A lesson in history
This June is my 55th year as a licensed special educator. I have been fortunate enough to have lived through almost the entire metamorphous of the profession. I remember when Rosewood State Hospital was the Institution for the Feeble Minded set “way out” in the country. Now its buildings are being demolished and the land will become part of Stevenson University. It has not housed “patients” in many years. The people who lived there were never sick, they were disabled and living there made them more so.
I remember as an elementary school student in Baltimore City Public Schools having a class in my school called the opportunity class. We were not allowed to look into that room and the students stayed there until they were 16. We never saw them out of the room, but since we were not allowed to look in, we tried to do so at every opportunity.
I remember starting my special ed teaching career in a Baltimore County high school. My classroom was in a trailer with doors that did not fully close and windows that did not open. I was given a set of Reader’s Digest magazines and a stack of 8” by 15” poster board for my total supply of instructional materials. The wind opened and closed the door in winter and we knew the periods were changing when we saw the other students on the way to the vocational shop building. In our trailer, no bells rang.
In the 60’s when I supervised secondary special ed classes in Baltimore County, one of our secondary high school rooms met in the boys' locker room of the visiting team. When there was a home game the teacher had to vacate the locker room for the incoming sport's team.
In the 70’s, I taught at the University of Maryland, College Park. We had student teachers in the Prince George’s County Public Schools. The special ed classes ate lunch in an empty cafeteria AFTER the plain kids had vacated the room. They were also not allowed on the playground at the same time the plain students were at recess.
In 1975, President Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), the precursor to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that we know today. The act required that all children with disabilities receive an appropriate education at public expense. At the time of signing, President Ford said he doubted the aims of the law could ever be achieved. There had been multiple court cases disputing the rights of school systems to exclude some of their children just because they had disabilities. The new law required schools to educate all kids and to provide related services such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling and speech. It was a game changer.
Today as I begin my 56th year as a special educator, I remember the history and the long winding path we have walked to get here. Sadly we are not done. No one disputes the rights of the kids with disabilities to be in the school. What is under continuing dispute is what equals an appropriate education for those kids once they are in the school building. Come to think of it, we seem to have trouble delivering an appropriate education for plain kids as well. Maybe we have finally arrived at full equality.