A Father’s Pride Not Just in His Son

By Brett Battles

When I went to grade school back in the seventies, things were different. I’m not talking about funding or how I was taught the basics or even the relationship between students and teachers…sure, to a greater or lesser degree, aspects of all of those are different these days. But what I’m talking about today is something else, something that’s a lot more personal for me since the birth of my son fourteen years ago.

When I went to school, it was the very rare day when we would see any kids with disabilities. These kids were kept separate from the “general” population. In fact, they may have been kept on a completely separate campus…I’m not even sure. So when we did see a kid with autism or cerebral palsy or Down syndrome we’d, quite naturally for kids our age, stare. Even away from school you’d seldom see a special needs child. I did have a neighbor for one year whose brother was mentally handicapped but he was hardly ever out of the house, and when he was when didn’t know how to interact with him. He was just odd, and, in fact, many of us would just go home. That’s the way kids are.

I find that sad now, thinking back. It was a missed opportunity, not just for my neighbor’s brother and the other special needs kids, but for us. The problem was we had very little exposure to the disabled, so they were foreign to us, even scary because we just couldn’t understand them. I remember times people would joke about them and make fun of these kids behaviors. It was, perhaps unintentionally, mean. But more than anything it was simply ignorant.

All this comes to mind because my son, Ronan, just graduated from junior high. You see, he has Down syndrome. For those familiar with Downs you might have noticed there are many levels to the condition from high functioning to extremely low. Ronan falls somewhere in the high side of the middle, if that makes sense.

Unlike when I was in school, he spends part of his school days in classes with the non-special needs kids. It isn’t to really learn what they were learning, that’s not something he can do, it’s more for the socialization, not just for him but for the other students. In fact, I would actually argue that it is almost more important in the long run for “regular” kids than for my son. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great for him, too.

When Ronan went to junior high, where kids now had to go to a different classroom every hour for a new subject, he did have his special needs classroom, but for most of the day he was in the regular classes. But he didn’t go alone. They have this great program at his school where kids can become buddies for a special needs kid. They help their buddies to get to class and spend time with them and become their friends.

At graduation, I met the parents of Ronan’s buddy. The boy’s father was so surprised by how his son had taken to the program. He told me his son has patience for no one, but with Ronan he has become incredibly patient. He also said that his son was always talking about Ronan, so they made a special effort to meet him that morning. But their son isn’t Ronan’s only non-special needs friend.

At some point in the past two years, Ronan had become friends with two other boys, boys who weren’t necessarily the best students in the school nor always the most discipline, but they had taken to my son, and for both years of junior high, they would hang out with him. They even asked for special permission from the school for Ronan (alphabetically at the other end from them) to walk with them in the graduation ceremony. I watched as these two boys made sure he knew where he was going, guiding him to his seat, then leading him up to the stage when it was their turn. I admit I got a tear in my eye watching this.

Then after the ceremony was over (when I met my son’s buddy’s parents), I was surprised by how many of the other students made it a point of saying hi to Ronan. And you know what? Not one child there stared at him. He was just someone they were used to seeing.

And thought he was exactly they same as he has always been, he was also…normal.

Education has been under a lot of attacks over the years. They’ve been forced to do more with less. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they don’t, through no fault of their own. But in this area of demystifying the disabled, they’re doing a great job.

Things aren’t perfect. But they are certainly headed in the right direction.

The disabled are people, too. They just need a little more time and patience and understanding. They can’t help how they are. They, like all of us, are just living the best they can. The good thing is more and more people are realizing this. Someday, maybe everyone will. Given what I’ve seen of my son’s friends, I believe it will.


19 thoughts on “A Father’s Pride Not Just in His Son

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    You’ve made me get teary this morning. I think "special needs" people and those around them are touched by God. I had a call a couple weeks ago at work (unemployment insurance) and the young man had cerebral palsy. He started the phone conversation saying "I’m not drunk; don’t hang up; I have a disability." It made me so sad that he had to explain that the very first thing which I’m sure he must on any call that isn’t a known person. I recognized that he had CP by his voice and told him so and we had a great conversation. In the notes in his claim, there was a note marked urgent to not hang up on him and to be patient he may be difficult to understand at first, etc. That just galled me that someone would hang up or do otherwise than treat him with the respect he deserves.

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Brett

    A long time ago I used to work as a horse-riding instructor and teaching riding to kids with special needs was some of the toughest, but most rewarding work I did.

    But nevertheless, I was aware that these kids were separated from other children their age. I love your story of the integration of your son. Sounds like not only is Ronan is getting the best possible start in life, but so are his classmates.

  3. Sylvia

    Hi Brett –

    What a great post and congrats to Ronan on his graduation.

    The days of having a special needs room has become one of inclusion rather than exclusion. My son has a series of disabilities and spends about 50% of his day in the Learning Center and the rest in his classroom. What’s great is the teachers make the Learning Center a great place to learn – not just for those with special needs. It’s a treat to get to be Harry’s buddy and walk him to Learning Center because you get to do ‘Choice Learning’ with more choices, less kids, more attention and a pretty cool atmosphere. As some of the kids will say "Learning Center is WAY cool!!" Yes, it is 🙂 and so are all the kids who pass through their doors.

  4. Mark Terry

    Go Ronan! Go Brett!

    When I was reading this I was thinking of a conversation I had with a karate instructor I work out with regularly. There’s a kid here in Michigan who studies Sanchin-Ryu karate who is a quadriplegic. But he was interested and the instructors and the karate style accommodated him, and by using his mouth controls he’s learned his own versions of the movements involved in this karate style. And the sensei I was talking to said it was amazing to see how different things were now than when he first started, how much control and focus he has and how he’s modified Sanchin-Ryu for his own needs.

