The Boston Globe recently ran a two-article series by Maggie Jackson about working parents who have children with special needs. The first article, “A parental juggling job: Workplace stigmas add to struggles of people with disabled children” was published on December 14, 2008. The follow-up, “Bosses responding to special needs”, appeared on December 28, 2008. Jackson writes

“nearly 14 percent of kids up to age 17, or about 10.2 million children, have special healthcare needs, which is defined as a chronic problem that limits activities or demands extra healthcare, according to 2006 government data”


“In any given company nationwide, 8.6 percent of employees care for such children, according to Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Child and Adolescent Health Policy.”

That means there might easily be over a thousand people employed at Harvard who have a child with special needs (and that doesn’t count grad students who have children and others who are in some way affiliated with Harvard but are not Harvard employees).

According to the publication of the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Child and Adolescent Health Policy titled “Children with Special Needs and the Workplace: A Guide for Employers”:

“As a result of managing family responsibilities, parents of children with special needs bring talents and skills to the workplace including:

  • Determination
  • Resiliency
  • Advocacy
  • Negotiation
  • Multi-tasking
  • Prioritizing (see page 3)

I’d add “dogged persistence” to the list but I suppose that might be already covered by “determination.”

The Guide also cites a 2002 National Study of the Changing Workforce conducted by the Families and Work Institute according to which:

“Employees with access to supportive work-life policies and practices are more:

  • Satisfied with their jobs
  • Committed and loyal to their employers
  • Willing to work hard to help their employers succeed
  • Likely to stay with their employers” (page 4 of the Guide)

Jackson’s article mentions Ernst & Young and Raytheon as two companies that have a network of parents who have children with special needs.

Harvard does not have such a group, yet.

Yet at a place like Harvard, a networking group like this could benefit not only affected employees’ satisfaction and commitment, but would also make a positive impact on Harvard’s scholarship, research, and instruction.

For instance, Laboratory for Developmental Studies at the FAS Department of Psychology has been looking for children on the autism spectrum to participate in research on how children on the spectrum learn language. (see their Research on Language Development in Autism page for more information)

In another part of the campus, Harvard Graduate School of Education students in Prof. Thomson’s class “Introduction to Psychoeducational Assessment” as part of their coursework need to assess and diagnose a child (presumably with a learning disability) and write a clinical report.

And students at the Harvard Law School are invited to volunteer in the Special Education Clinic or the Administrative/Disability Law Clinic at the Legal Services Center.

These are just three examples of the variety of ways in which Harvard already works with and helps children with special needs. The complete list would be enormous, of course, because it would include pretty much every Harvard school.

Harvard’s research and scholarship on health, disabilities, and special needs depends on being able to connect with families affected by a particular illness or a disability. Parents of children with special needs usually network with other parents in their community or belong to specific condition-related networking groups and Harvard-affiliated parents could help Harvard researchers and students broaden their outreach, both through spreading the news about research studies but also through disseminating information about outcomes of the studies and resulting recommendations for action or treatment.

By working together with parents affiliated with the university, an eminent research, scholarship, and instruction institution such as Harvard, could help not only the children immediately involved but could also make a significant and lasting impact on all families with special needs children and the society as a whole.

Everyone would benefit from that.

p.s. A few parents interested in starting a networking group of parents who have children with special needs have started planning with the Office of Work / Life Resources a brown-bag lunch workshop on the topic to see if there is interest within the Harvard community in such a group. The planning is still in a very preliminary stage and a topic, speaker, and date and place have not been determined yet. Stay tuned for more information, check in again in a couple of weeks, and in the meantime, feel to comment on the idea.

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