepted into the school. They’re there to help. When I took him on the school visit, we were walking around the place, and I was kind of worried. I was worried that Nigel would look around and think, well, I don’t want to go to a place like this.

But he loved it. School, for him, from kindergarten to high school, was tough. He’s just been picked on, and he doesn’t have a lot of friends. This environment is not threatening to him. He had a three-week evaluation in October. He had to go there and spend three weeks there. They decide if they can help him and he decides if he likes it. He just loves the place.

He made friends there, friends who aren’t teasing him. They weren’t the smart-asses that made life tough for him.

I’m nervous. It’s a lot for me to take in. I’m going to take him when class starts on the 14th, and we’re going to go over it all again: where the laundry is, making sure he has everything. But honestly, I’m also so happy. There’s a chance for him to go to a school where he’s with other kids who are in the same situation. I think this is the best chance he’s had in a while.

After the evaluation and with the attendance issue at the evaluation, I was worried he wouldn’t get in. I was thinking, I’m not going to bother anyone. But if they reject him. It’s a state agency and there has to be some sort of appeals process. We could try another evaluation. And then one day I just called the office because I was nervous. This woman who answered the phone said. “No. We just sent out the letter. He’s accepted.” He’s finally got a chance to live independently.