    And I think that’s a pretty amazing thing. Nobody should put limits on themselves or others.

  5. Karen in Ohio

    Brett, thank you for sharing your story. I so agree with you that our kids are learning more tolerance than we did. What an enriching experience, for all concerned.

    My oldest daughter is 39; her half-sisters are 22 and 25 (a big spread because of being single in between marriages). There are some differences in their attitudes because of their education, but not in the area of inclusion. It just happened in different ways. When the oldest was in school, the "Free to be, You and Me" attitude was prevalent, but by the time the younger two went to first grade there was an additional sea change in the school environment. One day a year there is an "Everybody Counts" day, with a different disability or issue at each grade. The younger grades learn what it is to be deaf, blind, and on crutches; the older grades learned more about learning disabilities, etc.

    In addition, our kids were more used to having other races and nationalities in their classes than we were. Each of my children had a variety of skin colors represented among their friends; I used to marvel at the interesting celebrations they were invited to: bat Mizvah, quincineara, East Indian dance performance (for which my daughter and her friends wore authentic Indian garb, ordered from the performer months before).

    It doesn’t surprise me at all that there are more interracial marriages than ever before. Our children already know what it took some of us a lifetime to learn or discover.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    This is such a fantastic success story, Brett. Thank you for sharing it.
    I had the same experience as you growing up in the 70s, and, so did my wife, who actually couldn’t read until she was twelve, yet her schools simply "passed her up the ladder." They didn’t want to take responsibility for her. When we became parents to an autistic child we had little faith in the school system, and so we chose to do homeschooling, which we love. We did try once to incorporate our son into a regular school system. It took months going through the IEP system, making our son take test after test, meet teacher after teacher. I actually had every teacher who would be responsible for him in one room and they assured me that he would be cared for each day. The school would not allow us to have a "shadow," which is a professional who stands by our son’s side throughout the day, helping him navigate the difficult social situations that are so hard for people with autism to manage. With everything set to go, we sent him to school. After less than a week we knew it wouldn’t work. We pulled him out, to save him the pain of being abandoned in a system that didn’t really care for his needs. We know we tried our best, and the process made us even more committed to the homeschooling route.
    I wish our school would’ve had the buddy system that yours does. It made me tear up just hearing about it, how wonderful the experience was for your son, the boys in his school, their parents, and yourself. Some things really have changes since the 70s.
    Congratulations to Ronan on his graduation!

  7. Judy Wirzberger

    Moly Holy Congratulations to Ronan and to the pals who really know how to judge character. Isn’t it rewarding to see our children mark those milestones As with raising any child, you have your share of angst, disappointments, celebrations, but most of all love and pride. I’m so happy you shared your thoughts with me. I look forward to hearing more about Ronan over the years. He’s pictured in my mind and smiling in my heart.

  8. Shizuka

    Your story is amazing on so many levels.
    The news is filled with extreme bullying, rainbow parties, and all kinds of demented teenage stuff.
    So it’s wonderful to hear about Ronan’s friends, who aren’t bothered by his differences, and have the foresight to get special permission for the school.
    Character is way more important than grades.

  9. TerriMolina

    Beautiful story, Brett. Congratulations to your son!! Middle school is the toughest to go through for a child with disabilities because it’s much more daunting with all the extra classes and never having the same kids in your class. But, rest assured, high school won’t be a bad experience either.
    My daughter, who graduated high school in May, has a mild form of Cerebral Palsy and from day one she’s been in regular classes (although some were co-taught and she had modifications such as pre-written class notes or fewer test questions because she can’t write as fast as others) Even with all the moving we did (two different elementary schools and high schools) she’s still made a ton of friends and not one of the other students has ever made her feel like a pariah. Of course to Manda, she’s just one of the guys, she doesn’t have a disability she’s just awkward. hah

  10. Sheri M.

    What a great story. Thanks Brett. And congratulations to Ronan for his achievement! My son has high functioning autism and is set to start kindergarten in the fall. I am terrified. So far the school seems great and the teachers very helplful, but it’s scary to think of all the confusing situations he will have to face. Fingers crossed that the kids will be as positive as Ronan’s buddies.

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Yes, I agree with Alex…it would be so nice to see a news story like this. I shared your blog with my wife, Brett, and she was as amazed as I was.

  12. Emma Lee

    Congratulations to Ronan!

    The UK also has a system of trying to support special needs children in mainstream schools: it’s not perfect but it’s much better than segegration. It won’t work for every child, but where possible it’s better that children be educated alongside their peers.

  13. Brett Batles

    Thanks, all. Sorry for the late response…am on vacation with Ronan and my two lovely daughters so spending more time offline than on. I very much appreciate all the comments, though!

  14. Nancy Laughlin

    Thank you for sharing this story with us, Brett. In a time when we seem inundated with the negative in this world, hearing stories of simple beauty and generosity, especially from the young, means so much more.

  15. JT Ellison

    Brett, what a great story! Ronan is a great kid, and lucky to have you as his Dad. Congrats to him for the achievement, and to you for helping get him there.

  16. Dana King

    You touch on something here that too many people ignore. Everyone benefits when all are incorporated as much into the mainstream of life as possible. I shudder to think how many contributions to society were lost because someone with a disability was viewed too much by what he couldn’t do, instead of what he could do. Sometimes I think Stephen Hawking is responsible for a lot of this. His disabilities are obvious to everyone, yet his abilities are also abundantly clear to anyone who takes a minute to pay attention.

    Hawking is an extreme example, but everyone is like this, and everyone benefits when we take the time to remember that.


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