Dr. Andrea Ramirez recently invited Rev. Rigo Mendez to discuss educational opportunities for children with disabilities or developmental delays.

Rigo Mendez’s life was forever changed when he embarked upon the life as an educator. Today as founder of USpeak International, Rigo is a speaker, teacher, and coach who strives to empower people to maximize their potential. Rigo graduated with honors from Ashford University with a degree in Psychology and was later named Teacher of the Year for his contributions to elementary students in the classroom. He has firsthand experience with disabilities, as his brother has Down syndrome, and has worked as a case manager for children with disabilities. He currently serves as a program coordinator to decrease high risk behavior among middle school students and as an Elder at The Potters House of Denver (La Casa Del Alfarero).

Rev. Mendez, you taught elementary school for a decade and today you serve families as a case manager for children with disabilities. How did your work as an educator lead to your current role?

As an educator, I witnessed many situations that involved students with disabilities. Some of these students were well taken care of, while others didn’t receive proper care or were misunderstood, ignored, even mistreated. Witnessing the good, the bad, and the ugly, helped me to transition into a new role where I could provide awareness, guidance, supports and services, teach self-advocacy, and act as a voice for those who didn’t have a voice.

If a parent suspects that their newborn or young child might have a disability, what is the first step they should take?

Before answering that question, the word “disability” is too general of a term that oftentimes is misconstrued as a diagnosis. Therefore, I would like to refer to it as a developmental delay, which simply implies that a child is demonstrating problems in an area that might not be serious but requires supports and services by a professional (for example, addressing low weight or speech delay). In some cases, newborns may have an established condition or may demonstrate risks of having a disability. A multidisciplinary team which can determine eligibility or diagnosis must complete further assessment and testing.

If a parent suspects their newborn may be experiencing a developmental delay, the first step is to schedule an appointment with the child’s physician. The pediatrician may refer a child for testing. If however, the child’s next checkup is weeks or months in the future, or the physician is not addressing the concerns, I recommend parents not delay. A parent, or anyone with concerns about the child’s development, can search locally for a Child Center Board (CCB) then place a call to submit a referral. It is vital that parents know they can call and request a referral without a physician’s assistance.

Referrals may also be submitted to Child Find, which is a component of Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) which requires states to identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities, aged birth to 21, who are in need of early intervention or special education services. These services are free of charge, which may vary state to state. Services in the school setting are always free of charge.

And if a diagnosis is secured for a newborn, what will that mean for the child’s future education?

Sometimes a diagnosis is not given, rather a developmental delay in a particular area is found. Therefore, a therapist can address those areas of concern while the case manager helps monitor the needs of the family in the process. At times some children graduate from an early intervention program early, due to meeting their developmental milestones and no longer have a developmental delay. If a child has an established condition (diagnosis) then the objective is to provide the support needed to ensure the child develops accordingly, while the therapist continues working with the child. At the same time, the case manager assists with the transition process, which includes collaborating with the family, current therapist and school, to ensure the child's needed services continue in an educational setting.

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Describe the types of resources available, in public schools, for the education of physically disabled students.

Depending on the diagnosis, special education services through the family’s local schools will eventually provide supports and services specified in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Teachers follow modifications outlined in this customized plan for student instruction. In some cases students receive ongoing therapy during the school day with specified clinicians such as Physical Therapists, Occupational Therapists, and Speech-Language Pathologist. These specialists serve students in 30-60 minute increments once or several times a week depending what has been agreed upon by school providers, administration, and the parent.

And what about mentally disabled students? What are education options you recommend for this type of students?

While mental health is a broad term, there are mental ailments that can impact a student’s social, emotional, and cognitive state of being, which may impede learning drastically. Special education services for the mentally disabled are provided in a variety of ways such as direct instruction, co-teaching, consultation, and modification driven instruction as identified on the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). In order to ensure successful improvements; parent must be well informed, and personal involvement is highly recommended at all times.

You have a brother with Down’s syndrome, which provides you with a uniquely personal connection to the families you serve. What’s the #1 message you want families to understand about their disabled son or daughter?

The No. 1 message I would want families to understand is their child is a gift from God, they were fearfully and wonderfully made. Families should treat a disabled child no differently than they treat other children. Their child’s disability is not what limits their ability; rather treating them different limits their greatness, virtues, and potential from developing.

There can be a stigma, even in church circles, about having a disabled child. What is your best suggestion for church members who want to show love to disabled children and their families?

There are three suggestions I have for church members who want to show love to disabled children and they are as follow: Be Sensitive, Be Empathetic, Be Mindful; these are things that will help make the road easier.

  • Be Sensitive: Choose your words when addressing a family with a child with disabilities. They don't need for you to feel sorry for them, instead treat the family with dignity and respect.

  • Be Empathetic: Never assume what it’s like to have a child with disabilities, rather strive to comprehend the burden they are carrying and embrace their struggles and frustrations. Offer some help with assisting to carry their belongings or care taking when appropriate.

  • Be Mindful: If a parent shares the child’s diagnosis with you, be mindful and don't disclose their personal information to others, unless given permission.

For more information about serving families of disabled children, please email Rev. Rigo Mendez at uspeakllc@gmail.com.

[ This article is also available in español. ]