The 90% You DON’T Hear About…

The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. This is especially true for the world of educating children with special needs.

As a blessing, the Web brings together families whose children suffer from a wide range of disabilities. Often these children have unique learning challenges and the Web offers a means for sharing ideas. Parents can partner together in support groups that would be physically -- and geographically -- impossible otherwise.
This is also true for educators working with special needs populations. Teachers and therapists can share strategies and resources across continents, time zones, and experience. Help is right there for the asking (or searching). What a terrific support for “low-incidence” teachers who may be the only staff member in their district providing services to this group of marvelous, challenging, inspiring students.
What a wonderful time we live in, when ideas are freely shared and emotional support is generously offered!
But the Internet also has a dark side. It taints the views of both families and of teachers by an unfair portrayal of the educational system. Very often, all we see is 10%* of the picture. And that 10% does not represent the whole.
(*10% is a number pulled randomly from a hat; I have no statistics to support this. It simply expresses a minor percentage of the bigger view).
Allow me to illustrate.
Last summer our family got a pair of baby goat kids. Being completely new to the goat scene, I read every book and website I could get my hands on. Now, from the online goat forums I read regularly, you would get the impression that goats are the most fragile, sickly critters ever to walk the face of the planet. How in the world have they survived thousands of years as livestock in countries where veterinary care is unavailable? How have they survived thousands of years before that in the wild?
The truth is, goats are pretty hardy creatures. But they aren’t found in every neighborhood. Folks in the United States who keep goats rarely have many local resources to draw from, so when their livestock faces a rare illness, they turn to Internet forums with their questions about goat health. Thank goodness for the Web so they can get answers!
Owners of healthy goats don’t have questions about goat illness, so they sit back quietly.
Does that mean goats are frail creatures? Not at all. It simply means that the online forums are disproportionately weighted with questions about goat illnesses because it is a convenient venue. That’s all. No one is intentionally misrepresenting the hardiness of goats. It just comes across unbalanced because the 90% of goat owners with healthy animals don’t sing praises of goat health.

The same is true for online parent discussions about special education.
Parents on Internet support groups commonly bring their questions and complaints before these groups because they have nowhere else to turn. The rarer the disability, it seems from my limited experience, the fewer the options for seeking help and the more this airing-of-concerns is likely. The ten percent of these families who have difficulty with appropriate placement or IEP compliance are highly visible.
We rarely hear the educational success stories of the ninety percent majority. After all, how much is there to discuss when everything is going well? How much is there to say about an IEP meeting where everyone has the child’s best interests in mind? If everyone at the IEP table agrees on what will make the most appropriate program, how much is there to report to the group?
Families new to these Internet communities read the complaints of the minority and conclude that these problems are the norm, rather than the exception. I see it all the time. Preschool parents getting ready for a first IEP meeting ask where to find a lawyer to bring to the meeting. Gulp! Why do they assume the situation will be adversarial? They’ve never experienced a negative encounter with this school staff, yet they are bracing for battle. Given the imbalance of horror stories to successes reported to online parent communities, it’s understandable. But it’s also unnecessary.
I bring up this darker side of Internet support to shed a little light on the discord that sometimes happens between families and schools.
Parents need to understand that online forums, by their very nature, present only a portion of the whole picture of the educational system. There are many children thriving at school. We just tend not to hear about them. Yes, there are real concerns and real injustices to be corrected. But they receive a disproportionate amount of air time. This is not the experience of the majority of families.
Educators generally go into education with a desire to help children. Teachers who chose the special education path tend to have a heart for the underdog. We all know that the vast majority of our educator peers truly want to do the right thing for children. So why are parents quick to assume we don’t care or haven’t the expertise to help their son or daughter? Part of that has to do with the lopsided Internet conversations and nothing to do with what actually happens around the IEP table. Of course there are the exceptions; of course parents need to be versed in the laws that protect their children. But parents don’t need to presume the worst.
Educators need to realize that parents sometimes get skewed information from online forums. It makes our job harder as we set out to prove that we really do care about their children and have expertise to meet their learning needs. It isn’t even that the parents want to be adversarial, but that they have been presented with a lopsided view. That imbalance may not be intentional; it just is. It may mean we have to work a little harder to overcome misinformation and to build trust.
That’s just how it is with the brighter and darker side of online support groups. Maybe it’s time we start sharing more of the bright stories…
Do you have a bright story to share? Please tell us...


Anonymous said...

You make an excellent point, Rose-Marie. And by the analogy of goat health - impressive!

I'll be thinking on other things that might fit the 10% rule. ;)

Rose-Marie said...

Thanks, Barbara. I'm interested to hear what else fits the 10% rule...(and wardrobe or recipe choices probably don't count...).

Out of the 90% of families whose experience is going swimmingly, would you wager a guess that only 10% let us know?