As a speech and language pathologist I have worked for 36 years with students with severe and profound disabilities. My students have given me more of a gift than what I have given them. Many have taught me patience, helped me sharpen my speech and language skills and take myself less seriously.
I have worked with students ranging in ages 3 to 26. Many were in a self-contained school due to their intellectual or cognitive disabilities, and physical, medical and social challenges. I’ve also worked in several public schools that had self-contained classrooms for students who were on the Autism Spectrum, Cognitively Impaired, Emotionally Impaired, Learning Disabled, or who had speech and language delays. I have been awed by many of my students throughout my career, but one in particular stands out for me. Fran’s gains in speech and language filled me with wonder and amazement.
You may ask, “Aren’t you supposed to see gains? What makes Fran stand out above the rest?”
Let me tell you about this special young lady. I first met Fran in high school. She came to me because she had significant challenges not only in speech and language, but also in a multitude of issues. For example, she had medical issues, social/pragmatic delays that prevented her from interacting with others, depression, and so on.
Fran was a typical baby at birth. She was happy. She was enrolled in a school in Detroit. Fran was well-adjusted and did well in school. In fact she was an athlete. She was a gifted gymnast. She was asked to compete in competitions all around the USA. Her parents were delighted with her exceptional skills and eager to travel to various states for her to bring home gold medals.
One particular evening, on a cold and blustery winter night, her father was driving. It was getting late, and Fran asked to unbuckle her seat belt so she could get some sleep and feel rested in the morning. Her parents agreed because they wanted her to feel comfortable so that she could excel in her competition the next morning.
Unfortunately the weather continued to worsen. Soon the snow froze and black ice lined the roads. To observers indoors, it looked like a winter wonderland with glistening trees and beautiful icicles.
Their car hit a patch of black ice, and they crashed on the expressway. The car flipped over, and Fran was thrown out of her parents’ car onto her head and ear. She landed on the expressway.
Life would never be the same!
Fran was hospitalized for months and was in a coma. It was a miracle that she survived such a devastating crash. The medical challenges and expenses were overwhelming. Once her condition stabilized, she began speech and language, physical. and occupational therapies. She was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury, a sensorineural hearing loss, a stroke, paraplegic (paralysis on one side of the body), partial vision loss, hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain), and endless academic, physical and social challenges.
When her special education staff met her in high school, she was depressed, quiet, unresponsive to questions, and socially isolated. Her schedule was entirely special education classes with other neurodiverse peers.
Her special education team and I developed an English class for credit called BRIDGES. (Building Relationships in Developmental and General Education Students). She was paired with a general education student who went above and beyond their job responsibilities in class. They met at her house for her birthday party. Everyone had a great time. They met her at restaurants after school or on the weekends. After-school Games Day events were fun for Fran because the social interaction. Peers now sat with her during Lunch Bunch. In the past, she would’ve sat by herself, but with encouragement, she eventually made an effort to sit with others. The students became advocates for Fran. They would not allow any bullying behaviors.
Fran began to smile and interact more. She had a positive disposition for most of her school day. Fran radiated happiness.
Even in private physical therapy, the staff adored her. They awarded her with an adult-size tricycle so she could be mobile and independent in her neighborhood. When the bike was stolen shortly after receiving it, Fran was on the news asking for help. She advocated for herself. Fortunately someone saw the tricycle, and it was returned to her.
During BRIDGES class I introduced and educated the general education students about various disabilities. They chose to learn about Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) due to their friend Fran. Fran even spoke and helped with a presentation. Her parents were invited to it. She inspired her paraprofessional to share how he might be able to overcome his own disability. He was the age Fran was at the time of her accident when he lost part of one arm during a horrible snowmobile accident. These two were the perfect duo. They helped and inspired each other.
Fran underwent several surgeries during her years at high school. One in particular stands out. She had to have several shunts surgically implanted in her brain to drain fluid. Her general education peers from Lunch Bunch and BRIDGES classes made cards, and I had plans to send a large packet with those cards home the next day. Lo and behold, she returned to school the very next day. We were in awe of her quick recovery. She was delighted to get the cards.
Her paraprofessional wanted to carry her backpack and give her extra TLC the next day. She would not have it. She wanted her independence and to be treated like everyone else.
Fran soon became a role model and inspired other students and staff at her high school.
Her special education team was awed by the positive changes in her social skills, great attitude, and the academic improvements in her classes.
I learned from Fran that while you can’t change the past, you can look forward to tomorrow and make the best of it.
Wonders never cease to amaze me, and neither did Fran!
I am a retired speech and language pathologist. Currently I am an author of educational fiction books for children and an adult fiction book.
I co-authored “Speech Tips with Spunky Monkey.” This is a book about friendship, kindness, acceptance, and inclusivity. It provides speech and language tips to the animals in the zoo that have various challenges.
Also, I authored Ryan’s Magical Shoes, a book about diversity and acceptance. Ryan receives a pair of iridescent shoes that he sleeps with. These shoes teleport him to other countries. There he learns about differences in others. He honors and celebrates differences while still finding similarities in his new friends. Prejudice and hatred are not innate. They are learned at a young age, and because of this it is important to introduce this book to children.
I authored 4,456 Miles: A Survivor’s Search for Closure. As an adult I learned about her deep, dark secret just 6 years ago. My mother, a Holocaust survivor, survived a ghetto and three concentration camps. This tragic and horrible part of her life does not define the person she is today. She is a strong, resilient and loving woman. Travel vicariously with my family back to her roots and witness how we finally got closure by putting up a tombstone in the exact spot where her mother was buried. I am in wonder of her!
You can read more about these books on my website