There are more than 6-million children in the United States with disabilities, from physical to developmental, and the numbers keep growing. The pervasive epidemic is leaving parents confused and overwhelmed while the area’s educational systems (as well as families and businesses) work overtime to meet demand.

With an endorsement from the National Institutes of Health and Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. is home to one of the most exceptional educational resources — a warehouse, if you will, where parents whose children think and learn differently (regardless of their disability) can physically come and find the school that is right for their child.
Exceptional School'sIn its 8th year, The Exceptional Schools Fair, held Sunday, November 16th at American University, was designed with the community in mind. So exceptional is the event that more than 30 mid-Atlantic Schools participated along with dozens of allied health professionals, from psychologists to occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, and more.

“The fair is an education,” says head of the Diener School, in Potomac, Maryland, which has been participating in the fair since its inception. “You can have children with similar diagnoses on paper, but one school is right for one of these children and another school is right for another. It really depends upon the actual child.”

Some stats to pull this all into perspective:
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 1 in 6 children in the United States have been diagnosed with a developmental disability from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism seen in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. For those diagnosed with Autism, just one of a wide spectrum of disabilities, 1 in 68 children born in the United States have been identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), according to a 2010 report published by the CDC.
The epidemic is far-reaching and the educational system is working overtime to meet demand. According to the Census, special education programs increased by 5.5% (from 8.3% to 13.8%) between the 1970s and 2004/5.

The history of the Exceptional Schools Fair:
The Exceptional Schools Fair grew out of the new world in which we live,” says The Diener’s, McCabe. “Twenty years ago, not only did we not have acknowledgement of learning differences and learning challenges, we did not have support. A decade and a half later, it’s the new world. And we as schools in the community are involved in this fair because we are invested in supporting parent who are faced with a difficult situation.”

The brain-child of Bekah Atkinson, Director of Admissions at The Siena School, The Exceptional School’s Fair (ESF) was created solely to provide a resource to parents whose lives literally changed overnight — the moment they received a diagnosis that their child was disabled. ESF is a forum for parents to explore educational options for their children. Atkinson is clear, however, that it is not a forum for diagnosis or advice, but rather simply a helpful resource for parents who are facing an unknown future for their children, educationally, financially and emotionally.

Rather than researching and navigating, around the highly trafficked and oft-frustrating Beltway on a mission to visit each school in the area to determine which is the correct fit for their child’s learning style, ESF brought many of the mid-Atlantic’s (as well as schools from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan and Illinois) “exceptional schools” to the parents.

Atkinson describes the fair as a place where families that may be floundering can feel empowered as they walk through one-location to see the number of options available to them. “It can be a very isolating emotional situation,” says Atkinson, “and this one environment, one location to research what’s out there makes it less scary. You can see there is a world of other families out there in the same situation. You can talk to professionals who are passionate about what they do in their schools.”

The genesis of ESF: It all started about 10 years ago when administrators from various DC area specialized schools got together monthly in a collegial environment to offer support to one another and speak as a pier group about daily stresses they faced. “We talked about the fact that we were frustrated about going to mainstream school fairs and were unable to show off what our wonderful schools were doing,” says Atkinson.

During the fair itself, organizers refer families to different schools arming parents with as many options as they can. At a sign in table, parents were asked to provide general information about their children and were, in turn, provided with a directory listing all the schools with short snippets on each school including age groups. In addition, the Take-One-Table provided information about outside resources such as camps, after school activities, OTs, PTs, dentists, tutors, financial advisors, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, NIH studies, Georgetown studies, learning disability associations and associations for those with special needs.

Article Written by Cari Shane.

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