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'I can't do a lot of things, but I can do this': How one Chicagoan is stepping up for migrant children with disabilities

Nell Salzman, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO — Keinymar Avila, a tiny 7-year-old with microcephaly who has never been separated from her mother, curled up in the arms of a woman she’d recently met.

Her mother, Yamile Perez, glanced over at her daughter to make sure all was well as she attended a virtual meeting with Chicago Public Schools officials who were evaluating Keinymar’s needs. It is not easy to let someone else hold your child, especially if your child requires special medical care.

No one knows this better than the person cradling the girl, Mary Otts-Rubenstein, a Chicago resident who has her own child with disabilities. Otts-Rubenstein has taken it upon herself to help over a dozen migrant families with medically complex kids enroll in CPS.

The children range in age from 7 to 13. Some are in wheelchairs and have conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. Few have ever been enrolled in school before; all survived journeys crossing jungles and rivers to reach the United States.

Otts-Rubenstein has been leading volunteer efforts for these children for over two months, stepping in where city officials have failed to identify and provide acceptable solutions for disabled migrants. She got involved after another volunteer who is helping migrants called her, knowing her expertise.

Any family with a child who has disabilities faces unique challenges. But what has been so hard for these families in particular, said Otts-Rubenstein, who doesn’t speak Spanish and has personal experience navigating the complex public school system, is having nowhere to turn for help.


“As a family with a disabled kid, the only people who know what we’re going through are other families with disabled kids,” she said.

Experts say children with severe disabilities born in the United States are already at a disadvantage in accessing a quality education, but migrant families with disabled children face especially daunting hurdles.

“As (migrant) families come to Chicago, we know they are struggling to find housing, employment and health care. This process becomes especially hard for families with children with disabilities,” said Michelle Garcia, manager of organizing and community development at the nonprofit Access Living.

CPS reports that 16% of its 323,000-student population has an individualized education plan, which lays out the special education services and instruction a student may need to attend school. CPS has a specific office to identify and serve diverse learners, making sure all schools have appropriate accommodations and all students have safe transportation options. Different schools around the city offer varying degrees of accommodations.


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