- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

CANAAN, Conn. (AP) - He cannot speak, but Walter’s face lights up when his school bus with the special lift stops in front of his house.

“I’m not sure whether it is because it’s yellow and he likes the color, or whether he is looking forward to getting to school, but his whole face changes,” said his mother, Crystal Sheehan.

At school, Walter encounters a world of stimulation- dramatically different from the soothing quiet his mother creates for him in the apartment they share.

Walter, 12 and weighing only 35 pounds, participates in a Region 1 program for children with multiple handicaps who also spend time in the general classroom.

His mother experienced a difficult pregnancy and a traumatic delivery. She said the resulting cerebral palsy has deprived Walter of nearly all normal experiences, and she is grateful for the services offered to him in Region 1.

“It is amazing,” she said. “He is a happy boy.”

For Walter’s first nine years, Sheehan lived in New York City. But as he got older, she needed a support system and moved to the Northwest Corner to be near family.

“My mom is more than there for me,” Sheehan said.

She also believes that schools in Connecticut provide better care.

“I am so much more at ease here,” she said. “I was a wreck with him going to a public school in the city.”

She noted that in addition to his cerebral palsy, which immobilizes him, it is unclear how much Walter sees or hears.

He has breathing and kidney abnormalities, and recently developed epilepsy.

Sheehan said she is in daily contact with the school, especially the school nurse.

Region 1 is mandated to educate Walter, so the district offers him occupational, speech and physical therapy in what’s known as a resource room. It is unclear what speech therapy does for Walter.

In the general classroom, Walter is present and passive, unable to participate. His mother said he likes gym class and music. In a recent gym class, Walter’s paraprofessional aide pushed him in his wheelchair and moved his leg to help him kick a ball.

The paraprofessional deals with any of Walter’s personal needs, including hygiene.

Walter is among the small percentage of Region 1 special education students who require full-time, one-on-one care.

Region 1 employs 55 paraprofessionals who, depending on their seniority, are paid between $17 and $19 an hour. Some paraprofessionals work primarily with one student, while others assist in the classroom, and can help both special needs students and general students who need a little extra help.

Walter’s care continues year-round.

The state broadly defines “education” for a special needs student. Educable can mean learning self-help skills or engagement with others, said Carl Gross, director of pupil services for Region 1.

A case known as the P.J. case set the bar in 2002. The class action lawsuit- P.J., et al v. the State of Connecticut -was filed on behalf of students who were being entirely or mostly contained in programs. The state settled with the plaintiffs, agreeing that even the most severely disabled students have a right to a public school education that includes interaction with other students.

For Walter, his fiercely protective mother said she was nervous about sending him to school. She declined to say which of the region’s six elementary schools he attends.

“Children can be cruel and he can’t protect himself,” Sheehan said. “If someone hit him, he couldn’t even tell anyone.”

However, she said she is delighted by his experience in Region 1. She recalled how the school administration organized an assembly to introduce him to the students.

“They said, ‘This is Walter. He doesn’t speak, but you have feelings and he has feelings. What would hurt you, hurts him.’ Within two weeks, the children adored him because he is always smiling. He has a great personality,” Sheehan said.

“He cannot eat in the cafeteria,” she added, “but two or three kids go to eat with him every day. There is also a sign-up sheet for older children who volunteer to read to him. The teachers tell me parents have said their children are kinder and more empathetic because of him. I have had teachers thank me for letting him come to school.”

When Walter is old enough for high school, the district wants him to attend Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village, where administrators are establishing separate classrooms for students with different needs.

His mother, however, said she will push for a different kind of program, likely out of the district.

“He’s not going to be learning algebra,” she said. “He needs more of a skills program.”

When the school day is over and Walter is reunited with his mom, he has a routine that allows him to relax after the stimulation of the day.

“He needs some time to himself,” Sheehan said as she lifted her son from his wheelchair.

She carried him into a softly lit living room and carefully arranged him on a big, plush animal rug, propping him against pillows. She turned on the television, and switched on strings of white and colored Christmas lights.

“He likes to listen to the television and look at the lights,” she said as she quietly withdrew from the room.

Walter rested for about half an hour before he stirred himself again.

Bringing him into the kitchen to settle him on her lap at the kitchen table, his mother hugged him close.

“People ask me how I do this, but he’s my world,” she said. “I can’t imagine anything different. His smile lights up my life.”


Information from: Republican-American, https://www.rep-am.com

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