What started as a discussion about special education on Tuesday turned into something deeper, as parents gave voice to the experience of caring for a child with disabilities.

When Dorothea Nicholson’s child was diagnosed with a rare combination of developmental issues, “I thought maybe I did something wrong,” she explained at the meeting.

Nealmetria Loper recalled being shamed by relatives and teachers who suggested that she had done something during her pregnancy to cause her daughter’s autism. But she came to embrace her child’s differences.

“I wouldn’t want her to be anything other than what she is,” she said.

Chalkbeat Detroit and the non-profit Detroit Parent Network organized Tuesday’s gathering, which brought together parents, educators, and advocates for a discussion about special education in Detroit. The forum was the first installment in a Chalkbeat listening tour that will highlight the varied experiences of parents and educators in the city.

The event on Tuesday gave parents a chance to compare notes about the frustrations and joys of raising children with special needs. They also heard briefly from several representatives of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, including Lohren Nzoma, the new director of what the district calls exceptional student education (formerly special education).

For Joann Goree, whose son has autism and is enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the forum was a reminder that the day-to-day challenges of caring for a child with special needs are shared across the community.

“Listening to other parents and what they go through — that was very important,” she said. “I feel like I’m not alone in this fight.”

That fight takes many different forms, parents said, from getting a diagnosis to finding schools and services that can meet the needs of their children.

Michigan’s special education programs are among the worst in the nation, according to ratings released this month by the U.S. Department of Education.

Accessing special services is hardly a challenge limited to Michigan’s largest city.

“It’s not just Detroit,” Marcie Lipsitt, a special education advocate, told parents. “It’s Birmingham, it’s Ann Arbor, it’s Walled Lake.”

Still, Camille Proctor, director of Colors of Autism, a group that focuses on disability issues in communities of color, drew attention to the challenges specific to providing and accessing  special education in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced plans last month to overhaul special education using the results of an audit that found serious problems with the district’s programs.  

“I’m going to throw the district under the bus for a minute,” Proctor said, as she discussed what she views as a shortage of training for parents in the district whose children have special needs.

Those concerns drew a response from Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a school board member in the audience.

She apologized on behalf of the district and asked parents to give the school board, which was elected two years ago, time to improve the situation.

“There is a new group in town that can get out from underneath the bus,” she said.

Proctor looked skeptical for a moment, but said she can only hope for change.

“I’m going to be optimistic,” she said.