Fri 17 Dec, 2004 03:06 pm
I have a very special friend who has taught special education for more than 30 years. She is now working on another graduate degree in the field. She was asked to write a class paper on the history of special education. Instead of writing a dry, fact-filled accounting of laws and legal cases, she wrote a heartfelt, personal story. The instructor was so moved that she received a perfect grade of 100...plus a recommendation to publish it. I'd like to share it with all of you. In this season when we remember those less fortunate, it seems most timely.
THE LEGACY OF PHILLIP
The Evolution of Special Education in America 1954-2004
In 1954, Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education mandated integration of all children into the public schools. Two years later, the first inclusion student sat behind me in first grade. His name was Phillip. He was large and had dark brown hair and eyes, and he was retarded. Phillip had other educational misfortunes as well. He was born too soon for special education, and he was a baby boomer, which meant he spent his elementary years in classrooms populated with at least 30 students. His teachers had very little time to devote to the education Phillip required. By sixth grade, he could print his name, a few simple words and work a few addition problems.
In 1962, his classmates went to the large Junior High across town. It was a couple of months before anyone noticed that Phillip was no longer with us. While the rest of his class embarked on lives full of discovery and all that life can offer, Phillip wandered the streets alone. He found little to do with himself. As time passed, he became involved in activities that made him an annoyance for the local law agency. In his early 20s, he was arrested for disturbing the peace. While in jail, he was the victim of a vicious beating administered by a police officer who was tired of having to deal with the "retard." The beating left him even more severely disabled.
In 1975, Congress passed PL 94-142 requiring all states to provide a free public education for all handicapped children, but it was too late for Phillip. He died two years later. All of the many things that Phillip would have loved to experience were now available for any child who might need them. There were still many legal battles to come, but Congress had laid the foundation.
What would it have been like if these advantages had been available when Phillip was a child?
Phillip's teachers could not have ignored him or been overwhelmed with trying to help a child who needed so much time and attention in classes already far too large. Phillip would have been placed in a smaller classroom with the number of children kept to a prescribed number. His teacher, with the help of other professionals, would have been responsible for determining Phillip's educational needs and writing those into a plan that would have been shared with his parents. The plan would have become a blueprint to be followed each year of his education. Phillip's education could have started at an earlier age and lasted much longer than his classmates' educations if it had been deemed necessary.
After the 1983 amendments to the Education of All Handicapped Children Act were passed, Phillip would have had his transition needs analyzed and a plan for what was necessary put into place. His family, with the help of numerous agencies, would have helped Phillip learn how to access much-needed community services. After the 1984 passage of the Perkins Act, Phillip would have qualified for vocational assistance and could have been integrated into the workplace with help and supervision to make needed transitions in order to keep him employed. He would have occupied his time in more worthwhile, enjoyable pursuits, and he would have had pocket money of his own to spend.
Due to the Supreme Court case of Danny R. R. v. State Board of Education and the enforcement of Least Restrictive Environment, after 1989 the police officer who had not been able to cope with a retarded citizen could have himself been educated in classrooms with special needs children. Perhaps the officer would have known how to cope with a handicapped person without resorting to violence.
Our special education system is imperfect. It has required much redefinition by our legal system. Nevertheless, it is important to remember where we started in order to measure our progress. Phillip's life and the lives of other children like him personify the history and evolution of special education in America.
Phillip is no longer with us but his impact lives on. In 1975, the year of the passage of PL 94-142, this first grade classmate of Phillip's received her degree in Special Education from Oklahoma State University and began a 30-year career working with special needs children. Phillip's sister-in-law became a paraprofessional in a special education classroom and for many years worked hard providing much-needed help and support for a great many children. Phillip's classmates, when they meet, still speak of him with sadness. Many have a tolerance and acceptance of differences that so many people in our society lack.
All because of Phillip