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'Typical High School Experience' for Randolph Student With Disability

From left, Maryann Tortorello, Tiffany Fritz and Mary Rita Tortorello
From left, Maryann Tortorello, Tiffany Fritz and Mary Rita Tortorello
If there's one message Maryann Tortorello of Randolph would like to deliver to parents of children with disabilities, it's, "Don't judge a book by its cover." Tortorello's daughter, Mary Rita, was born three months premature in 1995. When she was almost two months old, Mary Rita experienced bleeding in her brain, which developed into cerebral palsy. After three years of early intervention, she attended the P.G. Chambers School in Cedar Knolls, graduating from eighth grade in 2011. The Tortorello family visited The Matheny School in Peapack as a possible option for high school, but the transition from the ambiance of an elementary school to that of a school located in a hospital setting with adult patients was somewhat disconcerting. The Matheny School is part of the Matheny Medical and Educational Center, a special hospital and educational facility for children and adults with medically complex developmental disabilities.

As a result, the Tortorellos tried two other school programs before finally returning to Matheny. "The physical appearance at Matheny," says Tortorello, "wasn't warm and fuzzy, but now that Mary Rita's here, I realize that the classroom teachers are warm and fuzzy." The staff at Matheny, she adds, "was so thorough when we came here. They spent a lot of time with me. They explained a lot to me, and I explained a lot to them about Mary Rita." Tortorello believes her daughter is now getting "a typical high school experience. She's changing classrooms. It's a very challenging curriculum."

Working with her teacher and assistive technology, Mary Rita was able to write an article for her school newspaper. "They're also writing a children's book," Tortorello says, "and they have an adaptable art program." To make it easier for Mary Rita to participate in art, her occuaptional therapist, Dominique Scacciaferro, made a special brace for her hand with an opening for a paintbrush. "It's a functional hand splint," explains Scacciaferro, "that was made out of splinting material designed specifically for Mary Rita's hand. It has a piece of foam tubing, which allows for different objects to be positioned in it, like a paintbrush or an angled spoon for eating."

In addition to the teachers and therapists, Mary Rita is accompanied by a one-to-one aide, Tiffany Fritz, who Tortorello describes as "terrific. She fills me in everyday on what Mary Rita is learning in every subject." One of the Tortorellos' goals, Fritz says, was for Mary Rita to be more independent. "Assistive technology aids in making her more independent, and she gets a lot of help from her speech-language pathologist, physical therapist and occupational therapist." Fritz keeps Maryann Tortorello informed about everything that goes on in the classroom -- "the books we read, the activities we're involved with. This way, she can talk about school with Mary Rita when she gets home."

Mary Rita is now 18 years old, and Tortorello says, "She is so happy. She loves to go to school. That makes me very, very happy. The teachers and therapists are awesome. I can't say enough good things about The Matheny School."

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