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By David Sharpe , Kristin Stanberry
Understanding one's learning disability doesn't always insulate a child from the stigma and misconceptions held by others. Even when her LD had been explained to her, Hayley was self-conscious about it, especially when other kids teased her or asked why she had to go to a special classroom. How did David and his wife address her insecurities? David says, "Since the time Hayley was in first grade, we've taught her how to advocate for herself. She learned how to explain her disability, her needs, and her strengths to teachers and peers."
Self-advocacy doesn't mean making excuses; it means asking for what one needs to work around a disability and function well. As David points out, "The last thing most disabled people want is sympathy; what they want is information and support. An amputee is only disabled if he doesn't have the proper prosthetics."
Hayley's teachers and school administrators have been supportive of her special needs. Many other adults, however, subscribe to some harmful misconceptions about LD. "I get really angry about people's ignorance when it comes to learning disabilities," David admits, "especially those who think LD stands for 'lazy and dumb.'" As Hayley becomes a young adult, she'll be equipped to deal with such views because she has a clear understanding of what her disabilities are and can articulate that to others.
In addition, David has always engaged Hayley in healthy debates to help her learn to "think outside the box," develop her ability to reason, and form her own convictions. He recalls taking five-year-old Hayley to a city hall hearing on the closure of several community recreation programs. "She stood on a chair and listed all the reasons why those programs should continue," he chuckles, "She brought down the house."
David admits that his wife, who doesn't have LD, is a tougher disciplinarian than he is — and that he sometimes has to act as a buffer between mother and daughter. While David holds Hayley accountable for her homework and coaches her on day-to-day responsibilities, he empathizes with her challenges, having struggled with learning all his life.
When asked if having different parenting styles causes marital conflict, Dave is quick to explain that he and his wife see their roles as complementary, providing Hayley with a balance of structure and support. While David and his wife don't always see eye to eye, they stand united on the most important values and decisions.
David also encourages other fathers to spend time now to nurture their marriages. "After all," he points out, "when your kids are grown and gone, you don't want to be a stranger to your spouse."
From the time Hayley was in preschool, David has been actively involved in her education and extra-curricular activities. Whether it's an IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting or a disabled students rally, David is usually on the scene. Many fathers complain they don't have time to be involved. David's reply to them is clear: "Put your child first. Get involved. Just do it!"
David's work schedule is somewhat flexible; he has every other Friday off, and he usually devotes that time to his family and the school. He's a familiar face at Hayley's school because he's an active volunteer. He helps repair the facilities and does set construction for high school drama productions. It's his way of giving back to the school community that has supported his daughter.
We asked Dave to name a high point — a seminal event — in his support of Hayley. With a broad smile, he told us how he took Hayley and several other teens with LD to the governor's office in Sacramento where the group staged a peaceful protest against state legislation that penalizes kids with LD taking state-mandated tests. Hayley took a stand and led the protest, but it was David behind the wheel who quietly maneuvered the group to the steps of the governor's office.
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