Special Ed, Circa 1955

If only…those who have questioned and criticized my opposition to federally legislated one-size-fits-all Full Inclusion for children with special needs could take a trip back in time to join my parents: to sit at our kitchen table for many discussions; through tears of worry; during meetings to analyze failed attempts at getting local schools to offer special programs and services.

If only…those complainers could listen in as my parents helped organize a strong, cohesive group-with-mission: to advocate for children with handicaps; to demand that public schools open special classrooms for their children with special needs; to insist that the schools then staff those classrooms with teachers skilled in meeting the diverse needs faced by each child.

If only…those who think that Full Inclusion will be appropriate placements for all children with special needs could see and understand what parents went through in the past to even get special education classrooms…then…only then, might these blinded complainers realize that they have been caught drinking the Full Inclusion Kool-aid.

First, let us go further back in American education and note that children with special needs were indeed fully included. When my father was in school…he was born in 1922, so this probably occurred every morning during several years from around 1928 to 1938 — there was a boy, Johnny, in the local one-roomed school, who had many special needs, most probably due to mental retardation.

The teacher would ring the bell signaling the beginning of the day. As the students streamed into the school, the teacher would walk to the road, cupping his hands to shout, “Johnny!! Hurry up!! School is starting.” Johnny would be s-l-o-w-l-y walking to school, pausing to look at stones, sand, butterflies… The teacher then entered the school, took roll, assigned seatwork, and returned to the road to again shout for Johnny to hurry. Dad reported that the teacher made more than a couple trips to the road, on virtually every day of the school year, year after year. Finally Johnny would arrive at school, to sit among the other children, unable to achieve at anything close to the same rate.

The child was certainly welcome in that school, and the teacher certainly gave unusually individual attention to this very unique student. The child was Fully Included in a general education program with no bothersome pullouts to receive specialized instruction from a teacher skilled in meeting his specific needs. Both of my parents knew this boy, as a lad and later as a man. Johnny never learned much more than how to beg for money. On the high school bus, Johnny would go up and down the aisle offering, “I’ll sing ya a song for a nickel.”

Might this be the kind of future that Fully Included children with special needs will again face? Are we not bringing special education full circle but without the family atmosphere and community support of one-room schoolhouses? At least there Johnny was a welcomed part of the group, even without the strong arm of federal legislation forcing inclusion and the pretense of acceptance.

Returning to 1955 — my brother had been born deaf in 1952. My mother noticed the deafness in the months immediately following his birth, but it took her a couple years to convince doctors that her son, indeed, could not hear. We lived in rural Michigan with not one special education teacher or classroom anywhere near. The county health nurse advised my parents to just put Reed in a Home and Training School and forget him. THAT was the available special education — totally segregated and residential; restricted to hundreds of unfortunates with disabilities; a life sentence. My mother stood her ground and refused to consider the nurse’s advice. Soon after, a new nurse was hired and this one had heard of a clinic in California that would help parents of deaf children.

The nurse searched and found information on the John Tracy Clinic, founded by Mrs. Spencer Tracy and named after John, their son who was deaf. My mother and brother where soon enrolled in distance learning and assigned a teacher of the deaf who would coach mother, via the mails, on lessons to teach to Reed. This worked as well as could be expected, considering that the only appropriate special education program was in California while the student was in rural Michigan.

Mother was Reed’s teacher until he was about three and a half years old, then we moved to Ypsilanti where Reed could attend the Eastern Michigan University laboratory school, Rackham. That was good, except there were no opportunities at all to be with hearing peers. My parents enrolled Reed in Little League baseball; in summer swimming lessons and then competitions; in Scouts; in Sunday School. Reed was enjoying life in all ways, but he was growing older as were his classmates, and more age-appropriate programming was needed.

It was then that the parents began gathering at our house to plan their fight for appropriate special education classes to be available in local public schools. Even now, almost 50 years later, those parents from that original advocacy group remain close friends, maintaining friendships forged in the flames of adversity. Hard-fought battles can bring a sense of belonging, as well as of achievement, to those people who put everything on the line, and win.

First the Washtenaw County Parents for the Hearing Impaired managed to get the district to open a classroom for the deaf in a local elementary school. When the children outgrew that, the group insisted that a classroom be opened at one of the middle schools. Again they faced the same problem when it was time for high school.

This group of parents was probably not so unique, for parents everywhere were fighting to force districts to offer special programs for special children. Parents across the nation persevered and forced into existence the very programs and classrooms that federal law has mandated must close.

How many of you will continue to be blinded by the NCLB rhetoric? How many of you will refuse to consider the price your children will pay for this new fad, Full Inclusion? Will any of you stop to think of how hard parents had to work fifty years ago to get some, any, the tiniest bit of special education for children? I fear that some day too many of you will be so, so sorry.

“You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…” Joni Mitchell