This testimonial was collected by Cathleen, a transition consultant that used to collaborate with Expatclic.com, quite a while ago. We have decided to translate it now, even if late, because we think that it contains elements that are still very important for families with children with special needs that face the choice of moving overseas today. The original article is in French, and it has been translated into English by Claudiaexpat and proofread by Paolaexpat.
Today a growing number of families are facing the choice of moving abroad. This choice definitely becomes more difficult if a child in the family has special needs. These families usually tend to refuse to relocate, in order to maintain a balance in the child’s life and avoid exposure to changes of school, language, therapies and so on. Some families, though, take on the challenge, and after careful preparation, they greatly enjoy their few years abroad. Daniel and Laurence decided to take advantage of the opportunity to relocate to New York with their two children (12 and 14 at the time of writing), one of whom has special needs. They shared with us the various stages, obstacles and surprises they met on the way.
Before signing the contract, it is important to understand how the child will be welcomed and how the child will be able to integrate in the new country. It is often impossible to get reliable information from abroad regarding welcoming structures. In some cases, this information is virtually non-existent. The issue is usually dealt with on a case by case basis, by a school director, with no framework or competent specialized structure. Parents often have to spend a lot of energy getting their child started in an education system with appropriate support. It therefore seems important to go on a reconnaissance trip to the country before taking a decision.
Since it was impossible for Daniel and Laurence to obtain information from France, they decided to travel to New York and meet directors of specialized institutions and the team from the special education department of the municipality where they wanted to settle. They took with them a video showing their child performing daily activities, along with various medical reports. This way they saved him the stress and tension of a trip, which would certainly have affected his mood when undergoing the evaluation tests. They were very surprised when they found out that New York State law states that the evaluation and start of the program with children with special needs must be completed within a specific period of time (maximum two months). The details of the program vary according to the financial possibilities of the chosen municipality. This is why the choice of neighbourhood is even more important than for expat families who don’t have children with special needs.
Within New York State every school-age child is evaluated by the public school’s “special bureau of education” and by an external institution. After that, within a period of time established by law, a place is offered where the child’s particular needs will be best catered for. This might be a regular class with a special support, or a small class where there is a special program. If the handicap is too severe, the child is referred to a special center.
The needs of the child are regularly reassessed by an independent institution and parents can always appeal against the decision. Parents have an important role to play in the school: they can take part in meetings concerning their child and are invited to get involved in school life.
In the same way the child has a right to sessions of more specific types of treatment, such as speech therapy, kinesitherapy, physiotherapy, and so on. The municipality fully covers education fees for a child with special needs, provided that parents follow the orientation guidelines. If they wish to place their child in a private institute of their choice, they have to bear the costs. Children with special needs often require medical follow-up. They need to see specialists, and in some countries consultations are very expensive. It is therefore important to reach an agreement about comprehensive medical insurance with the employer before moving, and make sure all the necessary documents are signed.
Preparing a child with special needs for a move abroad is much the same as with all children. However, a change of language might be a further challenge for a child with special needs, and could pose problems for optimal development. For children suffering from difficulties in verbal communication, switching language might be less tough, if they are already accustomed to communicating with gestures. In this case they quickly manage to make themselves understood.
Daniel says that his son soon felt at ease with a dynamic team. He has found a way to make himself understood and there are clear signs that he now understands English. However language can be a barrier for parents dealing with follow-up procedures for their child. Indeed Daniel had to struggle to carry out all the paperwork in English and to /understand the exchanges during consultations with his son.
Daniel thinks that having one of the parents available to help the child to find a balance in the host country is even more important than for the average expat family. He can envisage both parents having a professional activity only once everything has been organized and some extra help has been found, which in certain countries means additional high costs.
When one leaves one’s home country, it is essential to give some thought returning home after the experience abroad. A child who no longer lives in France loses the right to an invalidity card and to special education allowances (AES) provided by the family allowances fund. It is a good idea to start organizing the return, if possible, a year in advance, to allow time to find a place in a welcoming structure best suited to the child’s particular needs and to reacquire administrative and financial rights as soon as possible.
Daniel and Laurence think this experience is worthwhile. It’s an opportunity for both the child and the whole family, who may otherwise have remained stuck in a rut with the handicap. This change allows parents to see the child from a fresh perspective, and manage the situation better, thanks to a new team and to different resources and approaches. Thanks to the solidarity in the expatriate francophone community, the family was quickly welcomed and helped, while in Paris they had felt rather isolated.
In particular they appreciate the resources the United States makes available for families with special needs. There, they can easily travel, have special access almost everywhere and they receive a caring and friendly welcome wherever they go.
It is obviously impossible to summarize in a few lines all the cases of children with special needs. A family’s choice to relocate will be based on the child’s specific needs has and on the host country. The issue is a complex one, and information is scarce.
Thank you Daniel for sharing your experience. It is thanks to these testimonials that other families will find the courage to accept the challenge or, aware of the problems, will decide not to risk relocation.
Cathleen de Kerchove