Eliza — moving toward positive change

Our daughter, Eliza Schaaf, wanted to take a class at SOU at the introductory level and it never crossed our minds that there might be reasons she wouldn't be a good fit for SOU if given the proper accommodation of a personal assistant. We did not try to "sneak" Eliza into SOU nor were we out to set a new precedent; we simply were looking at her past successes and following her lead to continue her education.

Thanks to the wonderful, thoughtful and courageous administrators — Jeff Schlect, Don Valentini and Samuel Bogdanov, Eliza was welcomed into Ashland High School general education classes with her classroom aide. We became accustomed to working with the teaching staff to afford Eliza the opportunity to access the social and academic learning in these classes and were able to adjust and talk through any concerns and problems that might arise.

So when it came time to go to SOU, we thought, perhaps naively, that we could simply collaborate in the same way, always being respectful that we were not asking that either the curriculum or the learning environment be altered in any way. We soon found that SOU was a totally different ball game. We knew that with the proper accommodations (a personal assistant) Eliza would be a quiet presence in the classroom. Never did we think she would take away from the other students' or the instructor's goals for the class. After all, it had worked well at Ashland High for four years.

So what happened? It's a question we are still wondering. Rather than simply working out arrangements with Eliza's professor as we had anticipated, we seemed to get snarled in a web of administrators who had a different idea of educating and who were on edge with no precedent to fall back on.

What remains difficult to understand is why SOU took the action it did, when it did. Eliza was allowed and had virtually made her way almost to the end of the quarter when she was withdrawn. Wouldn't it have been better to let her complete the course (which by all the students' and the assistant's accounts was going smoothly) and then address her future participation at SOU? We still do not have a satisfactory answer to this question.

SOU is a good institution and, like us, is not perfect. It hurt us to confront it. But confronting it seemed like our only choice after we and others worked tirelessly to try to work this out to the benefit of all. All we asked for was to restore Eliza's dignity and let her finish.

The outcome Eliza so desired — finishing her class with her peers — has now come and gone. She, although still wondering what hit her and saddened by her loss, will, with time, be OK and set her sights on a new horizon of learning — hoping, in the not-too-distant future, that SOU and the community will find a way to welcome her back as a student.

We would be lying if we were to say we are not unhappy over what happened and how it happened. We expected more from leaders at SOU. But we have also learned a lot of good things.

We have learned that the students at SOU valued and supported Eliza being in their midst. We learned that out there in our home communities of Pinehurst and Ashland there is great caring, deep appreciation and love for Eliza and all that she represents.

We remain greatly moved by the hundreds of people who weighed in — present and former classmates, teachers, administrators, national disability organizations, overseas supporters, relatives, friends, elected officials and community members of all types — each to passionately express their concern over what transpired for Eliza. Many were outraged, all have scratched their heads over the whole ordeal from the handling to the final decision to not allow Eliza's simple request — to finish with dignity. Your letters, your caring, your encouragement and most of all your belief in Eliza have been a bright shining star throughout the last three weeks, helping each of us see that the hope, energy and commitment we all share will push us forward to bring the change that is needed, and we are confident that a greater good for Eliza and others who share her differing abilities will come from all of this.

Ron Schaaf and Deb Evans of Pinehurst are the parents of Eliza Schaaf.

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