Twelve-year-old Atticus Carter, a student at Glenwood Middle School, is on a schoolwork strike to demand accommodations for his visual impairment.
"I want to learn, but I can't do it without my accommodations," he said during a public forum at a Board of Education meeting Thursday. "I have been wanting these vision accommodations for a year, but still, I don't have them."
Atticus has binocular vision disorder meaning his eyes and brain do not work in sync, causing headaches, dizziness, vertigo and hours of blindness, his mother, Catherine Carter, said.
"I can't learn and I feel like many staff members don't understand my disability, and think I'm lazy," Atticus told board members. "They're telling me to do the work, even though it hurts."
Atticus's mother said in an interview that multiple doctors recommended Atticus be provided school work in large, 20-point size text and his hearing utilized as much as possible for learning, in order to prevent eye strain and ensuing symptoms of his disorder.
After a year of fighting for these accommodations and relevant training for teachers, Carter said, the only accommodation her son has been given is large-font schoolwork in English.
"They say he's only visually impaired in English [class]," said the Woodbine resident.
Nancy Fitzgerald, Howard County school system's executive director of special education services, said that school staff members have been working with the Carter family to provide Atticus with appropriate accommodations.
"There are lots of different accommodations that could be appropriate for a student," she said. "If we put too many accommodations in all at once, it's hard to kind of weed out which accommodations are being effective. So we put accommodations out on a trial basis and see what works."
If evidence emerges that Atticus needs further accommodations, Fitzgerald said, the team administering his specialized education plan will consider that.
Howard County public schools have one of the lowest rates of chronic absenteeism in the region. Restia Whitaker, the system's lead on promoting attendance, says his team takes a proactive and supportive approach toward students who habitually miss school.
"We are all about ensuring that kids have access and are able to be successful at school," she said.
Under the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act, students with visual impairment must be provided with special education services and accommodations if the impairment adversely affects their educational performance.
Binocular vision disorder can be considered such an impairment, according to a letter recently issued by the Maryland State Department of Education. The memorandum was sent in July to special education directors in all 24 counties, in response to allegations that students with the condition had been excluded from special education services in several counties on the basis that they are not experiencing blindness or low vision.
In August, the state education department found Howard County schools to be out of compliance with its guidance on federal law, in response to complaints filed by Carter that three of her children had not been properly evaluated by their schools for visual impairments.
Howard County Times: Top stories Newsletter
Daily highlights from Howard County's number one source for local news.
According to responses sent by the Maryland Department of Education, the Howard County school system must provide documentation by Dec. 1 that its procedures for evaluating students for visual impairments have been brought in compliance with the state agency's guidelines.
"Howard County public schools is working under the guidance of the state Department of Education to look at all procedures for identifying students with vision impairment to ensure we're not excluding students with binocular vision disorder," Fitzgerald said. "We're in the process of refining those procedures as we speak."
In the meantime, Atticus and his mother continue to fight for the accommodations they say are necessary for Atticus to learn.
For months, the two have been advocating for the sponsoring and passage of federal legislation to ensure that educators, health professionals and parents appropriately diagnose, accommodate and treat binocular vision disorder.
The Atticus Act, as drafted by Carter, includes a lengthy list of requirements for schools, including coursework on the disorder for educational staff and behavioral vision examinations for incoming kindergartners, third-graders, sixth-graders and ninth-graders.